So You Just Got Promoted, Part 2

This is the second and final installment of everything I found that worked about managing teams from three decades in the Fortune 500 world. If you are reading this then you probably read the first part, but if not then please check out Part 1 to get the complete picture.

As detailed in my previous post the reason I decided to post this was because a former employee had recently looked me up just to tell me she had modeled her career after mine. She told me I was the best boss she had ever had and she wanted her team to love their work the way my team had back in the day when she was an intern. That was pretty awesome to hear! It also fits into this community to suggest ways to get ahead at work because promotions and salary increases will speed your way to FI or FIRE.

In the first post I covered how critical it is to not only treat every team member as your equal but to really believe it, or get another job! I covered how your function is no longer to produce a ton of work but to equip, inspire and lead your team to produce multiple amounts of work. Also how important it is to hire talent because having a world class team is what will lead to personal success. Finally, I covered fighting for your team when it comes to raises, training and even when facing layoffs.

But there is a lot more to cover so here it is!

Teach your team that customers come first. Our team was composed of graduate engineers and engineering student interns. We did not deal with the end users of our products very much, the people that you would normally consider to be your customers. We did both the design on plant expansions and also solved technical problems that impacted the operations of the chemical plant. Also, since we were the “whiz kids” that could solve any problem that came up we acted as a sort of technical support department for the 500 or so other employees at our site and every difficult problem eventually got dropped on our desks with a plea for help. These were problems of our internal customers and not our own team’s problems and we were not given much guidance from above on how much time to spend on them.

I say all that to explain how we prioritized. We had assignments from my boss and his boss and then we had requests from all the other departments. So how did we decide what to do first? Obviously you do what your boss requests first, right? Wrong! I strongly encouraged my team to put the requests from those without the authority to demand action ahead of the demands from the top.

I decided to place the requests from other departments (our internal customers) as the top priority for myself and my team. It may sound crazy to prioritize a request from a junior accountant in another department over a directive from the plant manager or the vice president he worked for but that is exactly what we did. We also got the boss’s work done, early if possible, but we jumped on the lower level requests first. Most of those requests were short term in nature and it proved surprisingly easy to get them out of the way without derailing the important big projects we were assigned.

What did that accomplish? We made friends because we bailed people out of trouble on a timely basis when they knew we didn’t have to. There is nothing as important as trust and gratitude in a business environment and we built both by showing we valued coworkers by prioritizing their requests. Was there a downside? Yes, because to avoid being late on deadlines from upper management we sometimes had to stay late to solve all the lower tiered internal customer issues. Was it worth it? I think so. Of the eight engineers in my former team, and the interns, most of them are now vice presidents, or manage large departments and are making medium to high six figure salaries. Some have retired early like me. I rose to the top job in the company by the time I was 41 by being promoted past the other department managers even though they were all ten to twenty years older than me. And they were, by and large, happy for me because of the trust and affection my team had earned. This concept is not taught in college and is not obvious to most people so it is an easy way to separate yourself from other team leaders if your team has internal customers. Most people think that you get promoted because of talent. That’s only partially true. The most important factors in getting bigger paychecks and promotions are how much the decision makers above you trust you and how much they like you. The fact is they are constantly evaluating your brand among your coworkers in determining how promotable you are. If they see you are well liked and trusted by other teams then you are on your way.

Lead by example. Part of the work in our team was dividing the large chemical complex into separate areas and having each team member responsible for about one hundred million dollars of process equipment and the products it produced. In the past the team leader, always a former team member, would not assign himself part of the plant, he’d just assign his old area to someone else on the team when he promoted to team manager. I didn’t do that. I kept my old area assignment because I did not want to lose touch with that important part of what my team members did. There was a fair amount of tedious record keeping and data analysis that went with optimizing the operations of your part of the facility and when there were operating problems you were sometimes called out on nights, weekends or holidays to get the “ox out of the ditch.” That isn’t so much fun but it is way more tolerable when you see your boss doing it too. I not only came out when my part of the plant messed up but I also came out when theirs did. Sure, I had to work some extra hours, but not that many and we really bonded when they saw I had their backs, no matter what. It also kept me from saving the “cake” work for myself and delegating the “crap” work to my team. Most team leaders do way too much of that. The results were it gave me a loyal team that respected and protected me.

