The manager who works out loud

Whenever I talk to organizations about open, connected ways of working, this question inevitably comes up: “How do you get leaders to do it?” 

It’s a problem. Most often, managers simply don’t have the time to learn a different way of leading. Or their habits are so deeply-ingrained that doing something different is too difficult. Sometimes the challenge is digital, in that they’re unfamiliar with communication and collaboration tools besides email. 

But there are absolutely managers who are working differently - who are leading in a more effective, engaging way. Those that do experience a wide range of benefits.

 

Explaining decisions, building trust

In one IT department, the security team abruptly cut off access to Github, a a valuable online tool used by thousands of developers at the company. Employees were shocked and angry. To them, it was a sign that management had no idea how work got done and was completely out of touch. People complained on the enterprise social network, and someone posted a question, asking the executive if they could “shed some light” on the decision.

The executive responded. He started by recognizing the importance of the issue to developers. Then he explained his reasoning in clear, logical terms, while presenting a near-term compromise that was already being worked on. He also invited others to the discussion, and what followed was a set of artifacts, proposals, and conversations that involved hundreds of people. 

Instead of simply publishing a policy statement, the executive listened and engaged. Instead of ignoring the widespread sentiment that management were idiots, he built trust and confidence.

Management By Wandering Around (MBWA)

Wherever I've worked, it was taken for granted that senior managers would travel to different offices to visit with staff there. It was seen as a necessary way to stay in touch with how things were going in a given location. Usually, the manager would deliver a town hall presentation, meet with local managers, have dinner with his team, and be off to the next city. Staff generally appreciated the attention, but the trip could easily involve a week or more, including a lot of time in transit.

There are merits to “management by wandering around,” and it became especially popular in the 1970s and 1980s. For managers used to new communications tools, it’s now easier than ever to do it. These managers don’t wait for the annual trip. As part of their routine, they “wander” around their social intranet throughout the week. In a few minutes, they can come into contact with people, ideas, and issues from around their organization and their company. They can discover the answer to “How’s it going?” at a scale never imagined when MBWA was first taught in business schools.

“Digital Leadership”

When trying to communicate something - a new strategy, say, or the latest culture program - managers traditionally had to rely on “cascading the message.” They would assemble their leadership team, impart their messages, and instruct the group to go forth and spread what was said to their respective teams. And so on. What typically happened, of course, resembled “Chinese Whispers” or “Telephone,” the game that shows “how easily information can become corrupted by indirect communication.” 

One benefit of digital leadership - using modern tools to influence and engage an organization - is that you can eliminate the cascades and reach people directly. Even better, the channels work both ways. For example, an employee at one company had an idea that he believed would make the organization more innovative and collaborative. So he posted it online, and mentioned several executives. Much to his surprise, the executive posted a comment. That led to an exchange and then a series of meetings and proposals. 

With that one comment, the executive signaled to hundreds of people (and perhaps eventually thousands), that he was paying attention, was interested in innovation, and actively supported people who came up with ideas. That’s a more powerful message than any bullet point on any slide cascaded throughout teams, and helped strengthen engagement and rapport.

One more benefit

Some particularly open and curious managers have experimented with Working Out Loud Circles to develop new skills, and I was struck by some of their comments:

“I am overwhelmed by the feedback I got throughout the journey…Our WOL Group is fantastic and our meetings are always one hour of inspiration to move forward. This approach really can change the way you interact with people." 
“I have experienced a completely different way of working on and solving tasks… My circle was both peer pressure and "self-help group" for me, providing motivation and really changing things.”

The more a manager works out loud, the more their view of the organization changes from acronyms, budgets, and processes to human beings connected by shared purpose, shared interests, and shared struggles.

It took me a long time to realize this. For most of my career, I simply did what I saw all the other managers doing. I spent my time in back-to-back meetings, barely knew the hundreds of people in my organization, and felt like I was supposed to have all the answers. It was not a recipe for enjoying work.

If there's a manager you care about, send them this post, and help them work out loud by serving as a reverse mentor or inviting them to join a WOL Circle. Help them take a step towards a better way of working, one that's better for them as well as the people who work with them.

Asking for permission

It may seem odd, but I enjoy working with big companies. More precisely, I enjoy helping the people who work there. Having been an employee in large corporations for decades, I can relate to what employees experience. I know the many slings and arrows they have to face in the workplace, and how they can affect you over time.

One of those things is having to ask for permission.

No good deed…

Not all companies are the same, of course. But there seems to be a mania about control, about the manager having to know and approve of what each of his direct reports (ah, the military language!) is doing.

Sometimes it’s about money. Can I buy pizza for my team to celebrate our milestone? Sometimes it’s about time. I’ve been invited to a free conference to learn from other companies. May I go? Sometimes, it’s just about control.

One time I was invited to give a talk related to my project at another location in my company. My division had announced a travel freeze, so I told the host she would have to pay expenses, which she did. The morning of my talk, though, I received frantic calls and emails from my boss at 7am. It turns out his boss (who, ironically, was traveling) wanted to know why I was in another city. When I explained how the event related to our goals and that there were no expenses involved, the objection they raised was that I hadn’t asked for permission - and that it should never happen again. 

The new normal

At the time, I thought perhaps this was about me or about a dysfunctional organization. But now that I’m working with a wide range of companies, I see that it’s quite normal. 

I see how the very same companies who want more innovative, agile cultures are the ones that systematically rob people of control, either through their policies or through the caprice of managers trying to validate their position in the hierarchy. I see how experienced, talented employees who desperately want to do good work are forced to ask permission for even the simplest of things.

What choice do you have? 

You probably know some exceptions, the kinds of people who would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. I’m thinking of notable examples like Celine Schillinger at Sanofi, Harald Schirmer at Continental, and Katharina Krentz at Bosch. I know that each of them has faced resistance in the pursuit of doing meaningful, important work. Yet they’ve all found a way to do it and lead change. Over time, by working in an open, connected way, they’ve become fantastic ambassadors for their companies.

They are indeed exceptional. But what about everyone else?

If you’re a manager, you might start by asking yourself a question the next time you feel the need for control: Is this necessary? Rules and policies are fine, but stifling creativity and engagement hurts everyone, including managers. 

If you’re an employee trying to do good work despite the constraints, look to people who are already finding a way to do it. Their openness and consistent contributions over time are what provide them with some level of career insurance. After all, it’s harder to punish someone whose contributions are publicly validated by others. Also, their larger personal networks give them options, and thus more control of their own careers.

Several companies I work with are genuinely trying to create corporate cultures that are more innovative, that encourage more experimentation and a bias to action. To achieve that, we’ll need a different kind of permission, the kind that says, “I trust you to do what you think is right. Please go ahead.”

“Would you talk to our leadership program?”

WOL for the organization

WOL for the organization

I’ll admit to being surprised at being asked. One reason is that I have an aversion to most management programs - talent management, performance management, innovation management. Also, I never expected the Human Resources department of a large global firm to link Working Out Loud with leadership. But they did.

Introducing Working Out Loud via HR and executive development presented a new opportunity. My talk included some of the usual things:

Then I focused on the more senior managers in the room. How would they “contribute to people in their organizations to deepen the relationship"? Why should they?

I started with the universal gifts of appreciation and recognition. And since the firm already had an enterprise social network, each contribution could be visible and ripple through the organization. Coming from an executive, a simple “Follow” can signal I see you and be meaningful. A Like can mean I recognize your work. I described how an “Ask Me Anything” demonstrates openness and accessibility. How a comment shows their interest in listening and a willingness to engage. Small steps to get started.

I showed them how they could do these simple things in 15 minutes a week.

After the talk, one of the executives came up to me and told me that, when he would ask for questions after a talk in front of a big audience, his people were afraid to speak up. He wanted to change that.

He saw how things could be different if people knew it was safe to be open and curious. He wanted and needed an organization where people could share knowledge, solve problems, and innovate without waiting for instructions from the boss. He understood that he could lead by example and model the behaviors he wanted to see.

To make a difference, though, he would need to take a step and develop the habit of working out loud so others would follow, and so he could lead more effectively.

Whether you introduce the practice via HR, via Knowledge Management, or via employee career events, helping even one group to work out loud can make work better. A few groups can form a movement. A few dozen can create an open, generous, connected culture that's good for the organization and all the people in it.

“I will be a great leader when...”

"I will be a great leader when..." How would you finish that sentence?

Is it when you’ve mastered the leadership lessons of Jesus, Lincoln, Sun Tzu, Steve Jobs or any of the dozens of famous people profiled in popular books?

Or when you’ve been granted a certain title or set of responsibilities?

That’s what I used to think, that you could copy other leaders or simply be appointed to the position. It’s only recently I’m starting to understand that being a great leader requires something else. Something very different.

Leadership at work

At work, we use the word “leadership” so often that its meaning has become diluted, often synonymous with “management” (as in the email you get announcing “the new leadership team”).

Kevin Kruse, an author of several books on employee engagement, attempted a more precise, useful definition in a Forbes article earlier this year, starting with what leadership is not:

“Leadership has nothing to do with seniority or one’s position in the hierarchy of a company.

Leadership has nothing to do with titles.

Leadership has nothing to do with personal attributes.

Leadership isn’t management.”

Instead, after further dissecting definitions from managers and management experts, he offers his own:

DEFINITION: Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.

I like this. It’s devoid of the usual tactics and cliches. The phrase “process of social influence” points to how leadership happens over time and how fragile it is. And the rest of the definition I choose to interpret as “helps others realize their potential towards some greater purpose."

By that definition, though, I’ve never been a leader and haven’t experienced much leadership. So what does it take to become a great leader?

How to become a great leader

In “Presence” (a wonderful book by Peter Senge et al that I’ve referred to before), there is a chapter on leadership that’s unlike any I’ve ever read. One of the authors had interviewed a Buddhist master who'd just published a new interpretation of a work by Confucius called “The Great Learning”, written over 2400 years ago. He described the Confucian theory of being a leader as resting on a particular idea:

“If you want to be a leader, you have to be a real human being. You must recognize the true meaning of life before you can become a great leader. You must understand yourself first.”

“The cultivated self is a leader’s greatest tool,” they said. Given the complexity of the challenges we’re facing, leaders must work on “developing a capacity for delayed gratification, for seeing longer term effects of actions, for achieving quietness of mind.”

I’d never thought of leadership involving these things, but it made sense to me. How could I lead anyone if I’m not even in control of myself?

A long process

Now I also understood why I’d seen so few great leaders. “Understanding myself” and “achieving quietness of mind” have proven elusive for me and at times seem impossible. As they note in “Presence”:

“This idea is a cornerstone of traditional thinking about leadership in indigenous cultures, as it was in ancient China and India. But one reason this traditional view has been largely discarded is that it’s difficult...people who haven't achieved this state will be obstructed by all kinds of different emotions - greed, fear, anger, anxiety - that will prevent them from making 'right judgments.'”

As a result, we have people in positions of authority who do terrible things - to themselves, to the people they're trying to lead, to their environment. And it’s because they’ve skipped the hard work of understanding themselves first. Because only when you know yourself can you help others know themselves and begin the “process of social influence” towards some higher aim.

“First you slow down and look deeply into yourself and the world until you start to be present to what’s trying to emerge. Then you move back into the world with a unique capacity to act and create.”

So how would you finish the sentence “I will be a great leader when...”?

For me, I will be a great leader when I’m in touch with myself, with my connectedness to the people and environment around me, and with a goal that unselfishly aims to help the world and the people in it.

I realize that might sound naive and that I may never become a great leader. But it’s worth the effort. As Peter Senge says, “cultivation, ‘becoming a real human being’, really is the primary leadership issue of our time, but on a scale never required before.”

“I will be a great leader when...”

"I will be a great leader when..." How would you finish that sentence?

Is it when you’ve mastered the leadership lessons of Jesus, Lincoln, Sun Tzu, Steve Jobs or any of the dozens of famous people profiled in popular books?

Or when you’ve been granted a certain title or set of responsibilities?

That’s what I used to think, that you could copy other leaders or simply be appointed to the position. It’s only recently I’m starting to understand that being a great leader requires something else. Something very different.

Leadership at work

At work, we use the word “leadership” so often that its meaning has become diluted, often synonymous with “management” (as in the email you get announcing “the new leadership team”).

Kevin Kruse, an author of several books on employee engagement, attempted a more precise, useful definition in a Forbes article earlier this year, starting with what leadership is not:

“Leadership has nothing to do with seniority or one’s position in the hierarchy of a company.

Leadership has nothing to do with titles.

Leadership has nothing to do with personal attributes.

Leadership isn’t management.”

Instead, after further dissecting definitions from managers and management experts, he offers his own:

DEFINITION: Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.

I like this. It’s devoid of the usual tactics and cliches. The phrase “process of social influence” points to how leadership happens over time and how fragile it is. And the rest of the definition I choose to interpret as “helps others realize their potential towards some greater purpose."

By that definition, though, I’ve never been a leader and haven’t experienced much leadership. So what does it take to become a great leader?

How to become a great leader

In “Presence” (a wonderful book by Peter Senge et al that I’ve referred to before), there is a chapter on leadership that’s unlike any I’ve ever read. One of the authors had interviewed a Buddhist master who'd just published a new interpretation of a work by Confucius called “The Great Learning”, written over 2400 years ago. He described the Confucian theory of being a leader as resting on a particular idea:

“If you want to be a leader, you have to be a real human being. You must recognize the true meaning of life before you can become a great leader. You must understand yourself first.”

“The cultivated self is a leader’s greatest tool,” they said. Given the complexity of the challenges we’re facing, leaders must work on “developing a capacity for delayed gratification, for seeing longer term effects of actions, for achieving quietness of mind.”

I’d never thought of leadership involving these things, but it made sense to me. How could I lead anyone if I’m not even in control of myself?

A long process

Now I also understood why I’d seen so few great leaders. “Understanding myself” and “achieving quietness of mind” have proven elusive for me and at times seem impossible. As they note in “Presence”:

“This idea is a cornerstone of traditional thinking about leadership in indigenous cultures, as it was in ancient China and India. But one reason this traditional view has been largely discarded is that it’s difficult...people who haven't achieved this state will be obstructed by all kinds of different emotions - greed, fear, anger, anxiety - that will prevent them from making 'right judgments.'”

As a result, we have people in positions of authority who do terrible things - to themselves, to the people they're trying to lead, to their environment. And it’s because they’ve skipped the hard work of understanding themselves first. Because only when you know yourself can you help others know themselves and begin the “process of social influence” towards some higher aim.

“First you slow down and look deeply into yourself and the world until you start to be present to what’s trying to emerge. Then you move back into the world with a unique capacity to act and create.”

So how would you finish the sentence “I will be a great leader when...”?

For me, I will be a great leader when I’m in touch with myself, with my connectedness to the people and environment around me, and with a goal that unselfishly aims to help the world and the people in it.

I realize that might sound naive and that I may never become a great leader. But it’s worth the effort. As Peter Senge says, “cultivation, ‘becoming a real human being’, really is the primary leadership issue of our time, but on a scale never required before.”

If Abe Lincoln had a social network

What would Lincoln do? Last week, my coach and friend, Moyra Mackie, wrote a good post about the value of management by walking around (MBWA) and about the benefits of managers being available for their teams.

She described how Lincoln is credited with using this technique during the Civil War. How Hewlett-Packard executives practiced it in the 1970s and Tom Peters and others wrote about it in the 1980s.

Now, modern managers will nod their head knowingly when you mention this useful practice. But an incredibly small number of managers are taking advantage of an improvement to the technique that’s available today - one that Lincoln could have only dreamed about.

MBWA

It’s the unplanned, unfiltered nature of MBWA that results in the manager receiving useful information. Here’s a helpful definition from Wikipedia:

“The term management by wandering around (MBWA), also management by walking around, refers to a style of business management which involves managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, or equipment, about the status of ongoing work. The emphasis is on the word wandering as an impromptu movement within a workplace, rather than a plan where employees expect a visit from managers at more systematic, pre-approved or scheduled times. The expected benefit is that a manager, by random sampling of events or employee discussions, is more likely to facilitate the productivity and total quality management of the organization, as compared to remaining in a specific office area and waiting for employees, or the delivery of status reports, to arrive there, as events warrant in the workplace.”

