Monday, October 24, 2011

Survive and Thrive with a Bad Manager

I Quit!
Early in my career, I joined a startup that went IPO. The company was trying to figure out how to scale revenues and operations. I was in technical support and our tiny 10 person department was feeling the stress from a growing customer base with buggy products. While the chaotic, responsive nature of supporting customers really excited me, my manager, who we’ll call Frank, made my life miserable. In short, he redeployed resources away from supporting customers instead to work on “pet projects” that made him look good in front of the Sales executives. Since I was the guy that was “left behind,” his reallocation of resources effectively doubled my workload and made it extremely challenging (what felt like ten-fold) for me to be responsive to customer needs. Worse yet, Frank kept beating on me about my productivity.

I loved my job. I was learning, making good money and people told me I was great with customers. However, Frank increasingly made my job unbearable over a 15 month period and my anger and frustration was spilling into my personal life. When Frank was promoted to Director, I thought for sure I was “cooked” because his work priorities were more visible in the company and therefore I expected my situation to get even worse (if that was even possible). Just as I started planning how I would resign, something absolutely unexpected and wonderful happened… I got a new manager! Sherry transferred from the Engineering team and now reported to Frank as a 1st level manager. Previously, Sherry and I collaborated on several customer escalations and we had a good rapport. She was very metrics and process oriented.

After a few weeks in her new role, Sherry called me into her office. I sat down in her guest chair and she turned her computer screen around so I could see it. She had a dashboard that showed I was the most productive member on the team! She then proceeded to tell me that I was doing a great job (fielding and closing the most customer cases in the department) and to keep it up. Over the next 18+ months, I implemented training programs, worked closely with Engineering to improve the products, all while continuing to deliver support and excel with customers. I really hit my stride and leveraged those experiences and strong business contributions get to my next big role.

Things are Clearer on the “High Road”
It’s hard to be rational when you’re under attack. A natural reaction would have been for me to lash out and defend myself against Frank or on the opposite end of the spectrum, to crawl up in a ball and continue to absorb the abuse. Here are some steps you can take to gain control of your circumstance and come out with a stronger career position:
  1. Stay focused on improving your skills – if you enjoy your work content, keep developing your functional and (if applicable) technical skills. Knowledge and experience are key to growing your career. If you stay focused on learning and doing the best job that you can then you’ll also build up your reputation. Just as your “bad manager” may have you under his microscope, consider that everyone else you interact with is also watching how you handle yourself. Are you perceived as hard working and dependable? Many of them may not even be aware of your dire situation so maintaining a good professional reputation is important because that will follow you wherever you go. Spending any amount of time playing “victim” will be counterproductive and slow down your development. One bad (manager) relationship doesn’t define who you are so keep things in that perspective.
  2. Fight personal agendas with facts – Numbers don’t lie so make certain that you are able to quantify your productivity and work quality according to how you’re being measured. Whatever your manager is criticizing you about, the best way to move from subjectivity to objectivity is to get metrics-oriented. This is the first step in getting on the same page with him or her. Your metrics ultimately tie to departmental goals and objectives that are also quantifiable. Make sure that your work is measurable and aligned to those objectives. Finally, many disagreements have to do with hidden personal agendas. Get to know what your manager’s personal agenda is and decide whether or not it conflicts with your value system. In his book, True North, Bill George discusses the need for every leader to get a hold of his/her “Internal Compass” and how professional failures are quite often associated with compromises in their “values and principles.” My compass was pointing away from Frank’s but completely in line with Sherry’s.
  3. Find supporters – Although I felt isolated under Frank’s attack, because I had strong working relationships with most others, I was pretty confident that he wouldn’t fire me. Generate support from within your department and also inter-departmentally, especially with your managers’ peers. Make sure that they experience and observe you directly and not just through the “filter” of your bad manager. This up-swell of “fans” will counteract the opinion of your bad manager. Additionally, I was fortunate when Sherry became my manager because she created a shield between me and Frank. I knew she had high regard for my work ethic and contributions and would protect me from further unfair accusations by Frank.
  4. Run a marathon, not a sprint – Marathon runners are able to endure a lot of pain between mile 1 and 26. They train their bodies and minds to perform under adverse conditions and to get past that pain. Your current circumstance is just one stage in your (career) marathon where you are being tested. Be patient and try to work through your situation. Leaders learn as much from adversity (sometimes more) than when everything is going their way. If you make a quick to move (i.e. transfer out or even quit) then you’ll be robbing yourself of a great learning opportunity. My management and leadership style was significantly shaped from the negative behaviors I observed in Frank and other bad managers. While you can learn a lot from a good manager, it’s the bad ones that teach you what not to do.
I had a great 3+ year run at the company, both professionally and financially. I’m glad I didn’t “pack up” and quit while under duress because I wasn’t getting along with Frank. I endured his management tactics and when he eventually moved into a Sales role, I was happy that I “outlived” him. It really would have been a shame to prematurely quit a good job. Instead, I left on my own terms - and for a much better opportunity than I would have gotten after only about a year of experience.

