Tag Archives: career advice

Mirco’s Advice for supervisors – Feedback, the best way to improve your team

adviceAfter discussing one-on-ones in my last blog about tools for supervisors, this blog will focus on feedback. Feedback is your opportunity to improve the performance of your team on a daily basis. Here I am talking about ongoing feedback you can give your team every day, not the kind of feedback you give once a performance year. Before I get to feedback let me remind you that this post is one in a series of six posts on tools for supervisors:

  1. One on Ones (link)
  2. Feedback
  3. Coaching (TBD)
  4. Delegation (TBD)
  5. Principles for success (TBD)
  6. Pitfalls for supervisors (TBD)

While one-on-ones are probably the most important practice given the impact it has on your team, feedback is what moves your team forward. The most important point about feedback is to never give feedback when you are angry. The way you communicate and what you say when you are angry will undermine the overall idea behind feedback – to make your team more effective in the future. There is nothing you can do about the past, move on and provide constructive feedback. You should only give feedback when you are able to smile while doing so. This will make sure that you are in a positive frame of mind.

There is a good reason to be in a positive frame of mind when giving feedback. If you think about it, how often is a mistake made on purpose? – it hardly ever is. So assume good intent. There are very few people who make mistakes on purpose. This of course means that there is no reason to get angry, just try to help your direct-report become more effective by pointing out the ineffective behaviour and discussing alternatives. I will tell you how to do that further below.

Let’s not forget that you should also give positive feedback. Some tend to forget this even though it is so much easier to give positive feedback. For it to really make an impact, make sure to be specific about positive feedback as well. Don’t just praise “Well done”, but rather give specific positive feedback like “When you prepare meeting notes and send them out before I even ask you, it helps everyone stay on top of their assigned tasks. Thank you.”

Purpose: The purpose of feedback is to encourage effective behaviour in the future. There is no “why” in feedback, which means you are not trying to understand why something happened, but instead trying to encourage effective behaviour in the future. This is not a root cause analysis. If you take this purpose to heart you will see that there is little difference between positive and negative feedback, you simply state what your direct-report did, the impact it had and what to do in the future (either continue or change behaviour).

How to Do: Feedback is not easy to give, especially negative feedback. The key here is to focus on the behaviour and not implied traits: e.g. “When you raise your voice and make sarcastic comments” is much better than “When you act like a jerk”. Make sure the person you give feedback to understands the implications, e.g. “When you send me your status on time, it allows me to collate the report quickly and be on time for my report to my boss”.

Don’t argue with your direct-report about either the reason for his behaviour or the validity of your feedback. Remember the purpose of feedback is to influence future behaviour. If he argues with your feedback, walk away, he will either do the same thing again and you can give him the same feedback again (this time with one more piece of evidence) or he won’t do it again (which means your feedback has achieved its purpose). The guys at manager-tools.com refer to this as “shot across the bow” and this piece of insight was eye opening for me and made me avoid so many unnecessary and ineffective discussions with my direct-reports.

There is a specific format that you could use to give feedback: Ask first “Can I give you some feedback?”, then focus on behaviour “When you do x, this is what happens”, and then either thank him and encourage him “Thank you, keep doing this” or ask for an improvement “Can you do this better/different next time?” Timing of feedback is also important, don’t give feedback on things that happened longer than a week ago. Consider feedback like breathing, many supervisors hold their breath and then blast it out after a while (or even just at the end of the year), try to breathe regularly. Small bits of regular feedback will allow you to keep correcting course and not try to turn the whole ship around twice a year.

One last piece of advice: Find a way to encourage yourself to give feedback frequently. Put a reminder in your calendar every day to give feedback, put a comment on your one-on-one tracking sheet to provide feedback, or do what the guys at manager-tools recommend: Put 3 coins in your left pants pocket and every time you give feedback move it to the right pocket. At the end of each day you know whether you gave 3 pieces of feedback and each time you put your hands in your pocket you get a little reminder of how you are tracking.

One on Ones or “Get to Know Your Team”

adviceAfter blogging about advice for individual contributors and performance rating preparation, I will spend the next few months blogging about good practices for supervisors. This is close to my heart as I fully subscribe to what a former boss once told me: “There is no point complaining about our work culture, start with your part of the organisation and make it a great place to work. The further you get up the ladder and the more people you influence the more you can influence the work culture for the better”. I think this is a fantastic point of view and over the next few months I will share with you what I think makes a good supervisor and how certain supervisor behaviours can
help make your company a great place to work for their direct reports. Hopefully these posts will reach many supervisors and help them to be more effective while improving the team’s performance and satisfaction.

Here is a quick overview of the upcoming blog posts:
1. One on Ones (this post)
2. Feedback (TBD)
3. Coaching (TBD)
4. Delegation (TBD)
5. Principles for success (TBD)
6. Pitfalls for supervisors (TBD)

All these posts are heavily influenced by my friends over at www.manager-tools.com. Go check them out for more details on how to be great supervisor.

