Weekly Reid: 4 Ways Managers Can Reduce Pressure

There is a special kind of pressure reserved only for managers. It’s the pressure that comes from being accountable for people and projects you don’t control … not fully at least. I’ve developed five habits designed to reduce the probability of high stress situations occurring and to handle stress more effectively when they inevitable emerge. I should note, I’m not including practices like mediation, yoga, exercise and diet which are all natural stress relievers. In this blog, I’m going to focus on specific business practices you can introduce that will destress your professional life. 

Here are 4 Ways Managers Can Reduce Pressure and Stress

1. Score Yourself on a Longer Time Horizon

If you evaluate your performance on a moment to moment basis, you can drive yourself crazy. I first learned this lesson trading stocks. If you fixate on every movement up and down, you can miss the big picture entirely. You get antsy. You make rash decisions. You don’t let things take their natural course. It almost always pays to take a step back and assess your performance once a month or once a quarter vs. every hour or every day.

I still struggle with this one. But when I look back at most of the times I’ve been stressed out at work, I really didn’t need to be. Things worked out after a little time had passed. In retrospect, I expended a lot of negative energy fighting against stresses that were largely self-imposed and temporary. My advice to managers is to score yourself on a wider time frame. Resist the temptation to draw conclusions about how you’re doing on a day to day basis. Do a monthly or quarterly check in with yourself and take corrective actions based on the bigger picture. It’s must less stressful and more effective.

2. Treat Your Team Like Partners

You hear managers talk about treating their team members like partners, but it’s frequently just talk. It’s much more common for managers to direct the team and hold them accountable for results. In my experience, that model actually creates more stress. By operating in this way, you place yourself at the pinnacle of the pressure pyramid. All stress rolls up to you.

When you treat your team members like partners – where you undertake projects together – any pressure that exists is diffused across everyone. You all take a share of the pressure which reduces any one person’s individual burden. Moreover, when you partner and collaborate with your team, there are fewer stress creating surprises since you’re involved every step of the way.

My advice to managers is to work with your team on projects vs. directing from afar. The impact, in my experience, is higher quality outputs, a more engaged team, and much less stress for you.

3. Involve Your Boss Earlier

This one is really the inverse of the previous one so I won’t spend too much time on it. Long time readers have heard me recommend this approach before. There is very little more stressful than working on a project in isolation for an entire month and then presenting it to your boss for feedback … cold. This is a super high risk way of managing your career and places a ton of unnecessary pressure on you. Some managers, ostensibly to demonstrate independence, try to minimize how much they involve their boss in projects. I do the opposite.

By engaging your boss earlier in projects, you de-risk and de-stress the outcome. Your boss, by virtue of being involved, assumes a measure of accountability for the project and becomes personally invested in a positive outcome. The likelihood of surprise or a negative result goes down considerably. And even if the result is negative, your boss will take on a share of the responsibility. This should lead to less pressure on you and fewer unsuccessful projects.

4. Create a “No Surprises” Culture

It’s one thing for you to commit to treating your team members as partners and involving your boss earlier and more often. It’s another thing entirely to get others around you to do the same. Teams that adopt a “no surprises” culture tend to have more successful projects and way less stress. Here are a few easy things you can implement on your team to encourage this philosophy:

Weekly full team standups to stay aligned and aware across groups

Pre-launch and pre-presentation reviews to reduce mistakes or surprises

Adopt a “who else needs to know” mantra when new information is created

Getting your entire department to embrace a no surprises mindset is a win for everyone. Nobody likes to be embarrassed. Nobody likes to worry about being surprised. These are major sources of stress. Building a culture that fights against this can go a long way to reducing pressure on you and your team.

These techniques have worked well for me this year as I’ve started a new job with a new team. I’d love to hear your approaches to controlling pressure and stress at work.

The Right and Wrong Way to Make an Impact at Work

Even though we all want to make a positive impact when starting something new, our actions often have the exact opposite effect. Let’s start by talking about the two most common approaches and look at why they tend to backfire.

#1 – Listen-only Mode

I realize this one might strike a chord with many of you. “Listen-only mode” is an extremely popular approach when starting a new job or joining a new team. Most people speak of it in a very positive manner and I understand why. The reason many of us gravitate towards “listen-only mode” is that we feel we should listen and understand before inserting our opinions with enthusiasm. There’s good logic behind this thinking. We’ve worked with people who recklessly dove in and started making decisions and voicing strong views when they had no idea what they were talking about. I totally get it.

The problem with operating in listen-only mode is that you’re not really contributing. You’re not adding any value. You’re not building a strong reputation or position for yourself either. You’re just watching. Listening and observing for many weeks or months in a row, reminding everyone you’re “new here” actually puts a great deal of pressure on you to deliver something hugely positive when the listening period ultimately ends. Instead of regularly adding value and delivering wins along the way, you’re architecting a situation where you need to deliver really big when the moment finally comes. And if that doesn’t work out then what?

In my opinion, the listen-only approach is far too passive and is rooted in a false assumption that the only options when starting a new job are to listen passively or to direct aggressively. It’s actually a pretty risky starting strategy masquerading as the safe play. Later in the article I will introduce a third option which allows you to make a strong positive impact without having to be reckless.

#2 – Full Steam Ahead

This is the opposite of starting a new job in “listen-only mode”. Some of us, because we so dearly want to make an impact, just dive right in. We start fast. We want people to know we mean business. Deep down inside we’re uncomfortable because we don’t have years of reputation built up at this new company. It feels like we need to sprint until we’re on solid footing again. And so we make big, sweeping moves immediately. We introduce new programs and policies right out of the gate. We hire and fire as fast as we can. We bring stuff from our last job and force it on the new company and team. We move fast … recklessly even.

Just as I understand the rationale for the “listen-only” approach. I also understand why people dive in with reckless abandon. I know exactly what it feels like to leave a place where you had a solid reputation and track record only to have to start from scratch somewhere else. You feel naked. It feels like you need to build up credit as fast as possible so you can afford to make a mistake down the road. It feels like a daily audition for the first 6 months or so. I totally get it.

The problem comes when your desire to make a big impact manifests as grandstanding or recklessness. I once joined a company as a Marketing leader and tried to change the corporate messaging within the first 3 months. I was “sure” I knew what the right strategy was. I pushed hard and implemented it. A year later I realized I actually had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t fully understood the market or the products or the customers. In reality I was lucky it didn’t cost me my job.

When you push too hard, too soon, you can also alienate the people who will be most influential to your success. Your peers, your boss, your key staff members. You push too hard. You step into areas outside your expertise. You make strong moves without the benefit of context. If you’re not careful you can end up making the exact opposite kind of impact you set out to make in the first place.

Many of us assume (incorrectly) that “Listen-only” and “Full steam ahead” are the only two options available when staring a new job or joining a new team. This is a false dichotomy. There is another option that will allow you to make a meaningful impact without behaving recklessly or putting the business at risk.

#3 – Targeted Win Facilitation

The main reason I don’t like “listen-only” mode is that you wait too long to build a track record of measurable wins. You can’t wait 3 or 6 months for a win. It puts way too much pressure on you to rack up some huge successes at the end of your first year. And god forbid you fail on something after waiting 6 months to take a shot. But I equally dislike the “full steam ahead” approach because it too often results in major mistakes and can do irreparable damage to your reputation with the people you’re going to rely on most for your success.

My favored approach, which I’ll refer to as “targeted win facilitation”, fits somewhere between listening and charging ahead. It’s about taking on low risk wins when you first start a job or join a new team. Wins that present some upside and can build your reputation but have a low likelihood of failure. Wins that depend less on your market, customer or product expertise and more on your leadership skills. Wins that are less about you directing the team and more about you facilitating the process. Here are some examples of win facilitation:

  • Identify a suboptimal process and work with the team to improve it
  • Add a new program to demonstrate the effectiveness of a new process or approach
  • Work with the team to develop a new framework for prioritizing work to be more efficient
  • Introduce a new method or new metrics for tracking performance
  • Create a new type of cadence like weekly team meetings, daily standups, monthly all hands.

All of these present an opportunity to make your impact felt without carrying a lot of risk with them. Their success doesn’t depend on deep industry or company expertise. They are additive in nature so they don’t carry a significant downside compared to changing or removing programs or people. They allow you to rack up some wins without really having to risk anything. So when the time comes for you to do something big and disruptive, you’ll have built a strong reputation already which will protect you in case there are a few bumps in the road.