Teach your team all your tricks and tips. I was one of those lucky people who fit my job like a hand in a glove. I never had to work very hard, it just all sort of flowed on its own. A lot of the “secrets” of being successful were obvious to me but not always to every team member I had. I made it a mission to share everything I could to help my people succeed. Things like the knowledge that most of the credit you got on a project was not determined by the quality of your work. Sounds a little insane, right? What I mean is that the quality of the project is judged not on the meat of the work but on the elegance of the presentation. One misspelled word in a report, one bad use of grammar in the presentation to management can destroy a hundred hours of flawless calculations. It is not fair but it is how the world works so I taught my folks to spend a lot of extra time triple checking the deliverables on their work. I’m a typo fiend, I can rarely read a novel by a leading author without finding at least one typo. They just jump off the page at me. (That said I’ll probably make one in this post!) We preached incessantly that perfection was the only acceptable level for the final presentation and I firmly believe that led to the stellar careers that my former team members are enjoying today.
We also encouraged everyone to have a buddy on the team that would proofread their reports and backcheck their calculations. That is just one example but there were dozens of technical tips that we shared freely. All of that was based on the fact that my team was not my competition, they were my launching pad to future success.

Help them go somewhere else if that is the best thing for them. I hired the best and our company did not have enough promotion opportunities to match the number of top level people I was training. That meant that some of them would get stuck at levels that would not let them reach their full potential. In those cases I encouraged some incredibly talented people to leave our company. Consequently I have friends all over the country in important positions, just like my intern that inspired this post. You are not doing your company a service by keeping talented people stuck below their true potential.
In other cases you may have a talented team member that wants to change direction within your company, maybe transfer to a sister facility or a completely different functional area, like marketing. You could view this as a personal loss and try to stop it or slow the process down but that is a mistake. You have to consider the opportunity from their position and do your best to make it happen if it truly will benefit them. I transferred out so much talent to other locations and departments that I felt like a training department. But that has given me a great network that makes some of my entertaining retirement side gigs possible today.
And then there is the rare situation when you have hired someone who just cannot do the job adequately. They are not bad workers but their skill set does not match the job. That is on you, not them, and you owe them your best efforts to move them to an area where they can excel. One of my young engineers was earnest and dedicated but the work was just outside his level of competence. Our projects were extremely complex and just because he had a chemical engineering degree did not mean he had a facile enough mind to keep up with the rest of the team. I was able to convince him to transfer to a very important department where mentally balancing multiple equations at the same time was not a requirement. He was hesitant but reluctantly agreed to the move. He was awesome at it and a few years later was running a major department in his new specialty at a sister facility. He would tell you now that it was the best thing that ever happened in his career. Many managers would have fired him and in so doing they would have thrown away a friend and a huge company asset.
Finally you need to fight to get your people promoted within your company, even if they may get ahead of you in the food chain. Of my two best team members over my career both first worked for me and I later worked for them and then finally one worked for me again. We stayed friends through it all and did our best to promote each other’s careers. There are many twists and turns in a career, some people see it as a fail when they do not get every possible promotion. But if you trust and appreciate a team member then when they win it is a win for you too because you trained them.

Have fun! This is pretty big. In fact my intern that modeled her leadership style after mine remembers the fun we all had more than anything else. It was little things like constant pranking. Not mean spirited, nothing gender specific and mostly nerd humor but we had a blast. I remember in the early days of powerful personal computers we had a big new one arrive and it had an odd quirk in that the wiring to the speakers would actually receive radio signals. This was a bug and not a feature. If you touched the case in a certain place you became part of an antennae and the radio broadcast of one particular station would come through very audibly but if you moved your hand it would revert to silence. I decided to convince one of my team members that all computers had a radio built into them (this was before wifi so they definitely did not have radios in them). I wrote a piece of ridiculous code that did nothing except send random things to the screen and I got my team member to come watch. I’d run the program, which did nothing, and then touch the case without him noticing and the music would play. I gave him a copy of the “program” and he spent days trying to figure out why he couldn’t get any other computer to receive radio stations. It was hilarious watching him try to convince others he could turn their PC’s into a radio. OK, you’d have had to be there. But we operated like a family, we went on vacations together and had mutual hobbies in the department with team members. We helped each other move, went to family events and genuinely liked each other. The most common sound heard in our part of the building was loud laughter, it is my best memory of those days!

So that is it for what I learned in three decades of working with teams. A few paragraphs does not look like much but there really is a pretty narrow space between a successful, highly paid career and an average one. I had the former and so did most of my team members and I sincerely believe the few concepts I shared here made all the difference in the world.

Down Six Figures in Six Days

I was feeling a little smug last week, have to admit that. My net worth and my investment portfolio were closing in fast on new all time highs! My spouse and I were heading out on a two day drive to Breckenridge CO for some skiing and there were no worries to be found. Now back in the condo after a day of glorious powder I checked the market and to be mild it dropped like a boat anchor today. Added to last week’s losses my investments are $110,000 lower than they were one week ago. Fortunately as a slightly early retired couple our portfolio is less than half equities so the loss could have been much higher. My brother, also slightly early retired looks like a genius because he texted me last Tuesday that he was going to cash with a big part of his portfolio and he got the trades made right before things started to go mideval on my net worth.