Okay, let’s get into One on Ones. In my view this is one of the most important practices for a supervisor. Having a good relationship with the people in your team is very important. One-on-ones give you the chance to get to know your team, to learn about them as an individual and to help them get better on a regular basis. This regular touch point will also mean that you will have a better chance to identify when something is not right, perhaps a problem at home or at work that impacts the individual. Because you speak to them one on one, you will be better able to recognise if their behaviour changes or if they start talking differently about work. Take an interest in the person you are working with, it will pay back many times during your career. People don’t leave companies, people leave supervisors. Reflect on this and understand how important your relationship is.

The purpose of the one-on-one is to get to know your team better and to build strong relationships with the individuals in the team. It is NOT a status meeting but yes you will often talk about work, after all this is what you both have in common, but the one-on-ones you spend investing in the relationship will be the ones that really count. Remember that the focus is on your direct report and what they want to talk about, not on you and what you would like to tell them. This can be difficult at times and hence the format should start with the individual, which will force you to focus on their concerns first.

The format is 30 min every week – 10 min for your direct report, 10 min for you, 10 min for coaching/feedback or in general looking forward to what is happening next. In reality you will spend most one-on-ones with your direct report’s topic and your section and won’t get to the coaching/feedback part.

So how do you do it: Schedule a weekly 30 minutes meeting with each of your direct reports. Make it recurring so that it is always in your calendar. Take notes during the meeting. These
notes will come in handy between meetings to follow up on action items and they can also become helpful when it is performance evaluation time as a record of their achievements and the feedback you have given. I sometimes struggle to focus on the non-work aspects, so for me it is a conscious effort to make small talk. I use a feedback form to take notes, which also acts as a reminder in these sessions to focus on the individual and not the work. I also write reminders for myself to focus on listening over talking. It does help! (If you are interested reach out to me directly and I will send you my form). Make sure you remember your direct report’s family names and any other personal details they share. The agenda should always start with your direct report given a chance to talk about whatever they want to talk about. You get the second half of the one-on-one and if your direct report runs over time, that’s okay. It’s important that you make this time regularly. Don’t cancel it regularly and don’t move it around too often – this sends a clear message of the priority of these meetings if you don’t make the time for them. Show them that these one-on-ones are important to you.

Frequently asked questions:
Q:What if my direct report just keeps talking and I don’t get the chance to tell him
the things I need to tell him?
A: Don’t sweat it, let him have the time. You are his supervisor after all so you can always grab him another time during the day to talk to him about what you want.

Q: My direct treats the one-on-ones as a status meeting and does not share anything
A: That’s okay, give it some time. Over time he might get more comfortable in these meetings and will start becoming more informal. If not, then this is still a meeting that improves your relationship and shows that you are there to listen.

Q: I am not in the same city as my direct report or I am travelling intermittingly?
A: You can definitely do this over the phone or even better over video conference.

Continue reading more about my advice to improve your performance and the performance of your team:
20 principles for a successful start to a career

20 principles for a successful start to a career

adviceThis blog post has been in the making for at least 6 years and will likely be my longest one. Since then I have been gathering my advice for new joiners. Usually someone new who joins the company makes very similar mistakes (of course not everyone is making all of them ;-)), So I thought I share my view of some of the principles to follow with the rest of the organisation. This will probably be kind of long-ish, but I hope it will help some of the new joiners and perhaps even some of the more seasoned professionals as I try to explain the perspective of the supervisor for some of the principles (rest assured a similar post for manager is already in the backlog as well). As with all career advice, please only follow what makes sense to you. This list is meant to provide you a reflection point to consider your behaviour and what would be the most effective for the organisation, not a one size fits all approach. Let’s dive in…

