Silence from the Black Box








It’s easier to remain silent.

We learn this  in our earliest and most foundational relationships:

  • Don’t talk back to your father (child/parent)
  • Don’t talk in class (student/teacher)
  • It’s my way or the highway (athlete/coach)

This socialization, combined with the wiring in our brains that makes us highly tuned to how other people feel about us, make it easier to remain silent.  More so in hierarchical environments, like the workplace, where many people feel vulnerable to the whims of their boss or team leader.  Despite their experience and training, the default is usually acquiescence.  After all, no one ever got fired for staying silent.

But what if you worked somewhere that silence could lead to death?  Like in the cockpit of an airplane.  The recent news of Boeing 737 crashes has reminded me that silence, deference or deafness in the cockpit is a leading cause of preventable airline crashes.  In this article from 2018, a retired airline captain reviews some of the crashes that lead to the creation of Crew Resource Management (CRM), a set of training procedures for use in environments where human error can have a devastating effect.

Learn more about Crew Resource Management

In describing two crashes from the late 1970’s he states “Neither accident should have happened because some of the crewmembers knew things were going wrong but could not persuade the captain.”  Now CRM, is a major component of every airline safety program.

Every pilot is taught the skills of leadership, followership and effective communication

Followership might not be a word in the English dictionary that we are familiar with, but it should be a skill that every manager tries to master.  It starts by giving a voice to everyone on the team and communicating with them in a style that works for them.  Some are extroverts, comfortable in large groups and are OK talking over each other in a meeting.  Others will need time to think, consider the options and craft a complete and thorough response.  It’s a manager’s job to hear them all and eliminate the silence that kills.

We are all working to the same goal – whether that be landing a plane safely, completing an open heart surgery or making our revenue targets – and everyone is responsible for that goal. If we learn from the CRM playbook, we can still be the captains of our team at the same time we are being responsible to the concerns and needs of our fellow crewmembers.

If you’d like to discuss your followership, click here to Pick My Brain for free.



Labels Change a Manager’s Expectations

Tall people in basketball can’t dribble.  I laugh when I heard this because it was a label that I heard all through high school as a tall guy playing on a good high school team.  While in my case it was true and I was better off playing down low with my back to the basket, I can see how this belief from a coach could limit the reps and take away the practice time of a player who wanted to be a better ball handler.  Magic Johnson is 6’9″ (pretty tall) and was a hall of fame point guard, so tall guys can dribble the basketball at an elite level.

Take this use of labels and apply it to the business world and we can see how labels change the expectation of the manager and the employee and have a big impact on the growth and development of our teams.

As a teenager, I worked at McDonald’s and from the first day, I worked in the kitchen.  Frying burgers and loading supplies from the storeroom – he is tall and strong and male, so keep him in the back. Had they asked, I would have chosen to work the counter and been in front of people all day.  I would have been awesome.  The label they applied put me in a storeroom with no way out.

Here is a discussion on the negative impact of labels, in this Train Ugly podcast on the Pygmalion effect with great examples from science, business, education, sports, and the military.

Consider these workplace labels (and their built-in limits to growth):

  • They are not a people person (so we won’t put them in front of the customer)
  • They are a quant (so they won’t be asked about theory)
  • They don’t know the new development language (so they can only maintain the old system, not build the new one)
  • They come from accounting (so they can’t be on the product team)
  • They are a star (so the sky is the limit)

These labels changed the manager’s expectation of an employee’s performance – limiting the growth of some team members and making special opportunities available to the star.  In the workplace, people are treated more favorably if their manager has higher performance expectations. 

You’ve heard the expression “I expect more from you” – which means I am treating you differently because I have higher expectations. 

Someone else on the team who has been labeled a “B” player or underachiever is not expected to behave or perform at the same high level.  As a manager, you are doing yourself and your team a disservice if you label too quickly.

I challenge you right now to review your team one by one and identify how you have “labeled” each person.  How would you treat that person differently if you replace the label with “star”?

