Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You'll Do!

When I graduated from college many years ago, I went to work at Bell Labs, one of the pre-eminent R&D organizations in the world, during its glory days.  I worked there for about 20 years before moving on to a variety of smaller companies and individual consulting engagements. I learned a lot about engineering and professionalism during my time at Bell Labs from both good and bad role models. While you can learn a lot from both, and often even learn more from bad role models (see Learn From Good Role Models; Learn More From Bad!), the person who I learned the most from was an exceptionally good role model. John Sheehan (see photo) was one of my early managers and has had a profound impact on me as an engineer, a manager, and a person. His capabilities, outlook, and professional approach led him to deservedly rise to high positions in the Bell Labs organization. John remains a good friend and role model. John had an expression that was his guiding principle; one that I adopted and that has served me well. It is, Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you’ll do. It is an expression that can guide everyone who adopts it well, at work and in life.  I recommend it highly to everyone.

Let’s dissect this expression by discussing each of its parts.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Learn From Good Role Models; Learn More From Bad!

Throughout our careers we all have been exposed to a wide variety of people who have had both positive and negative influences on us, and knowingly or not, have served as good and bad role models for us. Most people feel that they can learn more from the good role models, and indeed the good role models set up behaviors to emulate, to learn from, and to pass on to others. However, it is my view that we actually learn more from the bad role models, for their misbehaviors hit us harder, and in a more visceral fashion that makes longer-lasting impressions.  The bad role models educate us in what we don’t want to be, and that can be extremely valuable if we recognize what we can really learn.

By no means do I want to minimize the valuable lessons that can be learned from good role models.  Good role models can teach you how to treat others, the value of integrity, how sound decisions are made, and much more (see Show True Professionalism). These good role model lessons should be taken to heart and put into your “behavior memory”. They should also be passed on so that others can learn these good role model lessons as well.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

No Job Is Hard For The Person Who Doesn't Have To Do It!

Do you remember, as I do, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation? In almost every episode Captain Jean-Luc Picard would encounter a horrific crisis, would seek some input and advice from his command crew regarding a virtually impossible solution, and then turn to his engineering staff or others and say, Make it so!, as if his simply saying this could make it happen, and of course it goes without saying, they are to “Make it so!” within an incredibly short timeframe (by the end of the episode). But no job is hard for the person who doesn’t have to do it!  It then falls on the engineers or others to try to make sense of the often ridiculous demands, impossible requirements, or unattainable timeframes and to try to turn the Captain’s “commands” into realities.

How often do you see similar situations occurring in the workplace? A person with no concept of what’s involved comes in and demands that a complex job be done within an impossible timeframe. That person then leaves the room, and subsequently yells and screams when things don’t happen as he/she imagines them. When you try to inject some reality into the situation, to explain the technical difficulties with his/her demands, or the time it will actually take to accomplish what is requested, this person does not want to hear it. The demand has been set, and it is your task to “Make it so!”  It’s easy for them to say, but often darn near impossible for mere mortals who actually have to do the work. This has always been a pet peeve.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pigasus - When Pigs Fly!

Have you ever heard of “Pigasus, the famous flying pig!”? At one point in my career I got involved with a great group of people on a number of projects. While the projects were exciting and challenging, we recognized they had many potential obstacles that made achieving our goals of highly desired features, functionality, and timely delivery optimistic, to say the least.  People would ask us whether we felt we would be able to reach our aggressive goals, and our response would often be, “Sure, when pigs fly!”  But we didn’t really mean that. We felt, cockily, that we could achieve our goals despite the obstacles. In fact, to “prove” it (or, more accurately, to further demonstrate our cockiness) we even adopted a mascot for our department, the aforementioned “Pigasus, the famous flying pig!”. One member of our group (actually the wife of one of the members of our group) found a large stuffed pig and sewed large fluffy wings on it, and it was hung from the drop ceiling in my office (I was the department head at the time) to illustrate that we could make pigs fly! Cocky indeed! With hard work and high spirits we attempted to do everything we believed we could to achieve the stretch goals we had set for ourselves, and we succeeded more often than not. This was an approach and outlook that I have tried to foster throughout my career, and I recommend it highly, with caveats to be described below. It can make work fun, challenging, demanding, and exciting, and encourage people to eagerly look forward to going to work and doing great things.

So what does it take to build an environment where people love what they’re doing and achieve great things? How can you foster such an environment?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Know When To Fold 'em

We all start out in new jobs with great anticipation and excitement, hoping that the new position will be the long-term opportunity that will achieve our highest desires and lead to ever-increasing opportunities for growth, contribution, and perhaps even promotion. Many people do indeed find their new position to provide everything or at least much of what they’re looking for, and feel content. However, for others the initial glow and promise wears off sooner or later, and disappointment grows and discontentment and frustration begins to set in. It is often a difficult task to fairly evaluate whether the better option is continuing with what you know, which has become an increasingly frustrating job, or looking elsewhere for new opportunities that better match you and your goals in life. There is an old Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler, with the refrain, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run.”  For most jobs, this refrain is surprisingly applicable. How do you determine when you’ve been dealt a bad hand or worse? When you reach a point of sufficient discontentment, this is something that you need to give careful thought.

I’ve directly experienced all four portions of this refrain across my career and have some thoughts about each. Let’s take each portion of the refrain and expand on what they can mean in a workplace environment: