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.