Everyone is capable of growing and should be given the reps – an opportunity to practice the skills –  to become better.

Click here if you’d like to Pick My Brain for free about the impact of labeling in your team.

When Scratch is Not Good Enough

The best amateur golfer that I ever played with had an official handicap of zero (0) – also know as a scratch golfer.  We only played once, paired together at a charity tournament and when I asked how many rounds he played a year he admitted that he played more than 90.  If I played that much golf, my boss would wonder how much time I was actually in the office and it turns out his boss was the federal government and he worked from home or on the road, giving him plenty of time for golf.

Like we all do when paired with a great player, I wondered whether he was good enough to play professionally.  He was young enough and a good enough athlete – what would it take?

3 less strokes per round – at least.

I arrived at this number by checking the handicap of the best Canadian professional golfer that I have ever played with – Adam Cornelson from Langley, BC.  Adam has an official handicap of +2.8. and won for the first time on tour in 2016, his fourth year as a pro, and earned a spot in the Tour which is the next closest level to the PGA tour. And he did this by playing on much harder, longer courses than an amateur scratch golfer.

And in the world of professional golf, 3 shots a round is a huge number.  On the PGA Tour, the difference between a top 10 player and the player at number 125, just barely holding on, is 1 shot per round.  And most players feel lucky if they can improve their game a half a shot per round per year.  At that rate, the scratch golfer may just be ready for the first level of pro golf in 6 years and making a living playing golf 6 years after that.

Like these golf pros, good managers should be trying to get incrementally better every year.

Similarily, success as a manager is not something that comes easy.  There are no great leaps forward into a better understanding of how to manage people, yourself or your boss.  It’s all incremental.  One inch at a time.  One performance review, one project schedule, one hiring session, one team meeting and one little thing to make someone happy that adds up to being a good manager.

I’ve been lucky to work in a sales environment at many good companies,  and in each one sales success is all about the incremental .  What revenue are you going to bring in that is new for us this year?  You did great in 2015 with $1 million in sales and we gave you a nice bonus to recognize it, but that was last year.  How are you going to get better this year?  What new industry are you going to develop as a sales channel?  What new product line are you going to upsell into your best accounts?  What are you going to do differently to push that huge, game-changing account across the finish line after 3 years of pitches?

In managing, what one new thing have you added to your repertoire, or what existing skill have you improved or what knowledge have you gained to make you a better manager than you were a year ago?

In golf, the magic elixir for most amateur players is to improve your short game – chipping and putting as they represent 50% of the shots you take every round.  If your regular score is 90 and you can make a 10% improvement in the 45 shots you take with a wedge or a putter by chipping it closer to the hole and holing more putts – you can drop 5 strokes pretty easy.

For a manager, the short game equivalent to improve as a manager is to Become a Better People Mgr.  

Your ability to make things happen on your own is finite – there is only one of you and only so many hours in a day.  But once you begin to see yourself as a people manager first and a “doer” second, then the possibilities are infinite.  Recruiting, developing, managing and promoting people is the easiest path to successful projects, departments, companies and careers.

Start with owning the fact that your primary job is as a people manager and spend a larger percentage of your time each month on managing your team as opposed to “doing” your own work.  An incremental change of one additional hour per week “managing” can make a huge difference between now and this time next year.  I’m writing this in October and if you started now and added one hour per week each  month, you’d increase your managing time by 10% before Christmas.  Think your team would notice?  They’d wonder what the heck was happening and then just roll with the new you – and you’ll be thrilled with the results.

When you take small steps like that over time, one day you will look up and find that you are a pretty good manager.  And like golf, where there are new courses, new equipment, and new teaching methods, you can always get better.  Your situation  is always changing – new projects, new people, new companies, new customers – the dynamic is never the same and you have the opportunity to learn over and over again in order to be just a little better today than you were yesterday.

