The Three Focus Areas

So my great grand boss came to visit the department yesterday and spoke to everyone. It was a getting to know you session since he took up this appointment recently. He did speak about his expectations and his experience, but he touched on three focus areas that he would advise that we focus on in our career.

The three focus areas are leadership, communication and critical thinking.

I agree with them, although personally I think there are so many more interesting aspects that we can focus on as well. But this post will be on my reflections on the three focus areas.

Firstly, leadership. What great grand boss mentioned was that leadership is not only for people at the management level. Leading can be at the subordinates level where a specific person is chosen to lead in a specific project. Personally, as more and more work piles up, I would be grateful if the guys could step up to lead in certain initiatives. It would take a huge load off my shoulders, and at the same time they would also prepare themselves for eventual appointments.

Many people have the appointment but cannot lead. They might not have the flair for it and might end up turning people off with their attitudes. They might care less about others and more about themselves. But to develop people into capable leaders at the management level, they need to be leaders at the tactical level.

Secondly, communication. I cannot stress the importance of communication. There are two parts to this: listening and speaking. Listening allows you to grasp your boss’s intent quickly. Why is he saying this and what does he actually want? If the reply you provide hits the nail on the head, good! He would feel that you are able to think at his level and that you didn’t waste his time. As for speaking, it is not good enough to understand intent quickly; you have to be able to phrase your ideas well. Else, the first sentence that comes out of your mouth will only sound gibberish, or reflect that you are unable to understand the crux of the issue.

Communication at the workplace takes many forms, and each form requires a different kind of mastery. Spoken communication during huddles and meetings. Written communication in the form of emails. Other forms of written communications can be approval papers to push a certain agenda or ask for certain resources. Without the clarity of thought and the ability to go straight to the point, bosses will end up taking an excessive amount of time to read and this doesn’t reflect well.

Thirdly on critical thinking. This bothers me quite a bit that there isn’t a structured way to learn critical thinking. Critical thinking requires one to challenge the fundamentals and question the assumptions. This is also applicable to my field as a maintenance engineer. This is because we work with contractors who provide recommendations on a particular way of troubleshooting. However we need to be able to think critically, see past the smoke, and ask correct questions in order to isolate the assumptions and make our decisions. However this is an area that many are weak in, and subordinates who behave like this would end up being questioned on their presentation. They don’t look good and don’t get the recognition that they deserve.

These three points not exhaustive; there are more points that one can focus on. Great grand boss spoke about being experts in a field through learning more from the internet. Personally I am encouraging people to work productively by finding tips and tricks to energise your day, sort the clutter of information bombarded through email, Whatsapp messages and face to face meeting, and prioritise on what matters.

What is your focus area now?

My Report Card

Today, I sat down and had a talk with one of my colleagues and I spent some time trying to coach him. It was a fruitful session as I got him to think and tell me how he felt, and I think I made a connection. At the same time, he told me about my department and to me, that was my report card for my more than three years here since I joined in May 12.

In my department, I was given the opportunity to head three teams which performs maintenance and engineering solutions to different systems. Given that the systems they were maintaining were independent of one another, the team dynamics were naturally different. Instead of going into specifics on what systems they work on, I will just refer them to team A, B and C, representing the order in which I “joined” the team. The story involves A and B.

Team B had disagreements with my working style and the direction that I gave them. They didn’t see the point of executing certain tasks and perhaps felt that it was a waste of time and effort. When Team B was voicing out their displeasure, Team A was present. I had spent most of my working career with Team A, and I was heartened to know that they stood to defend me.

Team A understood that I do not do things for the present, but considered a lot for the future. As I said, they spent the most amount of time with me and had the chance to see my ideas and direction come to fruition. My colleague admitted that there were clashes initially and disagreements were aplenty, but they grow to see how it eventually pans out and were convinced. I guess, despite me nagging them on a daily basis, they were the closest to me and benefited from my thoughts.

