Jag Venugopal's Blog

August 30, 2012

Boss vs. Leader

Filed under: Management,Project Management — Jag @ 6:42 am

Via Michael Roberto and Bill Flemming’s interview comes this quote from Russell Ewing, a British journalist:

 “A boss creates fear; a leader, confidence. A boss fixes blame; a leader corrects mistakes. A boss knows all; a leader asks questions. A boss makes work drudgery; a leader makes it interesting. A boss is interested in himself or herself; a leader is interested in the group.”    

March 14, 2012

Phrases a manager likes to hear

Filed under: Management — Jag @ 6:36 am

Some time ago, I was speaking with a colleague about a certain manager, and the way to win his confidence. I suggested the following; it is true of all managers:

1. “Let me take care of that.”

2. “Its done; would you like to take a look?”

3. “I’ve given it some thought. Here is what I found out…”

As Stephen R. Covey cites as an example in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the key is to always be one step ahead of one’s manager, and anticipate what they will ask for next. And then, to be ready with it.

May 28, 2010

Plane re-routed and passenger had a memorable experience?!

Filed under: Business,Management — Jag @ 8:54 am
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A Southwest plane was diverted from Denver to Pueblo, CO owing to the weather. With the plane on the ground for a couple hours, the pilot decided to order in Little Caesar’s pizza for everyone on board. One passenger stated “We arrived in Denver four hours late, but [we] had a memorable experience!”.

Southwest never ceases to amaze me. Any other airline crew would have either been silent or quoted chapter, title and verse as to why the re-routing wasn’t their fault. This Southwest pilot on the other hand, spent a little company money (I’d wager it was a relatively very small amount), and bought his company a ton of goodwill with the public.  More at http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/23620842/detail.html

March 13, 2010

Interview Shenanigans

Filed under: Information Technology,Management,Project Management — Jag @ 12:00 am
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I recently encountered two instances of resume and interview fraud. What surprised me was the sheer obviousness of the deception; at the very least, the interviewees could have been more sophisticated.

In the first instance, I interviewed a candidate with an impressive resume of eight pages for a .NET developer’s contract. The responses of the candidate in the phone interview were very choppy. Someone who did not have to exaggerate or make up the resume would speak clearly and without hesitation about what they had done. Intrigued, I looked to see if they were on LinkedIn, and sure enough they were. This is where the fun began.

This candidate claimed that they were a senior software developer at a company. In their profile on LinkedIn, the same job was noted as that of a junior programming intern. Secondly, the candidate claimed to work for various companies on their resume that was not borne out by their LinkedIn profile. I can understand that some people do not completely flesh out their LinkedIn profile, but in this instance the candidate claimed to be working for one employer on their resume, and another on LinkedIn during the same time period. And before anyone emails me that the two putative employers might have had a prime/sub relationship, I need to state that they appeared to be from completely separate industries!

A second form of fraud relates to a technique borrowed from “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”: phone a friend. A recent individual I spoke with tended to pause for 20-30 seconds before answering any complex question. The answer would then roll out in an instant (its a different matter that the answer was still incorrect). This led me to believe that the person was interviewing with a helper either available by email or in the same room with them. The 30 second gap was the time it took for the helper to understand the question, and scribble an answer which the candidate could then read out aloud.

There was another curious situation in our hiring process. We asked an interview question of candidates from one agency; let’s call it “When would you use if-then-else statements?”. The actual question was different and more sophisticated, but this captures the point. Subsequent resumes from the agency started showing up with phrases of the form “over four years’ experience in if-then-else statements”. I kid you not! Clearly, said agency was debriefing its interviewees, and adjusting resumes still in the pipeline to reflect what was being asked, but this effort was way too obvious, and appeared disingenous.

In discussing these issues with a colleague, he recounted to me another episode. This colleague was the manager on a project that wound down some time ago (the “Amazing Widgets” project).  A while ago, he received a call from another project manager. This individual was considering hiring “Fred”, who had stated in his resume that he worked on the Amazing Widgets project. Apparently, the description was fairly detailed. The hiring PM wanted to find out how well Fred did on Amazing Widgets. As it turns out, Fred never worked on Amazing Widgets. We never knew how Fred was able to pack Amazing Widgets experience on to his resume. Our best guess is that he copied and pasted an entire chunk of on-the-job experience from a friend or colleague that actually worked on the project.

Unfortunately, such instances of falsehood and exaggeration set up an adversarial relationship between a potential employer and a candidate even before the courtship dance has begun. Rather than view a candidate as a potential partner in a shared cause, the interviewer now considers their mission to be one of unmasking a duplicitous adversary. The candidate is guilty of fraud and deception until proven innocent.

My recommendations to interviewers hiring candidates for either temp or perm positions are:

  • Always do a web search (Facebook and LinkedIn are places to start; also look in programming forums to see what kinds of questions are being asked by the candidate). A strong individual has participated in some forum or the other that’s in Google’s cache
  • Look for fluency in answers… a person who answers in a  very “choppy” style should immediately raise a red flag
  • Discuss projects in a random sequence, and keep repeating past questions. A practised interviewee will have trouble responding. A truthful interviewee will sail through
  • Don’t allow time for pauses between questions and answers in an initial phone screen, to prevent sight-unseen googling or “phone-a-friend”
  • Always conduct a face-to-face interview, even for temporary positions

And to potential candidates, my message is:  It might take you longer to land a gig when you don’t falsify or exaggerate, but the benefits are priceless; apart from the obvious question of morality, it is trivially easy to keep your story straight, if you’re telling the truth.