Take One for the Team

It’s a phrase I heard quite a bit when I played baseball in college  –  “Take One for the Team”.  Players were expected to make a physical sacrifice for the good of the team and it was often painful.  A catcher who blocked the plate with 200lbs of runner charging down the third base line trying to score the winning run.  The middle infielder who keeps his nose down on a rocket one-hopper on a bad infield, risking a solid shot to his chest or face to keep the ball in front of him.  The shortstop who doesn’t step away from the runner sliding into second with his cleats high to ensure the double play is turned.  The pitcher who throws more innings than he should in a lopsided game who sacrifices his arm and his stats to provide rest for other pitchers who will play the next day.  Or most often, the batter who crowds the plate on a hard throwing pitcher, willing to wear one in the ribs or in the back to get the tying run on base late in the game.  These acts are universally well respected by teammates as serving the good of the team ahead of your personal accomplishments.

A good Manager should also know when to take one for the team.

When a project goes sideways and an important date is not met by your team, whether the reasons for going off the rails were within their control or a Force Majeure, you the manager have to take the heat from the big boss.

When an irate customer wants someone’s head on a platter for a late delivery or a botched installation by your team, you the manager have to put your head in the guillotine.

When you ask a member of your team to do things a little different, you the manager have to calm the waters with all the others who object to something new and make sure they know it was your idea.

Taking bullets like these are part of the job for a good manager with training and experience and selflessness acting as body armor.  What made you a good manager protects you, so you can protect them.  Your team doesn’t need to take fire for a mistake twice, once from you and once from an outsider (and yes the big boss is an outsider as far as your team goes).  Whether their failure was small or large, they will have already paid the price and seen their professional self-perception wounded within the team and behind the closed door when you reviewed the situation with them.  And hopefully, they will have taken the correction and criticism personally and learned from it for the future.

When a manager recognizes that a situation requires him to step in between his team and a problem , he must be willing to do so for the long-term benefit of the company. It won’t be as physically painful as getting a fastball in the ribs, but you will likely take some heat from a vendor, a key customer or the big boss.  The personal sting will last a couple of days but the respect from your team will more than compensate for the short-term discomfort.

And earning the trust of your team is the hallmark of a Good Manager.

Managing from One Foot Away

A recent interaction with another coach affirmed for me the wisdom of “Praise in Public, Correct in Private” and confirmed for me how personal an experience it is for anyone to receive criticism, correction or discipline from a leader, manager, coach or in this case a fitness instructor.

It’s this simple, when I’m corrected in public I feel rebuked and when it’s done one-to-one I feel encouraged.

As part of my belief in Training Ugly and getting out of my comfort zone, I take a weekly TRX class at the local rec centre.  TRX stands for Total Resistance eXercise and it’s a suspension training system that relies entirely on your own body weight to provide resistance. It’s not easy to master and after a year of classes, it continues to challenge my limits each week.

Our instructor preaches form over speed and corrects posture and position as she walks through the room.  With music playing and many other bodies planking, pulling and squatting, sometimes that correction comes in a shout from across the room and sometimes it comes from 1 foot away.

It’s amazing how the correction from afar feels like stinging, personal criticism.  It’s the affect of the audience.  Most people are OK with an expert correcting us, but not OK with other people knowing our weaknesses.  Like the first tee in golf, we feel like everyone is watching and critiquing us.  They are not, of course, and are likely too focused on their own posture or position to be worried about the tall guy in the corner not lunging correctly.

While correction stings from long distance, from 1 foot it feels collaborative and inspirational.  Like we are working toward a common goal and the small correction is a missing piece.  Many of my personal “Aha” moments in the weekly TRX class are from the softly spoken comment, suggestion or correction. From one foot I am thinking about the message and not how it was delivered or perceived in the room.

The same applies for managers that are delivering feedback.

If you can create an environment where the receiver feels the information is being shared with collaborative intent for their benefit, it’s more likely the message will be understood and acted upon.