I’m not angry after knowing that Team B was unhappy. It might not be entirely their fault as by the time I had effectively “joined” in a position to influence them, I was already saddled with other work commitments and couldn’t spend as much time and effort. While I am heavily involved in Team A and C and work with them on a daily basis, I only get updates from Team B on a weekly basis; sometimes if I am unavailable at work, I would miss the weekly session.

In addition, there is not much time to see things to fruition. The farmer plans a seed, but might not live long enough to see the tree bear fruits. Now when I am watering the sapling, the results are unclear.

I wished that I had more time and effort to spend with Team B. There were many areas which I had hoped to positively influence them on. Team B should rightly be called Group B as my other colleague put it, as there were no team dynamics nor common goal that binds them together. They are just a group of people bunched up together by the organisation to work on something. But they could be coached and with time, grow to become a team. I wished I had more time with them.

However, there is no point wasting time crying over spilled milk. I need to make the best of my time left with this department to coach them adequately so that they can be self sufficient for the future. I want to build teams that I would be proud of; teams that would represent my legacy. That, to me, is self fulfilment.

Living up to the rank

Today my encik said something which gave me many things to think about. He said that we wear the rank everyday, so we have to ask ourselves if we live up to the rank, to the salary. I think that reaches into thinking about the purpose of a job, and to see the value in it.

 

We frequently neglect to think that we are duty bound to perform a job when we collect a salary. We take the salary month in month out, expecting bonuses and salary increases on an annual basis. So much so that it had become a by default. However, looking in a business point of view, why should a company pay you more? Because of the yearly inflation? Is there any altruistic reason why salary increases should be expected?

My take is that what you have done over the year has made you more experienced. You learn and adapt, and change the way you do things. You become more effective, hence you produce more output with the same amount of time spent on work. That said, the salary increase does seem worth it. Hence we shouldn’t be expecting to do the same thing on a year to year basis. For if our job stays the same, why should anyone pay you more?

The world is changing, and the effects of globalisation has hit us hard. Other people can work for lesser while doing the same work as us, due to the differences in global currencies.

Even though I am not working in a place which I need to compete with foreigners who can work for less, the spirit of constant change and improvement is the same. We need to constantly examine our assumptions of whether something is our work, and implement changes in the spirit of what makes sense and what is good for the organisation. We have to innovate and think creative; we have to value add.

The only constant is change. Heard of it?

Living the Vision

If you had read books on leadership, you would have known about the importance of setting a mission and a vision, and the job lies with the boss of the organisation. The purpose of having a mission and a vision is to align everyone to the same goals and to let all employee know what the company stands for. A good vision inspires all to follow, and their actions in the course of their work would reflect the common values that a company has.

However, I am sure that anyone who has worked for a living would realise that it isn’t that simple. A vision could be set, but nobody would follow. An important point to note is that the managers and supervisors down the line from the boss to the lowest ranked employee is responsible for carrying the vision. They should share in the vision and their actions should be aligned to the vision so that their direct reports could be influenced likewise.

It is now opportune to introduce the concept of the Toxic Leader. The Toxic Leader can be found in most organisations. He does not believe in the vision and has a mind of his own. His character can single-handedly destroy the passion anyone below him has for the vision. If you do anything that he does not believe in, he disapproves and you feel unvalued.

An organisation may decide that it is important to conduct team communication sessions in order to build team spirit and understanding. A Toxic Leader will frown and that and think it is a waste of time.

An organisation may decide that it is important for work life harmony and introduce advisories against managers from contacting staff about work beyond 7pm. A Toxic Leader doesn’t care and still calls you anyway.

Day after day the employees get frustrated because the things that are set in place to build workplace happiness and effectiveness are not done. Some feel that the organisation doesn’t care. But doesn’t it? The organisation cares; it is the Toxic Leader that does not. Talented employees might choose to leave one by one, leaving behind people who might just be as toxic as the Toxic Leader. The company has a vision, but no one to carry it out.