If you have any good stories of how you overcame bad management or what you’ve learned from bad managers, please comment and share this blog with your colleagues using the social media toolbar below.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Precious (free) Gift from Steve Jobs: Communicate with Impact

11 Million Views and Counting…
With the unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs last week, most people immediately think of his companies (Apple, Next, Pixar) and product innovations (Mac, iPod/ iTunes, iPhone, iPad) as his greatest contributions to modern society. However, his passing has brought even more attention to one of his most famous public appearances. In 2005, Steve Jobs spoke at Stanford University’s commencement ceremony and delivered an inspiring and memorable speech. In less than 15 minutes, the speech conveys a lot of wisdom and was particularly relevant to the audience of young people just starting their professional careers. He advised on important decisions about character, priorities, relationships, and more.

There’s no simple scientific formula that would enable someone to replicate exactly what Steve Jobs did in those 15 minutes. That said, Steve makes very effective use of some high-impact communication techniques that you can leverage to advance your career by improving your  speeches, presentations, and even one-on-one communication.

“Hook” Your Audience
More often than not, people start presentations with something soft, bland, and procedural. “I’m Mike Johnson, Vice President of Channels, and for the next 20 minutes I’m going to talk to you about our 2012 Channel Strategy.” Yawn. These kinds of intros often feel necessary to speakers, but they don’t immediately engage your audience. And keep in mind, your audience is probably used to video-on-demand on airplanes, DVRs, and internet content that lets them switch, in only seconds, from boring content to engaging content. If you don’t engage them from the outset, while they may physically remain in the room, their minds will be “surfing” to other places.

A hook is a communication technique designed to engage the audience, and it can take the form of a personal story, a controversial statement, a quote, or a question to the audience. Steve Jobs spends one sentence to say “Thank you I’m honored to be with you,” and then goes immediately into a hook to engage the audience. “Truth be told, I never graduated from college.” What a great way to get people’s attention at a college commencement speech!

People Remember Stories
At 00:50, Steve explains that he’s going to tell 3 stories, which highlights another powerful communication technique: storytelling. Stories are memorable, so if you want people to recall key points in your presentation, use stories.

Steve also uses a couple of techniques that help increase the impact and richness of his stories. First, he shows vulnerability. Anyone who’s been in high-tech for a few years has heard people tell self-aggrandizing stories about their unbridled success. As an audience, when we hear those kinds of stories we tend to see the speaker as egotistical and phony. Why? Because we’re all human and we all have weaknesses. And most importantly, those stories don’t really engage the audience.

By contrast, Steve Jobs, one of the most spectacularly successful and innovative people of our time, describes how he was given up for adoption as a child, and passed on by a couple who decided that they wanted to adopt a girl. This vulnerability helps us relate to him and draws us in. Later on, he also describes why he got fired by Apple’s Board and how that was the best thing that could have happened to him.