June 26, 2009

Critical Decision Making Audio Course

Filed under: Management — Jag @ 4:42 pm

This is a plug for an audio course titled “Art of Critical Decision Making” by Professor Michael Roberto. I’ve had the pleasure of taking his Strategy capstone class as part of my MBA at Bryant University. It was somewhat of a coup for Bryant, a well regarded small school in RI to get him from Harvard. His class was intense and interesting — never a dull or boring moment. Buy his course, you won’t be disappointed.

May 18, 2009

Is low turnover such a good thing?

Filed under: Management — Jag @ 10:09 pm
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When a company has close to zero turnover, is it necessarily a good thing? I’d reckon that a 20% or so turnover is not such a bad idea after all… on average staff will completely turn over every five years. The benefits of low turnover are obvious, but in some quarters, the costs may not be so obvious… some thoughts on the costs of low turnover:

  • The “we’ve always done it this way” syndrome
  • Formation of cliques that resist change
  • Groupthink. A belief in one’s corporate invincibility
  • Lack of new ideas, fresh thinking
  • If no one has left your company or your department in the last five years, is it because (a) you’re running one of the damnedest best departments (not likely) or you’ve attracted people that are not employable anywhere else at the wages you pay them?
  • Wasn’t anyone ever let go for poor performance?
  • If no one ever leaves, how do you promote your brightest performers? What if your organic growth is low?

Telecommuting

Filed under: Management,Project Management — Jag @ 10:08 pm
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These days, working from home is all the rage in employee benefits. Academic HR papers extoll the virtues of one company or the other allowing its employees to work from home, and how it has helped improve productivity at the company. Indeed research I and two of my MBA classmates conducted into Generation Y bears out these expectations.

What’s a manager, or a project manager to do? Can project work effectively occur from a remote location? How does communication work? How does team building work?

Some things to think about:

  1. If the work is of a routine operational nature, with well known, documented, easily measureable steps, then it is a slam dunk. You can monitor the process just as well from home as you can from work. Examples of such jobs in an IT setting might be a production DBA, infrastructure support, help desk, etc. Unfortunately project work by definition is unique, and does not lend itself well to such standardization.
  2. If the work is of a unique nature, where communication is key, performance metrics are not available or non-existent, and where team output is greater than the sum of the output of the individuals, working at home is not the answer. There is a lot to be gained from working together at one location, in an environment conducive to teaming (large open plan work areas, sufficient meeting space, lack of walls, etc).
  3. Even in a project environment, there is a certain proportion of desk time that each person needs to spend, free of disturbances. Such time can just as easily be spent from home with one big caveat… as long as there is trust that the person doing so will be as productive. I would recommend allowing your best performers to work a day or two per week from home, in recognition of their accomplishments. You’ll need to make it clear to all concerned at the outset that working from home is a privilege, to be granted (or withdrawn) at the manager’s discretion. Employees so choosing need to advertise their contact information (home or mobile phone numbers) and be expected to be on call via phone or email for the entire work day.
  4. If contractors are paid by the hour, then they need to work from the office. While I am a great believer in egalitarianism among all team members, this is where I draw the line. It is simply too difficult and time consuming to measure the output of a contractor making north of $100 an hour unless you clearly know at all times what you are getting for the money spent. If you’re a contractor, one way to work from home is to come up with some sort of a firm fixed price arrangement for work.

In summary, work-from-home arrangements need to be treated as a privilege for project team members, and an even rarer privilege, to be extended to contractors in rare situations where the trust factor is high. For operational jobs, as long as there are clear performance metrics, working from home does not seem to be an issue.

Truth and Candor on projects

Filed under: Management,Project Management — Jag @ 9:48 pm
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Why would I make such a big fuss of something as obvious? Its because I’ve seen experienced, well-meaning people break this rule so many times. This can take one of the following forms:
The project is falling way behind target, and the project manager is afraid of telling the truth. He resorts to telling the client that all is well while praying for a miracle to occur. Bob Wysocki calls this “hope creep”.

The project manager sees telling the truth as an admission of failure and spins the situation in any of a thousand different ways. The more vicious ones find a scapegoat — either another person or a linked project that is blamed as the cause of the delay.

The customer is pretty smart, and can inevitably figure out when your nose is growing longer. The customer may be irritated when you tell her that her project is going to take longer; but that is nothing compared to the harm you cause your credibility if you’re caught lying (and all liars are eventually caught). It takes some time and savvy to both tell the truth and survive long enough for the customer to know and appreciate your straightforward nature. But once the trust is built, it becomes a very powerful force in your favor.

Expectancy Theory of Motivation

Filed under: Management — Jag @ 6:52 pm
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When you want to motivate a team member to achieve a specific outcome, expectancy theory can help you in validating your motivational approach. A good description of expectancy theory can be found at http://www.uri.edu/research/lrc/scholl/Notes/Motivation_Expectancy.html.

Expectancy theory has three components:

  • Will the desired actions lead to good performance? (e. g. “If I work 60 hours per week for the next three weeks, will that lead to a successful completion of the project, or is it wasted effort?”)
  • Will the good performance lead to a desired outcome? (e.g. “If I work really hard and this project is successful, will I be rewarded at the end?”)
  • What is the value of the desired outcome to the individual? (e.g. “If I work really hard and make this project successful, I may get a 3% raise where otherwise I would have got a 2% raise. Is the extra effort worth the rewards to me?”)

Keeping in mind the three components of expectancy theory provides the project manager a tool to understand the right approaches to motivation of team members. Because many of the valuable desired outcomes are not under the direct control of the project manager (e.g. salary raises, bonuses, time off, etc), line managers will need to closely support the project manager in the motivation of team members.

Where project managers are not empowered to provide motivational outcomes, team motivation suffers, it is usually the poor project manager who gets blamed for it. In reality, creating the right conditions for a motivated team is a shared responsibility between the project manager and the line manager, working together.

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