The thing is, one of the more important aspects a manager or leader should have is to “Agree to Disagree”, only after due effort has been spent communicating the arguments from each side. After the discussion is finalised, the boss makes a decision and everyone else can only follow. Not only follow, but they have to live by the decision, and live by the vision.

But of course this is a rather simplified story. Reality is much more complicated than that. The boss has the responsibility to make the right decisions, but in reality sometimes the boss makes the wrong decision and the managers might be right. The boss has the responsibility to influence such that everyone is committed and hence no Toxic Leaders are formed. In reality, the boss might be too busy to do such a thing, and leave Toxic Leaders to do their work. The bosses will not know the situation, because employees under the Toxic Leader are more likely to feel unsecure enough to report their Toxic Leader’s wrongdoing.

The morale of this entire blog post is: Down the line from the boss to the managers and supervisors, we have our role to play. Many times we think of a vision as the responsibility of the boss. However it is also the responsibility of us, as the managers and supervisors, to live out the vision no matter how busy we are. Be self aware of what we are doing and saying, and make sure that we do not become the kind of Toxic Leader that we didn’t like when we started out in the industry.

Too Quick To Judge

I thought of this example while driving to work one day.

Imagine that your boss had been promoted and a new guy has been transferred to your department to replace him. Within a few days, he managed to discover some mistakes of yours which you were aware of and had been taking steps to overcome. He comes up to you and questions “why is the situation like this?”. You explain to him and try to assure him that everything is under control. He seemed alright, but a few hours later you discovered that he had been asking around, and it doesn’t sound good.

How would you feel?

While the example was based on reality, I tweaked some minor parts in order to present a story which I could write about. If the new boss came in with a questioning attitude, people would get defensive. It’s human nature! Common thoughts include “He does not understand the difficulties in which we face when the mistake was made, yet he came in, full of air, judging on the work we do”. Another example could be “he just wants to save his own ass by drawing a clear line on whose responsibility it should be”.

Both ways do not paint a good picture for the new boss, and relations might be strained instead. Not a good way to build a first impression.

We have to realize that while we interpret the boss’s intention as hostile, the hostility is but our representation of reality; he might not have intended for you to feel this way. His intentions might be good.

Question is, if you were the new boss, how could you have conducted yourself different so that you seem more amicable and forgiving instead?

Humans hate conflict. We tend to move away or find a place to hide when our bosses shows the first signs of hostility. Hostility does not build high performing teams. On the other hand, cooperation, coupled with a willingness to help out, builds ties and camaraderie.

Hence it should be no surprise that the best way to approach your subordinate in the initial phase of team building is to avoid unnecessary conflict and build rapport. For example, “I recognize that we have committed an error in the past, but we should move on and rectify our mistake. Let’s find a way out together”.

Does the above make you feel better? I bet it does. Aside from recognizing that it is a common duty to work things out, the boss accepts responsibility of the mistake even when he wasn’t in charge originally. By accepting the mistake, there isn’t any line drawn between you who screwed up and I as the almighty boss. Moving on then becomes a team goal than an individual goal. It also reduces the tension and stress of the individual.

I am a firm believer of coaching and accepting that my subordinates makes mistakes. We must always remember the times when we are the subordinate and think, “What is it that I wouldn’t like if my boss did to me”. Lessen the distinction between you as the boss and him as the subordinate and morale might slowly creep back up!

Happiness

Recently, I tried engaging someone online. The engagement started because I got reminded of how I should change one person at a go (starting from myself), if I want to shape the world. The person posted a long analogy online which is actually a pessimistic analogy of what is happening in Singapore, with the minimum sum increment, foreigners living in our midst and new Integrated Resorts (read: Casinos). The writer ended with “Are my children happy?”, which in the non-analogy world (actual world), is “Are Singaporeans Happy”.

To me, nobody could answer this question outright as a yes or no. Just think about it, if I change the question as “Are Singaporeans Vegetarians”, could anyone answer it with a yes or no? The answers could be “No, not ALL Singaporeans are vegetarians”, or “Some Singaporeans are vegetarians”. Similarly, we cannot generalise and say that Singaporeans are happy/unhappy. There are happy people and there are unhappy people both living on this island.