Next time you’re starting a new job or joining a new team or taking on a new project, remember that you have options beyond “listen-only” and “full steam ahead”. When I’m in this situation I try to facilitate some low risk wins to build up my reputation and winning record while I acquire the deep industry and customer expertise that I’ll need to take on more disruptive projects in the future. I hope this was helpful to you and would love to hear about the approaches you’ve taken when starting something new.

4 Keys to Advance from Director Level to VP Level

I should tell you before I get started, that getting to the Vice President level in your career is not easy. I’m sure most of you already know that. Either you’ve reached that level through hard work and sacrifice or you’re not their yet and the task of getting there seems daunting. The reality is, there just aren’t that many VP roles available. Organizations are shaped like pyramids and the further you go vertically the fewer opportunities there are.

In my previous blog I mentioned, that in my experience, the move from Manager to Director is the hardest jump we have to make it our careers. It demands such a fundamental shift in mindset and skillset, many of us struggle to ever make the leap. The move from Director to Vice President is a close second. Not so much for the mindset shift or functional skills gaps, but for the new levels of strength and toughness it requires. I’ve seen many first time VPs struggle under the weight of it all. To be honest, I was one of those people.

The biggest difference between the VP and Director level is the scope of responsibility and the complexity that comes with it. At the VP level, you typically manage multiple teams with priorities that are often not totally aligned. This dynamic makes everything harder … messier. It becomes less obvious how to make decisions. More often than not, you find yourself choosing between several suboptimal paths – nothing is clean. It feels like you can’t make a decision to favor one thing without hurting another. There are always many different perspectives to consider, instead of just a few. You aren’t just leading a team any more, you’re leading on behalf of the company. The stakes seem higher and your impact - positive and negative - seems so much more poignant.

To be ready for the Vice President level you need all of the skills you needed at the Director level plus a new level of strength, conviction and perspective.

Here are my 4 keys to advance from Director level to Vice President level

1. Find Common Purpose for Disparate Teams

One of the first awakenings I had when I finally reached the Vice President level was how hard it was to get my entire staff aligned to the same mission. You hear that from people and in books but this is where it became real for me. I didn’t have this problem when I managed a single team or a couple of teams that were more naturally aligned. But when I started managing numerous teams with widely varying functions, things got tricky. I remember being frustrated and asking myself:

Why can’t these teams work together?

Why are we doing so many activities that seem so disconnected?

Why is one team celebrating success and others aren’t?

Why do I know our mission and nobody else seems to?

Like most things in my career, I went through a classic cycle – from denial, to frustration, to blame, to self-discovery. Ultimately, what I learned, is that the larger and more diverse your team is, the most important it is to help each person identify and understand their role in a common purpose. When you can help people find personal meaning in the mission of the greater team, good things happen. When that doesn’t exist, people tend to revert back to pursuing their own self-interests, whether or not those interests are aligned with the mission of the team.

My recommendation for would-be Vice Presidents, is to find ways to create a common purpose for a multi-functional team. Something that isn’t tied directly to the team’s functional disciplines themselves. For example, in Marketing, I try to avoid setting goals for the Web Site or for Public Relations or for Social Media. Instead, I try to find a purpose that spans all of these functions – something everyone can find meaning in. Rather than set goals at the functional level e.g. Web site traffic, I might set a goal at the market performance level e.g. Take 2% market share from our top competitor. Then I’ll help each of the functional teams and the individuals on those teams to identify what their role can be in helping us achieve this higher level outcome.

2.  The Courage to Prioritize Ruthlessly

The next thing I discovered in my early tenure at the Vice President level was how easy it is to get buried under the weight of low impact activities. I don’t care what department you’re in - Development, Product Management, Marketing, IT - it’s all the same. There are an unlimited number of activities you could do. There are an unlimited number of incoming requests your team could take on. That’s the nature of corporate life – there are an unlimited number of things you could do.