  1. Managerial Economics 101 – I learned this principle from my good friends at www.manager-tools.com and it is probably the most liberating and useful principle to understand. Managerial Economics 101 says that if two people can perform the same task to similar quality, the more junior or less paid person should do that. The idea being that this frees up the other person to do higher value work. What does this mean in practice? As a manager it means you should not feel guilty to delegate to your directs work that is not exciting. Often we feel bad delegating mundane or repetitive tasks, but if you think about this principle you realise why you have to delegate. As a direct looking at this you should do the same from the other side, pick up all the work that your manager is doing that you could do for him, volunteer to write meeting notes or perform routine tasks. Trust me, your manager will love you for it.
  2. Never Be Defensive – If there is a personal trait that can be really irritating, it is defensiveness. It can make any feedback discussion pointless. I suffered from being defensive for a good part of my career and to this day it takes effort not to get into defensive mode when it feels like there are so many good reasons to defend myself. It just never makes things any better, even if it was not your fault. As a manager who deals with someone being defensive, consider using a “shot across the bow”. Give your feedback and then walk away if the other person becomes defensive. Your feedback has only one purpose: To improve future performance. After giving your feedback the other person either performs better (in which case engaging with the defensive behaviour would not have made a difference) or not (in which case you will get a second chance to give the same feedback, this time with more evidence). If you are the direct, whenever you say “…,but…” or “someone else’s fault” step back to reconsider, feedback is a gift given too rarely. Try to find some truth in it and action on it rather than spending your efforts defending yourself, you can always be better, can’t you?
  3. Networking = Giving Freely – When you join an organisation everyone tells you how important it is to network. But what does this mean? My answer is, give freely when someone is looking for help, share material that you think could be of interest, offer to step in when someone needs help. That’s how you network. Your name will get out there as someone helpful and all the positives of network will become available to you, your name will be known and even better, when you need help, others owe you one. That goes a long way. Also look at principle 19 – personal brand.
  4. Every Feedback Form Will Have One Thing You Disagree With – It is my experience that people try to be helpful with their feedback. But sometimes they don’t get it right and that means that usual in feedback forms you will see at least one thing you disagree with. Remember not to be defensive about it, let it go, it’s just one piece of feedback. Focus on the items of feedback that make sense to you and address those. If the same point comes up again however, you should look closer. Perhaps you have just discovered one of your blindspots. And identifying those is worth a lot.
  5. Do Ask Questions – No one expects you to be perfect and especially when you join a new project a lot of the language will sound like from a foreign country. TLAs (Three Letter Akronyms) everywhere. It is always better to ask for clarifications than to be silent and spend a lot of time working it out. The same goes for new processes or other questions, you are excused for asking, you are not excused for misunderstanding or not being able to do your job because you didnt ask. I remember working for a company and trying to figure out a process myself, just to spend hours on something my colleague could do in minutes. I looked like a fool at the end of the day for not asking.
  6. Too Many Blank Questions Make You Look Lazy – In general questions are good, but if you have the opportunity to do research before asking the question, it looks lazy if the answer is one google search away. It is always better to ask questions of clarifications in the form of “Does process x mean I have to do a, b and c” rather than “how does process x work”. Just asking one blank question after the other makes it sound as if you want someone else to do your job.
  7. Communication Is What the Listener Does – It does not matter how much you try, sometimes you will get misunderstood. And it is not the listeners fault, you have to consider it yours and try again in a different way: with a picture, rephrasing it or by describing it from a different perspective. It is all too easy to say I have communicated it to him, if the listener does not understand it. And after all we are measuring outcomes, not intent. So make sure that the listener understood what you said and try to adjust your communication style to the listener. The only one who can fix a situation of misunderstanding is the one who is speaking, the listener cannot help much other than trying to show that he did not understand. And to make things easier for yourself follow BLUF, Bottom Line Up Front – Start with the summary and then give the narrative, it will make it much easier for the other person to understand what you are trying to communicate.
  8. You Can Only Change Yourself – Many times people complain about their colleagues and my answer is always the same, you wont be able to change him or her, but you can change your behaviour. If you want to improve the productivity of the team find out how you can adjust to the others style and hence improve the team. You can give feedback to others, but the only person you can change is yourself and by adjusting your own behaviour you can improve a situation a lot even if the other person does not change.
  9. You Are Responsible For Your Feelings – How many time have I read an email and got angry/disappointed/mad only to step away from it and realise that it is my own reaction to the email and not the intent of the writer. Or you sit in the car and the driver in front of you is driving super slow, he is driving you mad. Wait – he is not driving you mad, he is just driving in his own style, you are driving yourself mad. I have experienced many times that you can choose to get angry or choose to remain calm and the situation will play out accordingly. It is you who is responsible for your feelings, many of us get angry at work, but the best of us don’t show it and the even better ones don’t get angry at all, they choose to remain calm. It’s no excuse to say your colleague made you angry, you always have the choice. My advice: step away, breath in, breath out, move on…
  10. A Task is not Done Until Status is Communicated – If some assigns you a task or delegates something to you, he actually assigns you two things, the task itself and the responsibility to communicate status. At the very least to tell him when you are done. From an organisational perspective the work is not done until someone knows that it has been completed and can act upon it. You are unlikely doing the task for the task’s sake, it is because something else requires the output or someone requires the information, so make sure the completion of the task is communicated. If the tasks will take a long time, even if not asked explicitly for status, communicate the status anyway. If you are on track it will make your supervisor happy to know and make him not worry, if you are not on track early communication will allow him to help you out or at least set expectations that it might get a delayed with other stakeholders.