Most of you have experienced something similar as investors these last few days. You may be early on in your journey to FI and if so rejoice! You lost little and will get some discounted prices. Or you may be already at FI and already early retired and this market bobble might be a particularly hard sting to your peace of mind. That is precisely where I am and I watched myself react to see if I really believed all the things I’ve said to others about investing. And…I passed. I actually got a wry smile on my face when I checked the indices for a couple of reasons. First because I’m not losing anything if I don’t sell. And second because my portfolio is diversified, doesn’t have exaggerated cap weighting and can handle a blip, or a correction or even a historic bear market. And I have to say I was pretty happy I didn’t have any exposure to crypto currency just now.

So is this a speedbump, a genuine correction starting or is the fabled bear coming out of hibernation to visit? Nobody knows, it is fair to say that as of Monday afternoon on the 5th of February, 2018 Wall Street looks to have another down day tomorrow. If the futures markets are correct, there is already blood in Tuesday’s streets. But profits are strong, the tax package will make them even stronger so there is every chance this is just a speed bump in another good year or two of equity growth. However price to equity ratios are quite high and the bond interest rates appear to be creeping toward business borrowing depressing levels so that’s a downside. Of the many indicators out there of future prosperity you can find one you like if you look hard enough.

The real question to ask yourself that you can actually answer is how did you react to the market suddenly acting like it has always acted, outside of the last few years? Were you OK with the way it felt, did it make you feel good about your investment strategies and your FI or FIRE plans? Or were you distraught and kicking yourself because you weren’t my brother and weren’t able to time the market with precision? This little slice of history is a perfect time to evaluate your risk tolerance. If you can’t avoid a knee jerk reaction to unexpected market moves then perhaps you need to reevaluate your plan. Personally when I made my own investment decisions I found days like today caused me angst, pain and fear. Now that I have three managers handling parts of my portfolio and I’m hands off my own money I felt no real pain at all. Today might be the day that some of you decide to turn to a financial planner or a financial advisor yourself, or it might be the day you take your money back into your own hands to manage.

It would be interesting to know what the last few days felt like to you. And whether that provided you an insight into your own thoughts about your journey to financial independence and perhaps early retirement. Please let me know. Now as for me I’m expecting 10 to 15 inches of fresh powder tomorrow here in Breck, something that the weather guys are actually fairly decent at predicting. Maybe we should let them try to model the stock market?

So You Just Got Promoted! Part One

So you just got promoted and now you are leading a team. First, congratulations! One of the fastest ways to FIRE is to accelerate your income and one of the fastest ways to do that is to move up into the management ranks. As someone who did just that during a corporate career ending up with over seven hundred employees on my teams, I intended to someday share the things I learned and borrowed that seemed to work.

But I did not plan to make this post so early in my fledgling blogging career until something happened a couple of weeks ago that changed my plans. A profoundly meaningful event overtook me by surprise. It had nothing to do with the new year of 2018 or resolutions or goals. Instead it reached back twenty years or more into my past.

A friend was in town, an engineer who had briefly worked for me as an intern at the plant when she was still in college getting her chemical engineering degree. I was in my first management position in those days running a group of eight young engineers and a few paid interns. Since graduation she has worked at a major chemical corporation out of state but she was back in our little town visiting family and friends. She had looked me up just to tell me in person that she was now managing a young group of engineers and interns very much like mine when we worked together.

But what she said next was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten, something unexpected and wondrous. She said that she loved her job and that her model and her daily goal was to lead her team exactly the way I had led mine. She said that it was so much fun it didn’t seem like work at all to be a part of our team. She said that I was the best boss she had ever worked for and she just wanted me to know. That’s big to me, so affirming!

I hate opening this post this way because I know it sounds like the least humble brag imaginable and that isn’t my point. I’m thrilled to get feedback that I was not a terrible manager, it is the kind of thing that lights us older guys up in a way I could not begin to communicate to a younger version of myself. But the reason for the story is that it spurred me to take some time to ask myself, why was that such a great time in my life and hers? What exactly did I do as a manager to not suck the life out of my people and to not kill their spirits as seems to be all too common then and now?

I think any ideas I can share within this community on leading and managing teams and departments could be useful stuff for young millennials entering into management for the first time. So here is everything I can remember that worked to create a little happy and successful Camelot of a department of incredible young professionals. Very few of these are Steveark originals, I tried to steal from only the very best.

