Friday, July 06, 2007

Leading Like a Third Grade Teacher

Leaders -- including business owners -- tend to have a "built in" weakness when it comes to communication. This is interesting because they also tend to have natural leadership skills.

Let me propose a three-tiered communication structure:

  1. Leaders / captains / owners
  2. Managers / lieutenants
  3. Staff / soldiers

Leaders tend to be strung a bit tight. So they are very active and want to tick through tasks very quickly. As a result, when they communicate, they tend to say something once, check it off the list, and move on.

Managers need to have a very different skill. When talking to leaders, managers need to say yes, no, or let's discuss that. They need to know how to stop the leader in his tracks, get his attention, make sure that communication is understood on both sides.

When talking to staff, managers need to present a clear message -- and present it over and over again. For example, telling technicians to fill out all the paperwork, document their time, and fill out Autotask at the end of each job. Why do they need to hear this again and again?

Staff (at least in our business) are very focused on doing the thing they were hired to do. They want to fix computers and apply security updates. They don't want to document networks and fill out time cards. This is natural. This is what you want. You can force habits upon them, but you can't change their nature.

They say that if you do something 40 times in a row, you'll have a new habit. That means exercising 40 days in a row. Or not smoking 40 days in a row. Or turning in a time card on time 40 weeks in a row. The problem with time cards is that we pay every two weeks. So you only have 26 per year. Which means it takes 1.5 years of turning in time cards on time for that to be a habit.

Good luck with that.

The point is, the manager/lieutenant must get in the habit of over-communicating with the staff. Leaders get very frustrated with this because leaders want to speak the words, check it off the list, and assume it will be done. A good manager knows that the staff are not "resisting" but merely doing what comes naturally. So she repeats the message again and again and again.

If your business looks like this:

  1. Leaders / captains / owners
  2. Managers / lieutenants
  3. Staff / soldiers

you can have some serious frustration. If the leader/owner does not have the patience to over-communicate, this environment can be very stressful for everyone.

In the example above, there's a "manager" layer between leaders and staff. If you have that layer, you need to find managers who can take specific instructions from above and translate into over-communication down below.

If you don't have that layer of managers, then you -- the leader -- need to start over-communicating.

Think about a third grade teacher. Do you think she ever gets tired of asking kids to stop talking, pick up that paper, clean up your desk, write legibly, don't throw things, etc.? I'm guessing she gets tired of that every single day. But that's what separates teachers from non-teachers. A true teacher simply accepts that this is part of the job. She doesn't yell or over-react.

And she doesn't think it will be different tomorrow.

A true teacher knows that this is simply part of the job.

A true manager needs to learn the same thing. If the leader/owner is the manager, he needs to learn the same thing. You need to over communicate. You need to repeat the same messages over and over and over. It's not wrong. It's not bad. Your people are not stupid. You've got a staff full of people who want to fix stuff.

They don't want to document. They don't want to fill out time cards. They don't want to schmooze with the clients.

If you're going to make this thing work, you need to accept that this behavior exists. Don't let it frustrate you or slow you down. Simply figure out how you're going to integrate this knowledge and move to the next level.

It is what it is.

So what do you do when it's time to hire a manager? Be careful and think before you leap.

Technical types have a tendecy to build "technocracies." That is, we somehow think that the top-level person has to be the most technically skilled. And the manager needs to be second best. And so on.

That tendency can get you in trouble, because a good technician may not be a good manager. Good managers need to be good communicators. They need to be patient. And they need to focus on improvements and people.

It's pretty rare for an owner-type to actually, honestly care about the little improvements that technicians make. Good managers, however, naturally see these improvements and are quick to point them out to technicians. In addition to encouraging further improvement, this also builds a bond. Technicians want to do all those things the manager asks.

The interesting irony is that the owner/leader wants to make a list and tick things off, and the technicians want to make a list and tick things off. But these two don't communicate well without without a lot of effort. The hardest job in any organization is to translate between these two.

You're truly blessed if you can find an uber-tech who can communicate with owners, technicians, and clients. Make that person a manager.

We've got one, and it has contributed to our success in the last year.

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