Getting the best from people

I caught up with Vinnie for lunch yesterday. We sat in a cafe in Hawthorn not far from where I used to live and chatted as we chewed on our sandwiches.

We see each other I guess on average every couple of months for lunch just by this. I’ve written of Vinnie before. A few years back I was his boss. He had been a problematic employee – very capable, but terribly motivated when poorly led, and not shy about showing his disrespect.

In some ways you couldn’t blame him. Before I assumed the role his manager was a buffoon, as too many managers are. Authority is a big thing, but it has to be a natural authority. Maybe I tend to overstate it in my mind, but when you’re in a management role you should also be a leader. To lead means you have people who will follow, but to be effective they need to come of their own accord. They must respect you, and choose to follow because you have earned their faith.

I think most people who come into management roles have some notion of that, but not necessarily how it works. I’ve seen new managers try and force it, and poor managers try and impose it. I’ve seen managers all to often look to demonstrate their seniority by going hard on those who they manage: I’m the boss, you’re the worker, you do what I say. That never works, and is the sign of desperate and/or weak leadership.

Real leadership, or authority, is organic. It exists independent of the role you take, and is something that grows by and of itself and therefore is truly authentic when it exists. It can’t be assumed.

That was the problem with Vinnie. His manager was derided throughout the company. Most of his team had lost respect for him, and were unmotivated and indirected. Vinnie being a stronger character responded differently, and I think in fact intimidated his manager. It’s easy to see why.

Vinnie is a big, good looking man. He’s a body builder and an expert at Jiu Jitsu. He has South American heritage – his father once captained the Uruguay national football team – and more than usually handsome. He’s also smarter than most, but at the same time not overly ambitious. He’s happy to do his own thing well if left alone. All of this he is well aware of, and it shines from him as a kind of understated arrogance. And so, when his manager would tell him what to domore often than not he would be ignored.

There came the day when the CEO of the day had enough of the manager’s incompetence and sacked him on the spot. I was asked to take over, whilst continuing also in my old job. I jumped at the chance. Unlike Vinnie I am ambitious, and I had plenty of ideas.

I look back now and feel great satisfaction at the job I did there. I’ve accomplished many things over the years, but for some reason this is one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of.

I’m not about to detail what I did. In fact I never intended to write of this, just got carried away. What happened though is that I turned around an underperforming department of the business and made it efficient, effective and happy.

It helped that I went into the role with a good idea of what needed to be done, and that I knew the team members pretty well. I set targets, internally within the team, and externally with the business – this is what we plan to deliver. The targets were ambitious, and included a SLA and PMO, as well as myriad project implementations. I positioned IT as a function that was there to add value to the business as a whole, and a resource to assist in all technology initiatives.

To enable that I empowered the team I had. I ripped up a lot of the bureaucratic nonsense my predecessor had implemented. One of the smaller things I did was overhaul the helpdesk function to be much more agile and timely. More importantly I gave each member of the team responsibilities. You are in charge of this. I’m here to help, but this is your responsibility.

It’s basic psychology that people want to feel as if what they do is worthwhile. And that they are making some professional progress. Essentially  I challenged every member of the team to become more, to do more, but in a supportive environment. I encouraged them to use their initiative, to think outside the parameters of the role. I wanted them to understand their function as something that drives business value, and gave them the freedom to be more productive.

All of this was very successful. The team as a whole became enthusiastic at the possibilities, and proud of what they did. In me they had a manager there as needed, but otherwise someone who had given them a nod and a wink as if to say I trust you. I didn’t need to force anything; the authority I exhibited came from within, and in the confidence of my actions. They believed. They respected me, they liked me, and they wanted to follow.

Vinnie was case in point. I remember sitting down with him early doors and telling him I wouldn’t cop some of the things he had tried on with my predecessor. I’d told him I’d be fair, I’d give him opportunities, but I’d be hard on him if he didn’t put in the effort. He understood and respected my honesty. We were two strong personalities coming to an understanding. From that day on he went above and beyond.

Fast forward from that and the relationship has endured. We became friends and would catch up for drinks and lunch regularly. We understand each other. Even now he looks back at that time as his favourite in the job – my role was interim, and my successor was a disaster, but that’s another story.

People generally respect and respond to it when it exists, but switch off when When you try to assume it


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