Even disciplinary meetings should be delivered in this way.  The higher the stakes for the individual on your team – and a meeting that could lead to termination is as high as it gets – the more important it is for the manager to create a safe and personal environment.  This gives you the best chance for the message and proposed corrective action to be heard and not get lost in the emotion that the person is feeling.

So move a little closer, don’t be shy.

Driving the Bus – Part 2(b)

The most important thing you will do as a manager is Driving the Bus, which is a metaphor that I like to use when discussing recruiting and team building.  I recommend using the following Bus related questions to guide your hiring and team building:

  1. Where is the Bus going?
  2. Who should be on the Bus?
  3. Where should they sit?
  4. Who else can drive?

Each of these questions plays an integral role in building the team you go to battle with, and your long-term success. In Part Two A, we started with a section about Who Should Be on the Bus by talking about asking existing staff to get off the bus.  In this post, we are going to invite some new people to jump on the bus. What an exciting time! Bringing new people into an organization or onto a small team can send a shock of energy through the building.  Look what just happened with the Toronto Blue Jays.  Against 10 years of history, they made significant trades for better players to help them win this year and the jolt was felt right through the organization.  Their Monday game after the big trade was sold out and electric at the ballpark and the team is undefeated in the last week.  Contrast that to a year ago, when the Jays were in it and did not make a move. The fans howled, the media questioned and the players grumbled – and then started losing and missed the playoffs. Don’t miss the playoffs!  When you have a chance to strengthen your team through the hiring process, spend time on it and get it right. But where do you start?  Certainly not with a help wanted ad or a hiring ad on Monster.  Yes, you will post the ad internally and send it out online as part of the hiring process but your best prospects will not likely come from a stack of resumes.  They will come from your own personal list of superstars you want to hire, who do the same job with better results, better attitude and a new outlook at their existing company.

Do you keep a list of superstars?

If you are not, I would suggest that you start.  Start with your competitors locally, then nationally and find the person that kicks your butt at every pitch or who designs a product two upgrades more advanced than yours, year in and year out.  In baseball, one phrase you hear a lot is “Glad he’s on our side”  – because you’d rather not face them when with the game on the line.  Hire that person.

I would also suggest that you don’t limit your superstar list to your own industry.  Good sales people, CSR’s, coders and project managers work right down the street from you.  Identify the best companies around from their local press, awards for results, venture capital funding announcements, workplace awards, whatever and target the people you need who have proven results.

There is no better way for you to shine as a manager than to hire a superstar – both in the short term exhilaration of the moment when you hire a superstar but also when the results start improving as a result of that hire.

Nervous Knots for a New Manager – It’s All Good

In a post published today on his LinkedIn blog, Jack Welch wrote about feeling scared when you get promoted into your first managerial job. Unless you are in a job that is truly life and death – firefighter, soldier – I doubt that what you are feeling is fear.  At the same time, I have no doubt that whatever you are feeling is good for you.

I compare the feeling, which usually includes some sort of butterflies in the stomach and significantly heightened sense of sound, smell and touch, to the pre-game jitters most competitive athletes feel before a match or even the sweat down the back and dry mouth that show up when it’s time for a marriage proposal.

Why do these feelings and physical symptoms occur?  Two reasons:

  • We are highly invested in the outcome.  We want to win the game, or have our partner say “yes” or succeed at the new managerial job.  If there was no investment, there would be no physiological preparation by the body for the event about to happen.
  • The outcome is unknown.  You might not win the game.  There might not be a wedding in your future.  Your first project as manager might go sideways.

So the feelings are natural if you care about your job and the company you work for and the people you work with and the customers you serve.

As a new manager, the trick is to copy what the best athletes and marriage proposers and managers before you have done – focus on the process.  The athlete leans on their practice sessions, their game plan and trust in their team mates that they have your back and are working toward the same goal.  The person about to propose has already talked to the parents, picked a good time and place and has thought carefully about the words they want to say.  Once a minute they check to make sure that they have the ring in their pocket.