This got kind of lengthy so I’m putting in two parts, here is Part 1.

Treat Everyone as an Equal

Sure you just got promoted to be the boss/leader/manager but why would you think that makes you of any higher value than the newest or least paid employee in the company? It doesn’t, all that promotion means is that the bar just got raised for you and now you need to step up your game to an even higher level than the one that got you promoted in the first place. It is a verifiable fact that everyone on your team knows some things that you don’t know and is better at some parts of the job than you will ever be. Do not ever see yourself as being better than your team, you just have a different job description. It is not just a matter of what you do, you have to believe in your core that your team members are just as valuable and their hopes and dreams and fears matter just as much as yours do. You cannot fake this, if you don’t feel this deep in your heart then you need to find another job.

Hire Talent, You Cannot Teach It
I don’t care if you are Nick Saban (arguably best college football coach ever even if I am an Arkansas fan), you cannot win with a team of “C” class players. Happy productive teams need “A” class talent, not in every position but in most of them. This can be tough because as a new manager you probably did not get to hire your team, they were already there. But over time you may get to have some say in bringing new people in. Realize that picking talented people that can play nicely with others is the most important thing you can do to win in the corporate world. Your future promotions depend far more on the talent of your team than they do on your own talent.

Understand Your Job
As the team leader your job is no longer the job that got you promoted. It is perverse and counter intuitive at first, I know, but your job is to get excellence out of your team and most likely that will limit the amount of work product you get to produce yourself. That can be frustrating because you know you are good, it is why you got put in charge, and now you do not have time to spend on what you were so good at. Frustrating, sure, get over it! Once you learn to focus on building the capability of your team and improving the quality and quantity of their work and their overall enjoyment of the team’s mission and their engagement with the company they will absolutely blow the tiny amount of work you used to be able to produce on your own out of the water. When it is working like it should some days on your commute home you will realize you did not do any work at all. You just helped others get their work done, that is when you know you have got it going on!

Fight for Your People
If you are getting this then you now realize that your success is no longer going to be based on your ability to produce work. It is completely in the hands of your team. That is what management and leadership is, getting sustainable results out of people. To do that you have to have a team that trusts you, loves you and wants to win for you. And to do that you have to be a leader that trusts them, loves them and wants them to win individually and together. So you fight to get them raises much harder than you fight to get one yourself. If you elevate them then your compensation will take care of itself generally. Give them full credit, maybe even too much credit for their work. Don’t you dare put your name on their work and pass it off as yours. If you have to have your name on the report or you have to give the presentation based on their work because of company protocol you make sure you write or speak the full name of the person who did the work and compliment the work they did in front of everyone at the meeting. You want the CEO to know you’ve got a talented team, it is the kind of thing that lights up young talent and makes them happy and it really helps when you are fighting to get them more money if the top dogs know who they are! And if worse comes to worse, which it will at times, fight to keep their jobs in the face of a layoff. Make a case as to why your team needs every member, let them hunt elsewhere for sacrificial lambs. You may not, probably will not win that fight but they are your people. Fight like they matter to you because they should.

Train Your Team
We sent every team member to at least one out of state seminar or class every year. Sometimes they went to several. I heard old guard managers grumble that if you train them that well then someone will want to hire them away. How incredibly ignorant that view is! People do not leave jobs because they have employable skills, they leave their jobs because they fear they are becoming unemployable. If you train them in the latest greatest of whatever it is they do then you give them the confidence that they can get a job anywhere. Paradoxically that makes it much less likely they will even look for another job. And it is not just the information they will learn that builds this confidence but the network they build from interfacing with other companies at these events.

The other thing we did, and I did steal this idea from a mentor, was to wait for the aging giants in our sector to retire from competitors or large engineering companies and then to hire them to come in and teach my young engineers the absolute best practices they had developed over their 40 year careers. I do not know of anyone else that did this but we gained incredible guidelines, principles, practices, procedures and ideas that we never could have come up with on our own. Every sector has a few Einstein’s and they are eventually retired by their companies. They often still feel they have useful knowledge and sometimes they are thrilled to feed young minds. We were careful to stay away from proprietary information and patents. I just wanted to expose my young padawans to Jedi masters and the way they thought. It was big! I am still sharing many of the ideas I was taught by these masters in my consulting side gigs today. And I still cannot fathom why more companies do not do this.

But Wait, There’s More!
Indeed there is and I’ll put it in a post in the very near future! The second and concluding installment of the very few things I may have done right in my early 9 to 5 career. But first I’m headed to Colorado to ski for a week, if I post from there it will probably be about new powder!