Friday, March 31, 2006

Good, Bad, Love, Hate

Early on in life I worked out a simple way to categorise the many things in life you have to do:

1) There are things you’re very good at that you love
2) There are things you’re very good at that you hate
3) There are things you’re awful at that you love
4) There are things you’re awful at that you hate

It sounds simple, but most people I’ve talked to have a little light go on in their eyes when you discuss it. Clearly you should actively avoid number 4. You can let yourself enjoy number 3, but don’t take it seriously as people will take the piss. Try to avoid number 2, but expect bits like that to get thrown your way. Actively seek out number 1.

I consider myself blessed in that, for the most part, I’ve had a string of jobs I enjoy and am good at (fair warning here to the Brits, my modesty mode is going to be momentarily turned off. One day I’ll turn back to talk about British culture, but not today. For the curious, read this book, one of the funniest and most illuminating I’ve read in a long time. It taught me a phrase I now oft repeat, that the British are the only race that will happily form an orderly queue of one. BTW I’m Canadian, tho have lived over here for far far too long).

I’m a general manager, its what I do. Doesn’t quite matter what I manage, though I tend toward the technical or more operational (ie technically based) parts of the business world. I’ve got a mind that can keep multiple strands of activity running in my mind. Recently, after a conversation with one of my sisters that got me thinking, I wrote down all of the things I was tracking. I stopped writing when I’d filled three pages with a brief description, who was doing it (if it wasn’t me), what I had to emphasise about it, and when I next needed to check. People like working for me, I’m easy going, but set hard tasks. In the modern parlance I encourage and coach. I don’t break balls for failure, it really is an opportunity to learn, but I will bounce off the walls if people make the same mistake twice. And I like doing it. Seeing someone walk up to a task they were scared of, or unsure of, and succeed is like sweet honey in my mouth. Seeing a team form under my guidance and get something done is as good as good sex. Having a meeting finish in half an hour and tick off some tasks and clearly set out a few more is like scoring a goal (and I hate meetings I don’t chair that drone on and on and on).

However, there are parts of my job that I am also very good at that I don’t like at all. I have a reputation for fixing organisations. Taking a bunch of broken bits and reforming it into a slick operation. The reason I moved offices was to do this yet again. Oddly I’ve moved from managing about 500 to less than 100 (though I retain nominal authority for the last department). Problem is it’s a critical component of our current strategy, and it just ain’t working at the moment.

So in sweeps the nice guy with an axe. I love it when I’ve got out the other side and have a group of motivated challenged people. Getting them there is a hard slog. I don’t hate all of it, but inevitably the irrefutable logic of organisation means that their employment is no longer required, that they are redundant. I hate that term, back in Canada we called it “layed off”. Though I don’t normally approve of PC language, telling someone they are redundant is unnecessarily cruel.

Over the years I have made many many people redundant. Its not a statistic I am at all proud of, so I can’t give you an exact figure, but its certainly over 500. I don’t remember names, but I remember each meeting. Some are jubilant, most curiously are professionally accepting, a few are sad, and then there’s the angry bunch. Very few of the last actually, but enough.

Its all in how you do it. I use my four criteria. You definitely keep the one’s who are good at it and love what they do. By good I don’t just look for the stars, but those that are just competent also. You can mix in a few good at it but hate it, so long as you see a way to migrate them into good at it and love it. Never, ever keep any bad at it and hate it.

Quite curiously I tend to find a lot of those in a failing organisation. When things start to go bad, you tend to loose the really good performers first, and the bad performers last. Usually people know when they’re fucking up, and get scared. Even if they hate the job, they think its better to stay then go out into the big bad scary world. I think its better the devil you know doing its work.

So, after a long torturous preamble, I mention it because I’m now digging into the organisation I’ve inherited. Its frankly, a mess. Bits of pieces of functions buried all over the company. I’m going to have to feret it all out, and merge it into one. That will mean re-organisation, which means people loosing their jobs. I can’t wait until we get to the good bits, when I get to mould a working happy team, but oh the path it takes to get there.

I’ve already identified a few that likely won’t survive. One in particular. He’s a really bright guy, and in many ways passionate about what he’s doing. Two strong plus points, problem is he’s a bit of an example of the Peter Principle in action, and is floundering. He’s become aggressively defensive, is blocking change, and winding up everyone around him. I have to give him a chance, see if he can change, but I fear I’m not wrong.

Its part of the job I’m good at, but hate.


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