For you as a manager, focus on the stuff that got you promoted in the first place.  Trust your team, keep your office door and your mind open and be the guy who makes sure his team has everything they need to succeed.  Even though you are new, your team has been there done that, and will carry you through the first couple of projects happily if you make sure they have the tools, tech, time and food to succeed.  And after they do succeed, despite your newness, make sure they get one more thing – credit for the success with your boss and sincere praise from you in public in front of their peers.

And then even as you get things figured out and the butterflies disappear because the outcome is more certain in your mind, continue to use this model for the rest of your career.  Again from Jack’s piece:

Everyone knows that too much confidence can lead to arrogance and a kind of “that’s how we do it around here” inertia. The flip side is an insatiable hunger for new ideas and better ways to do things—a hunger that makes you fight like hell to win.

Keep fighting.


Meetings are Practice for Managers

Imagine a hockey team made up of the best players in the world, that only gets together just before the game.  They all know the rules and they share the same goal – to score more goals than their opponent – so they figure they can just roll out there and win.  After all, they are the best players in the world.  They don’t need no stinkin’ practice.

Well that did happen in 1979, when a team of NHL All Stars with 14 future members of the Hockey Hall of Fame and a Hall of Fame coach were defeated by the Soviet National Team 6-0.  The Soviets used their backup goaltender.

The same things can happen to a company and many of us have worked in a siloed work place where the “players” (managers) take care of their own responsibilities with no unifying plan or consideration for the other departments, product lines or locations.  Sure they know that Pete runs the manufacturing facility in Wenatchee, but they don’t know Pete and since they don’t know him, they don’t trust him to help them if they were to pass him the puck.  So instead of passing to Pete, they try to deke their way through the entire other team.

While many good managers efficiently plan meetings with their own team and ensure that everyone is on the same page, many organizations get tripped up by a lack of meetings between managers.  Like a Sergeant in the Army, managers in organizations are the people that get things done.  Executives think they do, but the good ones will admit they get credit for the work done every day by their managers.  And while the executives, often with good reason, make slower, more calculated moves at their level to work with executives from other areas to affect change, it’s the managers who can really strip away the bureaucracy through back channel relationships with other managers in other departments.

In fact, it’s better for an organization if managers have built up a little squad of fellow managers that can run the company and keep the executives from screwing it up with a calm voice of reason and a quick phone call to their opposite number in the adjoining building.

But before they can do this, they have to meet.  One to one if necessary, but preferably as a group with the common goal of making their lives simpler.  Create a Band of Brothers that sticks together for a noble purpose.  A group that know when something stinks when it arrives from the C Suite and as a group is confident enough to disregard or only partially implement directives from the boss for the greater good of the organization.

Manager:  “Sir, we attempted the implementation as you recommended but it was not feasible from a cost/resource/time/sanity perspective.  We did however figure out we could get the same results you need but with 20 less steps at 5% of the cost.”

Executive (to Manager): “Good Work”

Executive (to CEO): “I took care of that problem sir and managed to do it with less cost and time than forecast”

Everybody wins, but only if the managers have some practice time. Preferably without the executives present, as they tend to suck up all the oxygen in the room.  Talk, shoot the shit, discuss the common issues they face (the main ones being people – those work for them and those who they work for) and develop a relationship built on common goals.

The Recipe for a Good Manager

I grew up in sports and follow many sports, especially baseball, golf and college basketball closely.  Each of those sports has its own recipe for success.  These recipes provide teams or competitors the best chance of winning, even without the best players or the most skill.

In baseball – pitching and defense.

In basketball – defense and free throws.

In golf – chipping and putting.

The manager’s recipe fort success has just 3 ingredients:

  1. Managing Not Doing
  2. Sell Yourself Using Know, Like and Trust
  3. Practice Servant Leadership

By mastering these 3 ingredients, the accidental manager can succeed in their role, regardless of their skills, personality type or lack of experience.