There is this one phrase that can quickly demotivate people. I’ve seen a number of executives use this phrase in several conversations I’ve had. It doesn’t matter whether I’m an engineer, a manager, or a director. Neither does location matter – I’ve heard it in multiple offices around the world.
And whenever this phrase gets uttered by senior executives or leads, I immediately get deflated. And I also notice people around me get deflated when they hear it, too. I could see it from their body language or their eyes when we share glances.
What is that phrase, you might ask?
“Well, you and the team will just have to work smarter.”
It doesn’t matter whether the meeting is a 1:1, a team meeting, or an all-hands. Most often, the topic covered is a pretty meaty one. It could be about a newly-announced initiative that the teams will now have to do – aside from stuff currently on their plate. Or it could be about issues relating to how teams or departments work and interact with each other.
In short – it’s usually about problems that the teams can’t solve because they don’t have the influence to affect the actual solution. It needs input from you, the exec. And some empathy.
And that is what precisely deflates me when I hear that phrase – I don’t hear any empathy. I feel that I have not been heard at all at that moment. I took the time to explain our predicament or what I’ve already looked into solving that quandary. Uttering the phrase comes off as dismissive.
There’s also a second, quick follow-up phrase that further deflates the team or me.
“You’re a bunch of smart people (engineers). You figure it out.”
Well, to put it politely, I’ve already done my homework prior to bringing the topic up. I’m a knowledge worker whose primary skill is to think about and solve problems. The team and I are telling you, Mr/Ms/They executive, “We’ve hit a roadblock and need some of your help.”
What I Need From You
As I stated previously, one of the first things that the team or I need from an executive is empathy, an acknowledgment that we have a problem. We all are knowledge workers who had put a lot of time and effort into figuring things out before we even brought this issue to your attention.
The second thing the team and I need from you, the executive, is lack of judgment. Saying that second phrase, “You figure it out,” comes off as judgemental, implying that the team or I didn’t do our work beforehand. Are we or am I suddenly not performing in that instance?
The third thing that I and the team need is honesty. I don’t expect you to have all the answers. But I do hope you to be truthful and not dance around possible solutions for the sake of giving one. We also expect you to tell us if you can provide some help – any help – in some way or form. Remember – you have influence that none of us have, which is why we are bringing this issue up.
In the end, my team and I are more than just resources (another deflating term) in your organization. We are people. Treat us as people, not as resources.
Many companies have gone Agile over the years, undergoing transformations and seeing their teams deliver quicker (hopefully). Organizations seem to lust after delivery teams going faster. And yet as an organization, we hamper them in other ways, such as hiring.
Let me illustrate this with the following scenario. I’ve encountered this scenario many a time at various companies here in Silicon Valley. Some of the details may vary, but I’m sure most folks would commiserate with me.
You and your teams are working on a very critical project. Tight deadlines are coming up. Out of the blue, a few people give notice to leave – for whatever reason. What now? The critical product that you’re working on will be severely impacted.
As a manager, you now have to deal with hiring new members and then ramp them up. And to top it off, it takes a while to get your job requisition approved first by Finance before it reaches HR and Recruiting, who then starts posting the job description. If you can get that description up in a week or less, you’re pretty lucky.
Then the wait. For that perfect candidate. That takes time. You might have to compromise on good enough, but the whole process to get a single person replaced takes about two months at best. Now you have multiple people to replace (assuming you even get a replacement opened up with blessings from Finance). This whole thing is going to impact your tight deadlines.
And yet, your senior executives have told you and your teams, “We can’t let any dates slip.” You ask about maybe getting some temporary contractors. Finance says no – budget reasons. Your senior execs say, can’t the engineers work more hours, over weekends? You know this is the nth time you and your teams have heard that. You know there’s going to be an even higher price to pay with possibly more attrition down the road.
All this haggling with senior execs, Finance, HR, recruiting – just to replace departing people – contributes even further to the delay.
Companies are asking teams to deliver continuously and fast using Agile methods. But why does the hiring process today remain a waterfall dinosaur, hampering those Agile teams? Why go Agile when the supporting structures around your Agile teams slow them down?
Can we modernize the dinosaur?
You might be asking, ”How can we streamline the hiring process, so it doesn’t impact the Agile teams?”
Before I continue – I’m going to warn you – the road is fraught with peril. Why? Because some of the changes touch on parts of the organization that may not be tolerant to change. You can start being cautious in your approach and propose small experiments to introduce the change. But once you hit that roadblock, you will still end up with a dinosaur (albeit smaller).
One of the critical things to look at is the flow of your hiring process. I highlighted some of the process flow with the scenario I provided earlier. There’s a lot of phased gates when you start the process of recruiting new talent. (I’m sure you can see how Waterfall-ish the process is.) You need to examine that flow and start experimenting with it. Once you understand the flow, you need to take baby steps to modernize it (i.e., make your hiring process a little more Agile). Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.
Baby’s First Step
In my scenario, as an engineering manager, when a person leaves, the first thing I do is go ask my boss, “Can I hire a replacement?” In my 30 years in Silicon Valley, this has always been the case.
So my question is, why? Why is there a need for me, the engineering manager affected, to ask first? The main reason is budget. I need to make sure there’s a budget for me to hire.
One quick solution I’ve found to work is to have that budget be transparent.
“Can I have access to view the hiring budget for our department?” I’ve asked that question to my directors. Some of them said no outright, and some said yes. And for the directors that shared this info, all I needed to do was look at it, inform my boss I was going to hire a replacement, and start the recruiting process with HR.
As you can see, such a small step has varying results, but the main point here is I’ve already improved a part of the process, even by just a tiny bit.
Taking More (Risky) Baby Steps
Another area in hiring that causes teams to slow down is the act of interviewing and finding the right candidate. It takes a long time to find a good enough candidate, and I’ve seen teams and organizations try and search for that perfect candidate (and your chances are slim to nil, mind you).
So, instead of interviewing when you need to hire, why not just interview continuously? Keep interviewing candidates until you find that “perfect candidate” that everyone on the team seems to desire. You can be more stringent with your requirements in your job description. You can let your team know that everyone has to say yes to a possible candidate – no nays or middle ground. You can continuously bring in candidates to interview, mind you, not every day, but maybe once or twice a week, so you don’t overwhelm you or your team, bringing down productivity.
And therein lies the rub why this is risky – you have to get a little bit of buy-in from HR and Finance.
As a director at a start-up, I proposed this solution to our Finance and HR directors. I had to allay the Finance director that I wouldn’t blow the budget. I had to ease the HR director’s concerns that I wasn’t stringing applicants along with an always-open job requisition. I gave them an exit trigger when to take this job posting down.
One reason why I was able to do this is because I had control over my budget. I could shift things around to fit my needs. You might say – yeah, easy for a start-up director. What about a big company?
And therein lies the rub. Are you or your organization willing to unencumber hiring managers by giving them control of their team’s hiring budget to be more Agile when it comes to hiring? If you and your company want to achieve better business agility, you need to move forward towards this direction one small baby step at a time.
Slicing the Dinosaur
From my examples, the main pattern for getting rid of the Hiring Dinosaur is to look at the entire flow. And then see how you can transfer more flow control to the person impacted most – the manager who needs to do the hiring. (Hmm – doesn’t this sound like Lean?) You need to do one small slice of control at a time, one level at a time, in an organization.
And a lot of trust is needed if you’re going to do this. The quintessential question to ask in these gates is “For <person> to relinquish control, they need to be assured that <manager> will do ______ and will not do ______.”
What makes this hard, though, is that you involve very sensitive parts of the organization. Specifically, you need to loop in HR and Finance. And yes, you may need to go all the way up to the C-Suite level as well, depending on how far you want to take this. You need their trust and buy-in to experiment and enact these changes.
And you will need time since the changes don’t happen overnight. You can’t roll this out to the entire company in one big bang.
This example is one of the reasons why I believe that Agile transformations never end. You’re only as Agile as your least Agile department. To achieve overall business agility, you need to start tackling organizational problems such as hiring that slow down your delivery teams.
Are you ready for next year’s performance review cycle?
Part 3 of 3
I’ve gone over the first two suggestions on how to get ready for performance review cycles during this pandemic in my previous newsletters. The first newsletter in this series suggested you designate at least one 1:1 session a month to lightweight performance discussions with your manager. The second one advised you keep a monthly diary of these discussions.
When you think about it, though, you can apply these suggestions in whatever context – pandemic or not. I’ve used these patterns in several companies I’ve worked in the past, and they have served me very well.
Now on to the third and last suggestion:
Suggestion 3 of 3:
Get feedback from others.
Frank feedback from your peers is also essential for your performance review. And when I say peers, I don’t mean just your team. Look beyond them. Who do you work with from other departments? Try and chat with different people, and add the results of this discussion to your diary.
I am assuming you have good relationships with other people. Still, if they are hesitant to give you such feedback, then you may have a problem. One problem is – how safe do they feel, or how safe is your office environment. Establishing psychologically safe spaces in one-on-ones and the work environment is paramount to getting feedback from others.
If they might not feel safe, they may not necessarily have a good relationship with you and your work; or, you have a possible toxic work environment that doesn’t allow them to be honest with you. Either way, these are potential flags for your performance review.
Suppose you do have a work environment that has a reasonable degree of psychological safety. In that case, you may want to partner with your HR business partners and ask them how you can approach asking other people for frank feedback. (And, if you want to know how you can personally establish a psychologically safe space with someone, feel free to e-mail me.)
Performance Review Time
By the time the performance review cycle comes around, you should have twelve months of diary entries. These diary entries will help you quickly fill out your self-assessment, usually a copy and paste operation, with some slight wordsmithing.
One last thing…
You might notice – not once did I mention that a manager should be doing this. Why? The performance review impacts you and your career. Whether you are an individual contributor or a manager yourself, it’s always good to be your own best champion when it comes to your calling.
So, go ahead and unleash your best champion, especially in these interesting times.
I hope you enjoyed this series on getting ready for your next performance review cycle. Please do e-mail me if you have any questions or would like to chat further.