Servant Leadership and Standing Out

LonePawn

My son is fifteen and he’s the typical teenager that either thinks he’s being asked to do way too much or he’s not getting recognized for what he’s accomplished. That last part is hard for him because he’s a bit humble and doesn’t like to tout his own work. I once told him that he didn’t need to do that because he stands out to the people that matter. He did the typical teenager thing where he fought me and said that no one noticed anything he did. I told him that if you do things the way they’re supposed to be done and don’t spend your whole day crowing about what you’re doing that the right people will most assuredly notice.

The worry that your work is going unnoticed isn’t unfounded among teenagers or adults. How many times have we asked ourselves in our daily work roles if we matter? It takes about two weeks worth of meetings in a typical IT department for you to see how things go. There are those that coast by with the knowledge they obtained years ago that have their niche and they intend to fill it. Their entire purpose is to avoid notice. They fear someone will figure out their job is redundant or they don’t want to get found out for having less capability than they really possess.

The other side of the coin is the group we all loathe. The braggarts and proclaimers. The ones that spend all of five minutes turning a wrench or typing in a command and then take the next hour to talk about how great a job they did or how things would have fallen apart without their help and expertise. These are the people that we’re all worried about. They don’t want to avoid attracting attention. In fact, they revel in it. They want the eyes on them. They have no fear of looking inadequate or incapable. They will put any of their skills up against anyone at any time so they can be seen as the best at something.

What about those in the middle? The ones that want to be recognized for what we are without sounding overly confident or even boastful? What about those that are learning but still unsure of their skills and don’t want to do something wrong just in case it’s going to cause problems? Or the people that only want to stand out because they work hard and feel like the braggarts get all the eyeballs? What if I told you there was an easier method to figure out where your stand?

The Pillars of Productivity

You’ve probably already noticed that your leaders come to you when something needs to be done, right? Not the usual kind of busy work or tasks that have little importance in the long run. I’m talking about the big tasks. The important projects. The things that can’t fail and need attention to detail because they have to be done right. You know, the kinds of things you get asked to do all the time?

Why is that? While you may not be able to see it from your vantage point, the best leaders are the ones that have been keeping score the entire time and they know how to get things done. They see those shadowy people in IT that have outdated skill sets trying to keep a low profile. They also have a record of all the times those people have asked to learn something new or stretch their horizon. While those team members may think they’re flying under the radar they’re even more visible to those that know what to look for and how to select them out of important stuff. Those job roles they covet because they’re easy and important? They’re also one step away from being automated and keep unmotivated team members away from critical things.

What about the loud mouths? The ones that don’t miss an opportunity to talk about all the important stuff they’re doing and how management came to them to make it happen. How is it that they get all the good jobs and you get to toil away on these never-ending projects? What makes them so special?

Did you ever stop and ask yourself how important those projects were? Did you ever think that perhaps they’re not as critical as one might believe? Perhaps even that they’re so unimportant that people feel the need to brag about them to make them seem more important? I’ve seen more than a few times in my career that the ones that are spending the most time talking about what they’re doing are actually doing the least amount of work. If the task or project is so critical and important how is it that this person has the time to sit around the water cooler sharing how things are only going smoothly because they’re getting it all done?

They Who Serve Their Fellows

The idea that people should do the work without expecting credit or praise isn’t as foreign as it sounds. It’s a component of the Servant Leadership concept popularized by Robert Greenleaf. Servant leadership is based around the idea that the leader of a group exists to serve their employees and help them grow and be better. One of the important pieces of this the need to do things not for praise but for the greater good.

Leaders that subscribe to the ideas behind servant leadership don’t look for the loud team members crowing about their accomplishments. Instead, they look for those that are quietly getting things accomplished. They measure output, not volume. They seek those that serve others as they do not those that serve themselves. And those are the people that are relied upon over and over again to get things accomplished.