We all want to be helpful and none of us likes to say no. We worry about what people will think of us if we do. And so for a while, we try to say “yes” to everything. But the challenge we all have to face, at one point or another, is that our capacity will always be outpaced by the demands on our time and resources. And, if you’re like me, you’ll wake up one day wondering how it’s possible your team is working 24-7 and yet it seems like nothing of significance is getting delivered. Sound familiar?

When someone asks me if they’re ready for the VP level, one of the first things I look at is their ability to prioritize ruthlessly. Can you focus a team on the most important things? Can you communicate a vision that is compelling enough so your boss and other leaders will trust you to say “no” to activities in favor of the initiatives you’ve defined as top priority? Can you build relationships that are strong enough to allow you to say “no” or “not yet”?

My recommendation for future Vice Presidents is not necessarily to work on your ability to say “no” – although that is part of it. Rather, my advice is to be more proactive at sharing your mission with others around you so they can get invested in your priorities. When you fail to get others excited about your priorities, they naturally start to project their priorities onto you and your team. The more visible your mission is to the company, the fewer incoming requests and distractions you will have.

3. Remain Objective at All Cost

If you’ve read my book, Stealing the Corner Office, you already know how important objectivity is to me.  In my experience, creating an image of objectivity is one of the most valuable things you can do to advance your career. One very common problem in most organizations is that individuals and teams tend to be overly passionate about their own ideas, their own projects. Do you ever find yourself in meetings with someone who seems unable to even entertain a different perspective? Do you have colleagues who just can’t seem to let go of a project that is clearly a losing proposition? Do you see leaders around you focusing only on the interest of their teams at the expense of what’s best for the company? Are you ever that person?

Many years ago I made a conscious choice to develop a reputation as an objective leader. I try very hard to look at all business situations dispassionately. I pretend I am analyzing a business case. I want to be able to put my heard into a project for a year and be able to pull the plug on it in an instant when it doesn’t make sense anymore. I want my team to be able to work all week on something and take a 180 degree turn because a better option emerges. I want other leaders to know that I will make sacrifices to my team and my budget if it makes sense for the business at large.

Cultivating an image for objectivity pays off. It’s valuable for building relationships. It demonstrates maturity and good judgement … and its surprising scarce amongst executives. My recommendation to future VPs is to work on your ability to make objective decisions even when it might damage you in the short term. It can be tough at times, especially when you have to make a hard call that hurts a team member or dings your record a bit, but it will pay you back in the long run.

4.   Be a Cultural and Ethical Leader

To be successful at the Vice President level and above, you need to be a strong cultural leader. At the Manager and Director levels, you typically take your cultural queues from your department head. But once you reach the VP level, that responsibility rests with you. Your team is typically quite large and diverse. You are responsible for bringing people into the organization and occasionally you have to ask people to leave. You set the cultural tone for your team.

In my experience, your moral compass gets tested at the VP level. The pressure rises. The influence you have on others becomes significant. Your impact on people’s lives gets real. If there are cracks in your core values, they will be exposed under the weight of VP level responsibility. If your integrity isn’t solid, it will show. And worse, it will multiply if you set a poor example for the team you lead.

When I evaluate would-be Vice Presidents I pay particularly close attention to their moral fortitude. I look for evidence they can maintain strong values and ethics in chaotic circumstances. Will they sell out a team member when the heat is on? Do they avoid hard conversations even when they’re necessary? Can they look a person in the eye and give them bad news or hard feedback and do it with compassion?

My recommendation to those of you who have desires on reaching and succeeding at the VP level is to spend more time actively thinking about your core values. Put them to the test. Don’t shy away from the hard conversations and tough decisions even though that often seems so much easier. Keep training yourself to operate with integrity and compassion when its hardest to do that. That’s the sign of a great leader and successful Vice President.

Every level of your career presents new challenges. The approach you took to find success at the Manager level probably won’t work at the Director level. And that approach won’t get you all the way at the VP level. To find success at every level, you need to constantly evolve and develop. I hope these tips are helpful to you as you plan your path to the Vice President level and above.

Weekly Reid: 2 Ways to Make Your 30 60 90 Day Plan Even Better

The fundamental premise behind the 30 60 90 Day Plan does not change no matter what role you’re in or hoping to be in. The purpose of the 30 60 90 Day Plan is widely misunderstood. It has nothing to do with helping you “get up to speed” or “hit the ground running” and everything to do with aligning your boss and management team to a definition and framework for success.

