Managing change at the workplace

This article appeared originally in Gulf News: link to original article

I am not sure anything can prepare you for management. A few years ago, I had to do my first restructuring of a department, which included the unfortunate letting go of certain employees and the hiring of ones who were more suitable.

I also had to spend time documenting processes and deadlines for certain tasks, culminating eventually in the production of a manual that can be used by the next manager.

While this is not necessarily my cup of tea, I ended up having the right team in place to support me in achieving our goals, even though the manual collects dust as I write this article.

After more than three years in that department, I moved to a different one, where the same kind of work was also required. This time though, the department was almost twice as big with a much broader mandate, one that requires using every ounce of socialising that I have in me. I am, after all, a self-proclaimed “selectively social”.

In both cases, I found myself in positions unlike my previous roles that focused purely on economics and research, to ones that included managing teams in addition to that. Whether I have done a good job or not is for someone else to judge, but I surely did learn a lot from both experiences and still am.

What I have learnt, however, is contrary to what you read about in management books. Here’s why.

Some life lessons

* First, becoming a manager does not make you older by default, even if the responsibility for more than yourself can make you age much faster than your colleagues. Embrace that and get it out of the way as soon as you walk into a room so you can all move on with what you are there to achieve.

In that vein, I started almost every speech and conversation by saying: “I look young, but I am not 13 years old.” It works.

* Second, knowing who’s who is crucial, but it shouldn’t be a daily obsession or a hindrance to the actual work. Office politics are always going to be there, and an emotionally smart manager should be able to navigate those towards the greater interest of the organisation or the entity, without getting entangled in them.

* Third, do not feel bad for working smarter than everyone else. Everyone can work harder, coming into office before everyone else and leaving a couple of hours before bedtime. Instead, working smarter means that every second counts, which builds up into higher productivity from the same number of hours.

For instance, I almost never hold or attend meetings before 12 PM. My first three hours in office are my alone time, spent reading and thinking of new ideas, new proposals, and how to improve overall work. Exceptions are made only for urgent internal matters.

* Fourth, meetings are not important, despite the conventional wisdom of their importance. This is in no way a disregard of all meetings, but ones that have no clear agenda, mandate, and deliverables.

Notwithstanding what they would have you believe, you do not miss out on much when you skip pointless meetings. There’s work to be done and teams to manage, and that’s more worthy of your time and effort, even if you were accused of social seclusion.

* Fifth, hire the best, which may or may not include the brightest. Managing a place is the best classroom that you get paid to be in, and where you are given the flexibility to pick and choose who do you want to learn from. Therefore, the best teams are not necessarily the brightest, but ones that come from diverse backgrounds, are specialised in different fields, and work smart and hard to accomplish common goals and objectives.

Intellect is surely a bonus, as long as it’s constrained by humbleness and empathy towards other team members.

* Sixth, prepare a few possible successors to your position, and ensure that there are others to follow suit. There is nothing more frustrating than parachuting individuals into managerial positions, especially when many employees in that unit or department have been eyeing the same positions for years. As a manager, getting the buy in from employees, after being parachuted in twice, was one of the toughest challenges that I had to deal with.

* Seventh, departments and units are about teams, not managers. Managers are replaceable, and so are individual employees. Great teams are not.

* Eighth, employees do quit managers, not organisations. This is in fact one true observation from management principles and practices. It does not matter what great work is being done if team members are unhappy or are burnt out.

* Ninth, it is about the money. No one wants to work for free or be overworked and underpaid. While appreciation is key in acknowledging individual employees, the importance of career progression, both position and salary wise, cannot be emphasised enough.

* Tenth, good brewed coffee is more important than you think. Having it centrally positioned in the unit or department provides room for open debates and intellectual discussions, made easier by the availability of bean bags around the same area. We have now expanded our possessions of coffee machines to four, delivering all types of coffee drinks to coffee lovers with the sole exception of the infamous Spanish Latte. Sorry.

In conclusion, management is about hiring and keeping the best teams, all the while providing them with the best environment to interact and thrive. This includes good coffee and what it can do to a place. Great organisations are made by great teams with the right managers in place.

The last thought that I want to leave you with: How to deal with change in management every few years?