Next, I thought the question was weird when he kept insisting that I commit to a yes/no answer. I thought it was masking the issue. The issue should be why are some Singaporeans unhappy and not giving him what he wanted: “Yes Singaporeans are unhappy”. The conversation ended amicably with my offer to take it privately as a discussion, but I thought I should write my opinion down.

I find that happiness is from within. People who are rich can be happy, or unhappy. People who are poor can be happy, or unhappy too. Happiness has nothing to do with wealth, social status, your ability to buy a car etc. Happiness is something that everyone can have, even in the face of great difficulty and a tough life.

I mentioned this in the previous post but I have to reiterate. This has to do with how you are living your life, “at effect” or “at cause”. Do you blame yourself or the system for your individual failures? People who are interested and want to take a step forward in your life can start reading books on Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). Or you can just leave a comment and we can discuss. But if we live life “at effect”, we blame everyone else but ourself and it feels bad because when others are at fault, we feel powerless to change things. We feel vulnerable. We feel unhappy about the situation. But when you blame yourself and you find out what went wrong, we can change things the next time and that is hope. There is positivity and we have a chance for something better. Notice how up-lifting the mood then becomes?

In life we always have a choice in our circumstance.

New Year, New Beginning

I’ve used this term “New Year, New Beginning” twice in the first three days of the new year. Both instances happened on the 3rd of Jan which was the first day I went back to the workplace. A change from usual practices was that the new year provided me, or rather, forced me to adopt some changes in leadership style from a “maybe I can do this” to a “let’s just do this now” perspective.

The first time I used the term, I did some sort of a review for one of the Enciks in my flight. Without going into too many details and risk the discussion becoming some sort of finger pointing, I did the review as what I thought my ideal worker was for a person of that rank and stature. I tried to make it less of a feedback but a feedforward; a concept which I had learnt recently from a book. Generally speaking, a feedback is one where we took what had happened vs a feedforward where we discuss how we can do things in the future. It is less finger pointing and more consultative in my opinion.

I am not too sure how much it helped, but my own principles tell me that I have got to do something. I have manpower and I need my manpower to work effectively and efficiently. My management role is then to provide the atmosphere and working environment for such a thing to happen and the review was the first step in aligning mindsets between the both of us.

The second time was for another Encik, but it was not much of a review. Rather, it was a nagging session from me to get his email inbox sorted out. To declutter and start anew so that all messages would be read and understood. The action items could then be sorted out into different categories to work on subsequently.

I’m using it for the third time this year for myself to institute some changes into the way my flight operates. In the previous year, we set up a tasking board and implemented a tasking email notification where we will flash out daily. It did not get flashed out daily to my disappointment, and there was confusion because there are two separate boards. I will make changes to how the two functions are used so that it becomes productive and meet the original intent of setting up these two functions in the first place.

I am also going to get my flight to agree on some golden rules for the sake of having better meetings. The rules are (1) Only one person speaks at any one time, (2) Be present in the moment and (3) A promise is honour-bound. The first is to ensure that there will not be other noises to jam up the discussion. The second is to ensure that everyone is focused on what the meeting is about instead of fidgiting about their handphones or sitting with their eyes closed and ears shut. The last is to get people to commit that the deadlines given to them should be respected and deviations from deadline should not be a norm.

I am also restructuring the Start-of-Day-Briefs so that non-involved personnels in specific discussion pointers can be excused to do their own things. In addition, I want to demand for every member of the team to do a general 1-min brief of what he had done in the previous day and raise any potential concerns. That member will then talk about what he will be doing in that day. This allows us to ensure that everyone is focused on what major tasks they are doing and also for us to do allocation/re-allocation of tasks if required. The idea is for everyone to be gainfully employed.

It’s the 5th day into the new year and I am still motivated to see through the changes that I have planned. Hopefully 2014 will be the best year yet for me.