The 30 60 90 Day Plan is designed so your hiring will be declared an unequivocal success after 3 months by the people who matter most to your career. It’s designed to guarantee the success of the major projects you take on. It’s not about making sure you focus on learning or training or any of the other misinformation out there. No one cares about that. The purpose of the 30 60 90 Day Plan is to set the foundation for your career advancement.

While the basic goal of all 30 60 90 Day Plans is the same, you can and should customize your approach based on the situation you’re in and the role you hold or would like to hold. I’ve given some advice below on how to customize your plan for Sales positions and Management roles. If either of these sounds like you, keep reading.

The 30 60 90 Day Plan for Sales

The 30 60 90 Day Plan is critical for sales. In the interview process it can help you land the job. And once you have the job it can help you build a reputation as a smart and savvy sales executive. It’s about demonstrating that you understand how to build and execute a sales plan for a territory.

Here are three quick tips to help you build a great 30 60 90 Day Plan for Sales:

Define the Target

If you want to differentiate yourself from other candidates applying for a sales job, or just to impress your boss with your approach to planning a sales territory, you must start by defining your target with precision. Most reps and sales managers don’t take this seriously enough and aren’t scientific in their approach to identifying the “perfect customer”. My recommendation is to spend the first phase of your sales 30 60 90 Day Plan on defining your highest value target customers.

Show the Model

The difference between average sales professionals and exceptional ones is often the model they use to attack a territory or quota. Many people take a “best effort” approach. They rely on salesmanship and intuition to hit a number. While that may work some of the time, it’s not a strategy that is going to set you apart from others. My recommendation is to spend the second phase of your 30 60 90 Day Plan on dissecting your quota and building a model that shows exactly how you’re going to hit it.

Demonstrate your Approach

This is where you need to combine the art and science of sales. Now that you’ve show you can quantify your target and model your business, you need to demonstrate you the art form of sales. My recommendation is to spend the last phase of your 30 60 90 Day Plan showing the tactics you’re going to use to build pipeline and develop customers. If you do this effectively, your boss or future boss will know you have everything it takes to be an effective sales professional.

If you want my ready-to-use 30 60 90 Day Plan Template designed specifically for sales, you can download it here.

The 30 60 90 Day Plan for Managers and Executives

It’s very difficult to be successful as a manager if you haven’t mastered the 30 60 90 Day Plan. In the interview process it will differentiate you from other candidates. And once you have the job it can help you build a reputation as a seasoned, thoughtful executive. When done correctly it will demonstrate that you can think logically about how to build a team and attack a management problem.

Here are three quick tips to help you build a great 30 60 90 Day Plan for Management roles:

The Situational Assessment

All great manager’s start by performing a situational audit or assessment. The 30 60 90 Day Plan is no different. Without this context, you run the risk of being perceived as an activity based, immature manager. My recommendation in the first phase of the plan is to focus on demonstrating how you’ll gain a solid understanding of the business situation and competencies of your team.

The Strategic Initiatives Plan

Now that you’ve completed a situational assessment, you need showcase your ability to build a focused plan that addresses top tier initiatives. One thing that distinguishes average managers and great managers is the ability to focus on the most important issues only. My recommendation is to spend the second part of your plan describing how you’ll build a plan that addresses the most prominent opportunities and gaps.

The Management Dashboard

The last thing you must focus on in your 30 60 90 Day Plan as a manager or executive is the management and measurement framework. There is no point in describing a strategic initiatives plan if you aren’t able to measure it. My recommendation is to focus the final phase of your 30 60 90 Day Plan on providing a KPI dashboard or performance scorecard to measure the success of your strategic initiatives.

My ready-to-use 30 60 90 Day Plan Template designed for managers and executives has all of this built already with tons of extra content from my generic plan template. You can download it here.

>>> As a subscriber, you can use the promo code “WEEKLYREID” and get 25% off the prices listed above until February 12th.

I hope my templates are helpful for you. And if you don’t feel like grabbing one, I hope these tips will make it a bit easier next time you need to build a 30 60 90 Day Plan.