Archive for December, 2010

Ask Questions

December 27, 2010

“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever”  Chinese Proverbs

My best boss ever was great at asking questions.

A client called us about making changes to their website.  We were just about finished with the project, so I asked my manager if we could have a phone conference with the client. We were all on the phone and the client said, “The logo needs to be bigger.” In my estimation, the logo was already large enough. I could have articulated several reasons why I did not think making it any bigger was the best direction for the site. However, before I could respond, my manager asked the client “Why do you want the logo bigger?” After some discussion, the client expressed his concern that the brand of the site was not prominent enough. They did not feel like, when you first hit the home page, you would immediately know and understand you were at http://www.whatever.com. Aha! Now we have a problem. See, “Make the logo bigger” is a solution. “The brand is not prominent enough” is a problem. The skill of my manager was that he could ask questions of the client and then let them tell him where they wanted to go with the project.

In an ideal world, it is the client’s job to bring problems and the designers’ job to find solutions. I did not end up making the logo bigger. I did put more white space around it and added a subtle (but effective) watermark of the brand icon in a very prominent position on the page. The point is this: making the logo bigger was only one possible solution to the problem.

Whenever I wanted to get into a discussion with a client or a co-worker and my boss was present, he would always listen and respond with questions.  His goal was always to understand the other person better.

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Open to Feedback

December 20, 2010

To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. I am not a teacher, only a fellow student.”  Soren Kierkegaard

 When I was first hired, I was informed that I would be part of the team that would evaluate my boss. I was shocked and surprised that part of my role would be to give feedback to my boss.

However, this feedback was the basis for why she was one of my best bosses ever.

After I was on the job for about two months, my boss came to me and handed me an evaluation form. Here were some of the sample questions and we were to rank them on a scale of one to four. The reason they used this scale system was so no one could just pick three as the average. Your response had to either be above or below-average.

SAMPLE QUESTIONS:

  • Admits mistakes?
  • Communicates effectively in meetings?
  • Manages conflicts to a productive outcome?
  • