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.

The worst networking mistake I ever made

I became increasingly anxious as I realized the mistake I had been making. Before Christmas, my friend told me about an ambitious goal she had in mind and how she was gaining support for it. She listed the senior stakeholders she was meeting and her discussions with a possible sponsor, and I could see the clear progression she was making towards a favorable outcome.

I thought, I haven’t done anything like this. Despite my efforts to work out loud and build relationships, I largely ignored senior management. As a result, I had a huge hole in my network.

The relationships I like to build 

Singing around the campfire

Singing around the campfire

Like many people, I didn't like networking. It seemed manipulative and inauthentic. As a result, when I was close to getting laid off in 2008, I had few meaningful relationships outside of my firm and my small circle of friends.

Gradually, though, I changed my mindset. I focused more on contributions and learning. I made my work more visible and purposeful. Those 5 elements of working out loud led to a book to help others do it and enabled me to build relationships with people across my firm and around the world.

I enjoy making these connections. They're usually with people interested in my work or who like my other writing, so it's clear what my contributions might be. The people I meet this way are smart, positive, and helpful.

A common mistake

1925 US Supreme Court Justices

1925 US Supreme Court Justices

My relationship with senior management was quite different. Though I recognized the need to keep them informed, I didn’t always view them as smart, positive, and helpful. They seemed more like judges or, worse, blockers. Perhaps my mindset was a result of the performance management process, or maybe just my own mix of fear and pride.

Whatever the reason, it’s self-defeating. By not proactively deepening relationships with a wide array of senior managers, I was limiting my impact and my possibilities.

Mending the gap

The talk with my friend snapped me into action. I started by asking myself the same three questions we use in working out loud circles.

What’s my goal?

Who can help me?

How can I contribute to deepen our relationship?

I asked people for help to draft a list of stakeholders and a set of possible contributions. What would I have to offer? The key was to avoid putting senior managers in a box like judges and instead realize they had the same needs and struggles as anyone. That meant they would appreciate the universal gifts of appreciation and recognition.

For more substantial contributions relevant to my project, framing my work as a contribution meant making it less about me and more about them. That included using examples relevant to their businesses and describing solutions in language familiar to them. I learned that social proof was particularly powerful. “The head of another division already has this solution in place. Would you be interested in learning more about it?”

Within a few weeks, I noticed something remarkable: I felt better. Instead of bemoaning the lack of engagement or respect or admiration, I felt like I was taking control. And with each contribution, I got a bit better at telling my story and learning how to genuinely help senior managers.

It’s obvious that identifying stakeholders and developing relationships with them will improve your chances of success. I failed to do that as well as I could have, and that’s a mistake I won’t make again.