You may be saying to yourself, “That’s not how it works around my office.” And that’s entirely true for a lot of places. If that’s the case, do me a favor and think for moment about the bosses that are always heaping praise onto those that can’t stop talking about their accomplishments. Are they they kinds of people that also brag about themselves and their roles? Do they spend more time announcing their work than they do working? I think you’ll find a strong correlation. Those that can’t see the inherent value in someone’s output often need to be told someone is working hard. And because they feel the same need to boast about what they do they take the discussion at face value instead of understanding it all at a deeper level. I would also venture to guess that they aren’t the kinds of managers that you’d want to be working for.

Since we’re doing thought exercises, let’s do another. Think about a manager that you would want to work for. Maybe it was someone that was concerned with your skill set and encouraged you to learn more. Or that checked in on you frequently to see how you were doing on a project instead of just assuming you weren’t getting the job done because you were super busy with it. Maybe that manager even stood up for you after a mistake or spent time to help you understand where you needed to improve outside of your skills. Sure, they probably gave you lots of projects and you may have even felt overwhelmed at times. But never because you felt your manager was trying to sabotage you or overload you. These are the kinds of people you’d go back to work with in an instant, right?

Unsurprisingly, those characteristics are a hallmark of a servant leader. Those leaders rarely find themselves at the head of a major company. They get the work done instead of bragging about the work they do. They tend to find positions running departments focused on service or deliverables. They’re the rock you count on instead of the face you send out to sell the work. Ironically enough, they don’t thrive in sales positions because they tend to cut through the garbage quickly and judge people on results instead of promises. These are the leaders we should be promoting. Because these are the leaders that recognize talent and nurture it instead of listening to the ones that can only talk about things instead of getting them done.


Tom’s Take

It took me a long time to realize the guiding hand behind servant leadership principles. I knew what it was as soon as someone told me about it because I’d seen it being used my whole life. From my parents to my formative managers to the present day I’ve had the luxury of working for several people that have embodied the ideals of someone that works to better others. Sure, I’ve had to deal with my fair share of braggarts and shadowy figures. But knowing there was someone that knew what I was capable of and that I stood out to them enough to be trusted with the important work has been enough for me so far. As I find myself looking over more and more work and coordinating projects I also see the things that my former managers saw. I see the need to recognize those that are putting in the work and not just telling me what they’re doing. I seek out those that don’t do it for praise or don’t hide from my gaze. And in doing so I hope I can inspire a new generation of servant leaders as well.

Managing Leaders, Or Why Pat Gelsinger Is Awesome

In case you missed it, Intel CEO Bob Swan is stepping down from his role effective February 15 and will be replaced by current VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger. Gelsinger was the former CTO at Intel for a number of years before leaving to run EMC and VMware. His return is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal past few months for the chip giant.

Why is Gelsinger’s return such a cause for celebration? The analysts that have been interviewed say that Intel has been in need of a technical leader for a while now. Swan came from the office of the CFO to run Intel on an interim basis after the resignation of Brian Krzanich. The past year has been a rough one for Intel, with delays in their new smaller chip manufacturing process and competition heating up from long-time rival AMD but also from new threats like ARM being potentially sold to NVIDIA. It’s a challenging course for any company captain to sail. However, I think one key thing makes is nigh impossible for Swan.

Management Mentality

Swan is a manager. That’s not meant as a slight inasmuch as an accurate label. Managers are people that have things and look after them. Swan came from the financial side of the house where you have piles of resources and you do your best to account for them and justify their use. It’s Management 101. Managers make good CEOs for a variety of companies. They make sure that the moves are small and logical and will pay off in the future for the investors and eventually the workers as well. They are stewards first and foremost. When their background comes from something with inherent risk they are especially stewardly.

You know who else was a manager? John Sculley, the man who replaced Steve Jobs at Apple back in 1983. Sculley was seen as a moderating force to Jobs’ driving vision and sometimes reckless decision making skills. Sculley piloted the ship into calm waters at first but was ultimately sent packing because his decisions were starting to make less and less sense, such as exploring options to split Apple into separate companies and taking on IBM head-to-head on their turf.

Sculley was ousted and Jobs returned to Apple in 1993. It wasn’t easy at first but eventually the style of Jobs started producing results. Things like the iPod, iMac, and eventually the iPhone came from his vision. He’s a leader in that regard. Leaders are the ones that jump out and take risks to make big results. Leaders are people like John Kennedy that give a vision of going to the moon in a decade without the faintest idea how that might happen. Leadership is what drives companies.

Leaders, however, are a liability without managers. Leaders say “let’s go to the moon!” Managers sit down and figure out how to make that happen without breaking the budgets or losing too many people along the way. Managers are the grounded voices that guide leaders. Without someone telling a leader of the challenges to overcome they won’t see the roadblocks until the drive right into them.

Leaders without brakes on their vision have no reality to shape it. Every iMac has an Apple Lisa. Every iPod has the iPod Hi-Fi. Even the iPhone wasn’t the iPhone until the App Store came around against the original vision of Apple’s driving force. To put it another way, George Lucas is a visionary leader in filmmaking. However, when he was turned loose without management of his process we ended up with the messy prequel trilogy. Why was Empire Strikes Back such a good film? Because it had people like Lawrence Kasdan involved managing the process of Lucas creating art. They helped focus the drive of a leader and make the result something great.

Tech Leadership

Let’s bring this discussion back to Intel and Pat Gelsinger. I know he is the best person to lead Intel right now. I know that because Gelsinger is very much a tech leader. He has visions for how things need to be and he can see how to get there. He knows that reducing costs and reaving product lines at Intel isn’t going to make them a better company down the road no matter what the activist investors have to say on the matter. They may have wanted regime change when they petitioned the board back in December, but they may find the new king a bit harder to deal with.

Gelsinger is also a manager. Going from CTO to being COO at EMC and eventually CEO at VMware has tempered his technical chops. You can’t hope to run a company on crazy ideas and risky bets. Steve Jobs had people like Tim Cook in the background keeping him as grounded in reality as possible. Gelsinger picked up these skills in helming VMware and I think that’s going to pay off for him at Intel. Rather than running out to buy another company to augment capabilities that will never see the light of day, someone like him can see the direction that Intel needs to go and make it happen in a collected manner. No more FPGA acquisitions that never bear fruit. No more embarrassing sales of the mobile chip division because no one could capitalize on it.

Pat Gelsinger is the best kind of technical manager. I saw it in the one conversation I was involved in with him during an event. He stepped in to a talk between myself and a couple of analysts. He listened to them and to me and when he was asked for his opinion, he stopped for a moment to think. He asked a question to clarify and then gave his answer. That’s a tempered leader approach to things. He listened. He thought. He clarified. And then he made a decision. That means there is steel behind the fire. That means the driving factors of the decision-making process aren’t just “cool stuff” or “save as much money as we can”. What will happen is the fusion of the two that the company needs to stay relevant in a world that seems bent on passing it by.


Tom’s Take

I’ve worked for managers and I’ve worked for leaders. I don’t have a preference for one or the other. I’ve seen leaders sell half their assets to save their company. I’ve also seen them buy ridiculous stuff in an effort to build something that no one would buy. I’ve seen managers keep things calm in the middle of a chaotic mess. I’ve also seen them so wracked with indecision that the opportunities they needed to capitalize on sailed off into the sunset. If you want to be the best person to run a company as the CEO, whether it’s a hundred people or a hundred thousand, you should look to someone like Pat Gelsinger. He’s the best combination of a manager and leader that I’ve seen in a long time. In five years we will be talking about how he was the one to bring Intel back to the top of the mountain, both through his leadership and his management skills.

Managing Automation – Fighting Fear of Job Justification

Dear Employees

 

We have decided to implement automation in our environment because robots and programs are way better than people. We will need you to justify your job in the next week or we will fire you and make you work in a really crappy job that doesn’t involve computers while we light cigars with dollar bills.

 

Sincerely, Management

The above letter is the interpretation of the professional staff of your organization when you send out the following email:

We are going to implement some automation concepts next week. What are some things you wish you could automate in your job?

Interpretations differ as to the intent of automation. Management likes the idea of their engineering staff being fully tasked and working on valuable projects. They want to know their people are doing something productive. And the people that aren’t doing productive stuff should either be finding something to do or finding a new job.