Lincoln in the 1860s

In the Lincoln biography, “With Malice Toward None”, Prof. Stephen Oates asserts that Lincoln invented MBWA. And Moyra writes about why he did it:

 “During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln would surprise his generals and their men with impromptu troop inspections. By seeking out and listening to ordinary soldiers and observing what was happening, his habit of unannounced visits allowed him to get an unfiltered view on which to base future decisions.”

Instead of waiting for information to come to him, perhaps tainted by the interests of generals, Lincoln went and got it himself. (Over a hundred years later, Deming noted “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them.”)

In addition to this valuable feedback leading to better decisions, Moyra describes how Lincoln’s direct interactions with troops could also “kickstart a two way process of communication and learning”.

Lincoln today

MBWA, when done well, does indeed have these benefits. But even for Lincoln it was incredibly limited: the time required to travel to meet troops in the field; the very small number of people he could interact with; the difficulty of getting honest feedback from a private to the President. It was easy for MBWA to devolve into just speeches to large crowds or staged tours to meet a few pre-selected soldiers.

If Lincoln had a social network, he would complement his historic trips by virtually walking around his organization. From the White House, he would see what soldiers across the country were saying when they didn’t think he was listening. He would provide feedback and encouragement that everyone could see. Inspiration that everyone could read and share. Lessons and directions that everyone could learn from.

He would still go to the field. But he would augment the practice he invented with modern techniques that would make him even more effective and help his troops be even more engaged in their mission.

Modern managers, more pressed for time than ever before, could learn a lot from what Lincoln did - and would do.

If Abe Lincoln had a social network

What would Lincoln do? Last week, my coach and friend, Moyra Mackie, wrote a good post about the value of management by walking around (MBWA) and about the benefits of managers being available for their teams.

She described how Lincoln is credited with using this technique during the Civil War. How Hewlett-Packard executives practiced it in the 1970s and Tom Peters and others wrote about it in the 1980s.

Now, modern managers will nod their head knowingly when you mention this useful practice. But an incredibly small number of managers are taking advantage of an improvement to the technique that’s available today - one that Lincoln could have only dreamed about.

MBWA

It’s the unplanned, unfiltered nature of MBWA that results in the manager receiving useful information. Here’s a helpful definition from Wikipedia:

“The term management by wandering around (MBWA), also management by walking around, refers to a style of business management which involves managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, or equipment, about the status of ongoing work. The emphasis is on the word wandering as an impromptu movement within a workplace, rather than a plan where employees expect a visit from managers at more systematic, pre-approved or scheduled times. The expected benefit is that a manager, by random sampling of events or employee discussions, is more likely to facilitate the productivity and total quality management of the organization, as compared to remaining in a specific office area and waiting for employees, or the delivery of status reports, to arrive there, as events warrant in the workplace.”

Lincoln in the 1860s

In the Lincoln biography, “With Malice Toward None”, Prof. Stephen Oates asserts that Lincoln invented MBWA. And Moyra writes about why he did it:

 “During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln would surprise his generals and their men with impromptu troop inspections. By seeking out and listening to ordinary soldiers and observing what was happening, his habit of unannounced visits allowed him to get an unfiltered view on which to base future decisions.”

Instead of waiting for information to come to him, perhaps tainted by the interests of generals, Lincoln went and got it himself. (Over a hundred years later, Deming noted “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them.”)

In addition to this valuable feedback leading to better decisions, Moyra describes how Lincoln’s direct interactions with troops could also “kickstart a two way process of communication and learning”.

Lincoln today

MBWA, when done well, does indeed have these benefits. But even for Lincoln it was incredibly limited: the time required to travel to meet troops in the field; the very small number of people he could interact with; the difficulty of getting honest feedback from a private to the President. It was easy for MBWA to devolve into just speeches to large crowds or staged tours to meet a few pre-selected soldiers.

If Lincoln had a social network, he would complement his historic trips by virtually walking around his organization. From the White House, he would see what soldiers across the country were saying when they didn’t think he was listening. He would provide feedback and encouragement that everyone could see. Inspiration that everyone could read and share. Lessons and directions that everyone could learn from.

He would still go to the field. But he would augment the practice he invented with modern techniques that would make him even more effective and help his troops be even more engaged in their mission.

Modern managers, more pressed for time than ever before, could learn a lot from what Lincoln did - and would do.