Tag Archives: management

In praise of the ebullient worker

1985-ozzie-smith

Ozzie Smith doing his thing at the 1985 World Series (source: Sports Illustrated)

Have you ever worked with someone like Ozzie Smith?

Before really big games, the Hall of Fame shortstop delighted his fans and teammates by doing backflips on the field. In every game he played, his gestures and body language made it clear that he was enjoying himself. His joy spread to everyone who watched him — except, maybe, fans of the opposing team.

Have you ever worked with someone who delights in their work and spreads joy through the workplace? If so, you’re lucky. There are far too few people like that. I call them the ebullient workers.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about:

  • The clowns, who love jokes and pranks but never take anything seriously and can’t be counted on to pull their weight. A clown’s act might be appealing at first, but before long it becomes stale — no matter how good the jokes are.
  • The showoffs, who take delight in their work but at the expense of rival workers or even teammates. The showoff’s delight isn’t really in their work — it’s in proving that they’re better than everyone else. Instead of sowing unity, showoffs sow division.

If you’re an ebullient worker

Good for you. Keep it up. You might ask “Keep what up?” because your ebullience just comes naturally. You have a rare gift of bringing light and life to the workplace. Don’t let anybody or anything — frowning colleagues, disapproving bosses, a stifling corporate culture — extinguish it.

Sometimes, unfortunately, that means that you’ll need to find another place to work. That’s a steep price to pay, but it beats losing the passion you bring to your job every day. Continue reading

Seeing the deep-space view

Do you recognize the bright stars in this scene? You’ve almost certainly seen them: they’re the 3 stars of Orion’s belt. But I’ll bet you’ve never seen them like this.

The photo, featured last week as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, is a composite of several long-exposure images taken from a remote location in the Canary Islands.

In this deep-space view you can see the 3 familiar stars along with hundreds of fainter stars and other structures like the Orion Nebula and (near the leftmost of the 3 stars) the Horsehead Nebula and the Flame Nebula.

If you go outside right now and look at Orion’s belt, whether or not you can see anything besides the 3 stars, all of that other stuff is there too. It’s always there, even though it might be hidden from the observer.

The deep-space view

I’ve found that the professional world is the same way. Whenever I look at a situation involving people and projects on the job, I can be sure there’s more than what I can see at first glance.

Here’s an example: In a former job I chatted with a manager who’d recently been hired to run one of my company’s branch offices. She was glad to be there, she said, and anxious to start improving processes and efficiency. She was already sure that the writing team at that location would need training in the tools and processes. Continue reading

Think you’re smarter than your boss?

Awhile back, Amy Gallo wrote in the Harvard Business Review about What to Do If You’re Smarter than Your Boss. I recommend Amy’s article because it’s really about what to do if you think you’re smarter than your boss.

There were two instances in which I thought I was smarter than my boss. Both times, it turned out I was wrong.

Walt: the rustic

Walt (not his real name) was a born-and-bred Southerner, with an easygoing style a and an accent straight out of Mayberry. Still in my twenties, having just moved to North Carolina from “up north,” I quickly pegged him as a rustic.

Walt managed another team at first, but in time I was moved over to his team. I actually thought that while he was nominally the boss, I could pretty much handle things as I saw fit and he’d never be the wiser. (I was a cocky young pup, wasn’t I?)

Once I began working for Walt, and I was able to see him close-up, things changed. Continue reading

When a good worker struggles

This one’s personal. It’s the story of one of the biggest leadership challenges I’ve ever faced: a good employee whose performance declined but who didn’t (or couldn’t) admit that she had a problem.

Broken pencilsJenny (not her real name) was one of the best pure writers who ever worked for me. She came to me highly recommended, with a history of success both at work and outside of work. When she joined our project, her subject-matter experts quickly came to love her: she was congenial, she asked good questions, and she respected their time. She showed enthusiasm and a positive, can-do attitude.

Soon after we began working together, Jenny told me that she was going through a difficult divorce and adjusting to life as a single mom. She needed a flexible schedule, to accommodate the kids’ activities. We agreed that she could do much of her work at home and in the evenings. I avoided scheduling meetings and important calls in mid-afternoon when she picked up the kids at school. The arrangement suited everyone, at least for a while.

Then she started missing deadlines. She’d assure me that a chapter would be finished by Friday. Then on Friday she’d ask if it could wait until Monday, promising to work over the weekend.

I asked her if things were OK, if she could use some help. The answer was always the same: I’ve got this. I can handle it.

But she wasn’t handling it. Continue reading

Corporate culture: Finding your way

Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Break out the Champagne! My favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles, just clinched the championship of the American League East Division for the first time in 17 years.