  11. Admit Mistakes Early – On a related note, admit your mistakes early and openly. It is very unlikely that you will be able to cover up your mistakes. If you are open about it and ready to fix the issue at hand, people will forgive you. The longer you wait and the worse the situation gets. Even worst if someone else takes the hit for you, and later it is discovered it was you, the implications will be much more severe. The ability to admit mistakes and to apologize goes a long way, and a heartfelt apology can be a strong means to build relationships that would otherwise be ruined. Be the better person and apologize first.
  12. You Are Allowed to Make Mistakes, Just Don’t Repeat Them – One of the most influential pieces of advice early in my career was someone telling me this. And they were right: you have to make mistakes to learn, but if you repeat them you will receive negative feedback. After all there is truth to the saying that “Good judgment comes from experience, and you gain experience from bad judgement”. There are a few things to take away from this – a) you should be courageous to try things out, b) you should make sure that if you make a mistake that you understand how to learn from them and avoid them in the future and c) you should keep trying things even if the mistakes hurt. As a supervisor you also need to understand this and allow people to make mistakes and not punish them for a mistake. You should look out for the ones that don’t learn from their mistakes, but the others will improve quickly.
  13. Answer the Question – If someone asks you: “Are you on track with your work?” there are only two possible answers: Yes or No. Anything else is a distraction. The first word out of your mouth needs to be “yes” or “no”. The person asking the question will ignore everything you say until he gets that answer. I myself have the same tendency to try to explain the answer before giving it, but trust me it is a bad habit. I have now learned to think about the answer, give the yes or no and then go on to explain the situation. And don’t try to get away with “Yes and No”. The same by the way is true if someone asks you for a number, the first word out of your mouth should be a number, not “well, let me explain”. This will be difficult initially, but it is very important to be respected and listened to by leaders.
  14. Don’t Be a Film Critic – No one enjoys listening to someone complain. I know everyone needs to vent once in a while, but it is not a very productive behaviour. Try not to vent to your boss or anyone you work with. If you find something to criticise do so in a productive manner and with an idea how to fix it. And honestly the best way is to recommend something you can do to help fix it, otherwise it just feels like a film critic who sits there talking about the movie, but who wouldn’t be able to make a better movie himself.
  15. Do not Be Idle – If you have nothing to do, that is not an excuse for long internet surfing sessions. There is always so much to do and there is likely someone around you who needs help. Reach out, offer help. And if there is no one in need of help, spend the time improving your own or the teams productivity by working on a better template or process. Not having work assigned or being blocked is tempting for a bit of idle time, but it is likely that it will come to haunt you later; either in your performance rating or because you are getting used to it and are less productive later on.
  16. Ownership and Accountability is Different From Actioning – It is always nice to delegate some work to someone else, but let’s be clear: it is still your accountability that it gets done, you still own the task. I personally don’t accept it if someone who I gave a piece of work to later tells me he delegated it and it was that persons fault. You don’t have to do everything yourself and as of principle 1, you shouldn’t. But own up to it and protect those you delegate to, especially if they are your team members. The buck stops with you even if you try to push it to someone else. In that case it is just a double whammy, you didn’t get the work done and you tried to deflect your accountability which makes you look bad.
  17. No One Other Than Yourself is Responsible for the Quality of Your Work – A related point is that you cannot rely on someone else to test your work, it is great if you have other testers or QA people involved to help find problems, but rest assured that you are accountable for your work. At best you will both be in trouble, but just creating something and not checking the quality yourself is not acceptable.
  18. Trust But Verify – The last related principle is that of trust. The speed of trust is amazing, try to micromanage someone and you will quickly notice how time consuming it is, trusting someone makes transactions much faster. There is a but – you need to verify the work when it comes back. You cannot just forward it to your boss without checking. Remember principle 16.
  19. Create Your Personal Brand – The longer you are with an organisation the more important it is to have your personal brand. You should stand for something – the guy who is good at x, or the guy who is passionate about y. There are many different aspects of this: Social media like blogs and yammer let you share your views with the world, working in related areas and doing a good job gets the word out that you know what you are doing, going to community events and conferences and talk to peers about your passion creates your network. All this belongs to creating your brand. If people know what your brand is, you will be surprised how many opportunities turn up on your doorstep.
  20. Be persistent and accept silence – This is my personal favourite and one that I think helped me the most in my career. There are things that I would like to change in my organisation, or on my project or in my community and none of that happens over night. You send emails with improvement ideas to people and often nothing comes of it, there is only silence. But if you are persistent at some stage someone will listen and something will get done. It will take a while, but I do believe each one of us can make a difference if we are persistent, remain positive and constructive with our feedback, and then one person at a time we will make our company, our community and our network of people a better place to be.

Okay this has been a pretty long post, as I said this material has been with me for a while. I encourage you to come back to this post once in a while as I am sure you will find another principle all of a sudden makes sense or it encourages you to try to improve in an area you didn’t have the bandwidth to last time. Getting better never stops…

Picture: Advice by Laughlin Elkind
License: Creative Commons