Professional staff likes being fully tasked and productive too. They want to be involved in jobs and tasks that do something cool or justify their existence to management. If their job doesn’t do that they get worried they won’t have it any longer.

So, where is the disconnect?

You Do Exist (Sort of)

The problem with these interpretations comes down to the job itself. Humans can get very good at repetitive, easy jobs. Assembly line works, quality testers, and even systems engineers are perfect examples of this. People love to do something over and over again that they are good at. They can be amazing when it comes to programming VLANs or typing out tweets for social media. And those are some pretty easy jobs!

Consistency is king when it comes to easy job tasks. When I can do it so well that I don’t have to think about things any more I’ve won. When it comes out the same way every time no matter how inattentive I am it’s even better. And if it’s a task that I can do at the same time or place every day or every week then I’m in heaven. Easy jobs that do themselves on a regular schedule are the key to being employed forever.

Automatic For The Programs

Where does that sound more familiar in today’s world? Why, automation of course! Automation is designed to make easy, repeatable jobs execute on a schedule or with a specific trigger. When that task can be done by a program that is always at work and never calls in sick or goes on vacation you can see the allure of it to management. You can also see the fear in the eyes of the professional that just found the perfect role full of easy jobs that can be scheduled on their calendar.

Hence the above interpretation of the automation email sample. People fear change. They fear automation taking away their jobs. Yet, the jobs that are perfect for automation are the kinds of things that shouldn’t be jobs in the first place. Professionals in a given discipline are much, much smarter than just doing something repetitively over and over again like VLAN modifications or IP addressing of interfaces. More importantly, automation provides consistency. Automation can be programmed to pull from the correct database or provide the correct configuration every time without worry of a transcription mistake or data entry in the wrong field.

People want these kinds of jobs because they afford two important things: justification of their existence and free time at work. The former ensures they get to have a paycheck. The latter gives them the chance to find some kind of joy in their job. Sure, you have some kind of repetitive task that you need to do every day like run a report or punch holes in a sheet of metal. But when you’re not doing that task you have the freedom to do fun stuff like learn about other parts of your job or just relax.

When you take away the job with automation, you take away the cover for the relaxation part. Now, you’ve upset the balance and forced people to find new things to do. And that means learning. Figuring out how to make tasks easy and repetitive again. And that’s not always possible. Hence the fear of automation and change.

Building A Better Path To Automation

How do we fix this mess? How can we motivate people to embrace automation? Well, it’s pretty simple:

  1. Help Your Team See The Need – If your teams think think they’re going to lose their jobs because of automation, they’re not going to embrace it. You need to show them that not only are they not going to lose their jobs but how automation will make their jobs easier and better. Remember to frame your arguments along the lines of removing mistakes and not needing to worry about justifying your existence in a role. That should encourage everyone to look for new challenges to overcome.
  2. Show the Value – This goes with the first part somewhat, but more than showing the need for automation with mistake reduction or schedule easing, you also need to show value. If a person has never made a mistake or has built their schedule around repetitive tasks they are going to hate automation. Show them what they can do now that their roles don’t have to focus on the old stuff they did. Help them look at where they can provide additional value. Even if it starts off by monitoring the automation platform to make sure it’s executing correctly. Maybe the value they can provide is finding new things to automate!
  3. Embrace the Future – Automation allows people to learn how to do new things. They can focus on new skills or roles that help support the business in a better way. More automation means more complexity to understand but also a chance for people to shine in new roles. The right people will see a challenge as something to be overcome. Help them set new goals. Help them get where they want to be. You’ll be surprised how quickly they will get there with the right leadership.

Tom’s Take

Automation isn’t going to steal jobs. It will force people to examine their tasks and decide how important they really are. The people that were covering their basic roles and trying to skate by are going to leave no matter what. Even if your automation push fails these marginal people are going to leave for greener pastures thanks to the examination of what they’re actually doing. Don’t let the pushback discourage you in the short term. Automation isn’t the goal. Automation is the tool to get you to the true goal of a smoother, more responsive team that accomplishes more and can reacher higher goals.