This team is a pleasure to watch because it reminds me of the successful Oriole teams of my childhood. For those teams, the watchword was the Oriole Way. At a time when the phrase corporate culture probably hadn’t been invented, the Orioles had a corporate culture — and it was encapsulated in the Oriole Way.

The Oriole Way can simply be defined as playing baseball the right way. The classic Oriole teams were built on stout pitching and strong defense. But mostly, they rarely beat themselves by making mistakes. Continue reading

Career Tips from the Old Ballpark

This weekend marks the anniversary of the best baseball game I ever saw in person, at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium. It taught me some lessons about handling tough situations on the job.

Baseball card of Lenn SakataAfter rallying to tie the score in the ninth inning, the Orioles had no one left to play catcher. So in the top of the tenth, they put utility infielder Lenn Sakata into the game at catcher — a position he’d never before played in the major leagues.

That’s Lesson 1: Be flexible. You never know what need might arise. When it does arise, strap on the catcher’s gear and perform with as much grace as you can muster. Who knows? It might turn out OK. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll know that gave it your best shot.

Toronto Blue Jays’ batter Barry Bonnell reached first base and, no doubt thinking it would be easy to steal second with the inexperienced Sakata behind the plate, took a big lead. Pitcher Tippy Martinez picked him off.

The next batter, Dave Collins, walked. He took a big lead off first base, and Martinez picked him off too.

Then Willie Upshaw singled. As he took his lead off first base the fans began chanting “pick him off.”

Which brings us to Lesson 2: Don’t be overconfident. Having seen two of his teammates get picked off and hearing the crowd chanting, why did Upshaw wander so far off first base? He must’ve been thinking It can’t happen to me.

Baseball card of Tippy MartinezIt did happen to him.

A successful pickoff in baseball is fairly rare. Picking off three in one inning, as Martinez did, is extraordinary. And of course it’s a record that’ll never be broken.

In the bottom of the tenth, Sakata came to bat with two outs and two men on base. You can guess what happened. Sakata, who weighed 160 pounds soaking wet and who’d hit just one home run all season, hit a three-run homer to win the game.

I was already a baseball fan for life. That night, watching from the upper deck in Memorial Stadium, I became an Orioles fan for life.

And so Lesson 3: You never know who might be watching. The Orioles gained a fan that night. Your handling of a tough situation might gain you the respect and even the admiration of a client or colleague — which will pay off later on.

Use the comments area to tell me you might’ve learned from this story. Or just tell me about a good ballgame you’ve seen.

Originally published, with slightly different content, on the SDI blog, 24 August 2010

When Your People Go their Own Way

There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.

– Attributed to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin

"Make way for Ducklings" statue showing ducks in a rowYou’re a good leader. You can explain how to get things done. You can persuade when necessary. Above all, you excel at leading by example.

So everyone on the team is in lock-step, working in perfect harmony and at maximum efficiency, doing things exactly as you envision them being done. Right?

Wrong. It doesn’t always go that way. If you’re like me, it hardly ever goes that way.

People have the darnedest habit of doing things their way instead of your way. It’s not because they can’t take direction or because they won’t take direction. It’s because they’re people.

So what does it mean when your people go their own way? Continue reading

Ripples in a pond: short-term savings, far-reaching results

ImageMy colleague Kai Weber penned a cautionary tale about what happens when a company regards technical communication as a task rather than as a profession.

In Kai’s tale, programmers and testers are brought in from other parts of the company to help update a software product — and then they’re called on to write the documentation as well. The quality of the doc suffers, and customers complain that much of the doc focuses on features and reference information rather than on how to use the product.

Having given in to the “seduction” of reducing costs in the short term, management now finds that the product’s documentation is hard to use and impossible to maintain.

Kai’s story is all too true. I’ve seen it happen. Allow me now to write the next chapter.

Continue reading

Keeping things dangerous

We project managers tend to think in absolutes. There are two ways to do something: the right way, and all the other wrong ways. So, for example, software has to be released according to a carefully crafted schedule. The schedule has to include time for rigorous QA testing. And so forth. That’s the right way, and all the other ways are wrong.

Or are they? Continue reading

The Year without Pants: A terrific story

Book coverWhen Scott Berkun went to work for WordPress.com, it was an experiment. WordPress, which had about 50 employees at the time, wanted to see what would happen when it formed teams from a completely flat organization (no bosses, no subordinates). Berkun wanted to see what would happen when he applied his management experience, honed by nearly a decade at Microsoft, to an organization that was profoundly un-Microsoftlike.

What happened was The Year without Pants, in which Berkun relates his experiences Continue reading