He also uses first person dialog, meaning that he uses specific direct quotes rather than simply characterizing what was said. At 1:45, he describes how the hospital called his parents-to-be and said “We’ve got an unexpected baby boy. Do you want him?” While the linguistic difference is subtle, the impact is much stronger than if he had said “The hospital called, said they had an unexpected baby boy, and asked if my parents wanted him.” Use first person dialog to make your stories more vivid.

Perils of the Podium
He may not have had a choice in whether or not to use a podium. In general, in our speaking engagements, we avoid podiums when possible because they tend to restrict and limit you as a speaker. Not only do they create additional physical separation from the audience, they tend to dampen hand gestures, restrict physical movement, and lessen eye contact with the audience. You can see this in Steve Jobs’s speech – he uses very few hand gestures, never leaves the podium, and has to deliberately force himself to look up periodically to re-establish eye contact with the audience. Granted, some of this naturally flows from the fact that he’s reading prepared remarks, but in general, we’d recommend that you either avoid podiums when possible, or be conscious of their limitations and try to compensate in other ways.

More than technique, what makes a great speaker and a great presentation is authenticity, meaning “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” Get comfortable being yourself when you communicate. People dislike and distrust fakers, posers, and phonies. In politics, you hear candidates’ authenticity evaluated when people use phrases like “comfortable in his own skin.”

Steve Jobs comes across as extremely real in the commencement speech – not as a game-show host, not as a master thespian, not even as the all-powerful founder and CEO of Apple and certainly not as a phony. One great example is at 4:00 when he talks about his love for typography and says “It was beautiful…historical…artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.” You can feel his passion and curiosity, and it helps you understand him as a person. You feel like you know him, and that the person up there in front of the crowd is the same person he’d be if you met him for coffee.

Metaphor is a powerful tool that can both increase your audience’s understanding of your point and enhance the dynamism of your content. Steve uses metaphor multiple times during the speech, like at 7:20 when, in talking about being fired from Apple, he says “The heaviness of success was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner.” You can almost feel the weight of Jobs’ success at Apple, and the airy freedom when he started over. At 8:15, when he says “Sometimes, life is going to hit you in the head with a brick,” you feel a sense of suddenness, surprise, violence, and pain. It’s compelling and memorable, and that’s why you should thoughtfully use metaphor in your communications including metaphorical language and metaphorical images in your presentation slides.

Bring it Home
Just like the weak and boring openings described above, we’ve all seen (and probably delivered) regrettable closes to otherwise decent presentations: “Well, that’s my last slide,” “I’m just about out of time but I can take a couple of questions,” etc. These kinds of closes aren’t memorable, don’t reinforce your point, and don’t maintain the engagement of your audience. For his closing hook at 14:28, Steve uses a pithy quote, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” to put a memorable and inspiring finish on his remarks that reinforces the messages of his three stories.

Steve Jobs was a unique and incredible person whose legacy includes fundamental transformations of major industries including consumer electronics, personal computing, music publishing, movie production, and more. While there will probably never be another Steve Jobs, we can all take advantage of the techniques he used in one of the most memorable and widely-viewed speeches of his career.

Master Executive Communication and Presentation
ExecCatalyst has partnered with The Henderson Group to create a unique 2-day communication and presentation skills workshop designed for mid and senior level high-tech professionals. Executive Communicator teaches attendees how to influence executive decisions through more effective dialog and presentations according to Line of Business priorities. One Marketing Director said:

"This course exceeded my expectations, and I found several elements of extreme value.   The most beneficial aspect was the quadruple-barrel feedback circle -- self-assessment, peer assessment, executive assessment and presenter expert assessment. I also compliment the feedback quality of the instructors. The powerful combination of the executives, and communicator expert cannot be overstated.  Further, the video provides an immensely rich and relevant tool for participants to tie it all together."

Please share your thoughts on Steve Job’s presentation style and technique by commenting. You can also share this blog with your colleagues using the social media toolbar below.