A Day in the Life

A day in my life. Thoughts on leadership, management, startups, technology, software, concurrent development, etc... Basically the stuff I think about from 10am to 6pm.

11/04/2005

Company Leadership: Creating Visibility

I was watching the Pittsburg Penguins vs. Florida Panthers game on Oct. 25th; the Penguins have a young player named Sidney Crosby. He is amazing. He’s 18 years old and he plays with no fear and an incredible amount of passion. And he’s good....really good. During that game he drew 6 penalties. (Which, for you non-hockey folks, is a good thing.) He didn’t score but it wasn’t for lack of effort, in fact it was his scoring attempts which drew the penalties. Athletes, actors, and political figures all live in a bubble. The public can legally scrutinize their performances and the details of their lives. We have open analytical and emotional discussions about every nuance. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could watch a fresh young engineer and determine, after just a few minutes, whether he is the software development equivalent of a Sidney Crosby? I would sure like to know. Not only would I like to know about my subordinates and peers but I would like to have complete visibility through the entire organization. Engineers don’t like politics. We like to think that a company bases promotions, raises, and bonus’ on personal contributions, on the quality of our work. Basically...that the companies we work for are meritocracies. That the best man or woman for a job is in that job. But...that’s not how it works. It is the rare company that creates an environment of visibility, the rare company that runs as a true meritocracy. I hope they are out there, but I’ve never worked for one. I’ve worked at plenty though that wanted me to think they were.

As a coach I spend a lot of time watching my players. What they think they need to work on to improve is often not what I think they need. This is the common problem of not being able to truly see ourselves. It is pretty common for skaters to think they are actually better then they are, which is easy for me to solve. I tell them to get someone to video tape a game. I have yet to have one come back to me and tell me that they didn’t have some thing (often a whole lot of some things) to work on. The video tape creates visibility and realigns our perceived skill levels with our actual levels, exposing us to reality.

Creating visibility within an organization requires directed processes, especially for the knowledge worker whose best work is not inherently visible and whose quality can only be judged by his peers. If your staff was made up of ditch diggers then anyone could judge the quality of the ditch and be pretty close. But that isn’t going to happen with knowledge workers. Peer reviews are a good thing and management needs to support this process by making time for it, clearly defining the process’ goals and objectives, acting on recommendations, and rewarding desired behaviors. Management has to treat it as important for the staff to treat it as important. The executive staff must also implement 360 degree reviews. Yep, bosses should be reviewed by their subordinates, not just by their bosses. Without this visibility upper management has no idea the real quality of the middle management. You certainly don’t want a middle manager who makes all his deadlines but only because his staff is being beaten into submission. (Well...maybe some of you would...I wouldn’t.) Or you have a manager you really like but whose department is hemorrhaging people like crazy...you need to talk to the staff to find out what’s going on. (Training and hiring is expensive, retention is better!)

It’s management’s responsibility to identify the stars, the utility players, the plodders, and the slackers. Each will need to be mentored and managed differently. But to accomplish this there has to be some methodology for creating visibility in a way that is productive and not destructive. This is one of the many challenges of real leadership.

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