(I originally wrote this article back in 2000 when I was Entrepreneur in Residence at the Carleton University Tech Venture program)
A recent conversation with a young entrepreneur brought me down memory lane. This person, lets call him Jordan, is a first time manager, overseeing a development team of four people in a small technology company. Jordan was expressing to me his frustrations with his team’s productivity.
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Jordan told me about the exciting market opportunity for his company’s technology and how he had established an aggressive product development schedule and in order to be the first to market. A potential customer had approached the company with an order and he had asked his team to put in extra time over the course of several weeks so that they could meet the customer’s schedule. When he checked in on progress a few weeks from the deadline, he was disappointed to learn that the team was nowhere near meeting the schedule. He had been very clear about his expectations and the team had worked above its normal pace, but Jordan felt that they could be giving the project a lot more effort. He also admitted that there were also some open disputes about the requirements and Jordan felt that some of the team members did not respect his leadership.
Ultimately, he told me, the team did not meet the deadline, preventing the company from being able to satisfy an important customer order. His goal now was to get development finished as fast as possible, but even that seemed to be dragging. He was at a loss about how to get things on track and the stress was obvious.
His experiences reminded me of my own as a first time manager, so I know what he is going through. Luckily I had good mentors who explained to me that managing people can could sometimes seem like herding cats. My mentors also pointed out to me that your leadership philosophy is absolutely critical to your success.
Perhaps some people are naturals at management, but for me it took a long time to feel effective as a leader. Over the years, I have developed a few simple philosophies that have helped me be successful.
One of the most important things to understand about leadership is to understand your context. You are part of a team. Each team member has a role and yours is to lead. You must translate company goals into an objective for the team and ensure that each member of the team is properly applied, equipped and motivated to fulfill that goal.
Setting goals is another critical aspect of your role as leader. Separate goals should be identified for the team and for individual team members. These must be specific, measurable and deadline driven and should be set in consultation with the team members. Giving a developer a subjective goal such as “make the best software” is subjective and problematic, while asking a developer to build according to a specification, by a certain date is specific and measurable. Big goals should be broken into smaller goals, to allow for frequent reviews and to ensure that everyone is on track to meet the overall deadline.
It is also important to get each team member to accept ownership of the goals. This can be done by establishing the goals with them or by assigning the goals to them. In most cases, the former approach works better as it is more consultative, but either way, you mustn’t assume that a team member will commit to delivering the goal unless they say they will.
As a young manager, you possess a dangerous amount of authority. While you need to be able to hold people accountable for their goals, experienced managers will tell you that motivating team members has little to do with authority. Instead, you must be supportive of your team members as they attempt to meet their own goals. You must understand how your team members like to be managed. Some people will like to be given goals and left alone, while others like a lot of guidance. You must be a coach, watching how your team members perform and providing constructive input about how they can work better individually and as a team. Recognize the power of positive feedback and don’t forget to offer it where appropriate.
Also recognize the power of your own positive energy. If you are pumped about your work, it will be contagious. Your team will look to you for guidance, so set an example with your own enthusiasm, work ethic, and dedication to the goal of the team.
Problem situations in which a manager must deal with a poorly performing team member are less likely to occur when you practice such a management style. If however a situation does arise in which a team member is clearly unable to meet the demands of their role and it is holding back the team, don’t be afraid to confront the issue with a frank discussion. Procrastinating for fear the conversation will be awkward is bad for the team and for the person.
Regular communication and measurement of progress plays a big role in leadership success. If you are not in contact with your team, they will attempt to lead themselves, unfortunately without the big picture that you possess. Hold regular status meetings and frequently ask for progress against target dates and for feedback from team members on how the team’s work can be adjusted to get back on track if any slippage has occurred. Never forget that communication with your team must be two-way. Their perspective is bottom up rather than top down and is highly valuable.
Leadership involves a lot of consultation and consensus building, but it is not a democracy and at the end of the day, you are responsible for the performance of the team. You must exercise your authority to make the decisions that will allow the team be successful.
In our talk, Jordan expressed that he had always viewed leadership as an art and was surprised to learn that there were some basic rules to management. He realized that since he had failed to properly set the goals of the project, be explicit about each team member’s role, or communicate regularly, he shouldn’t have been surprised with the outcome of his development effort. Jordan also told me he is committed to becoming a better manager and was eager to apply what he had learned form hearing about my experiences.
Before he left, I reminded him that Mmanaging people still sometimes, feels like herding cats, but it gets easier over time.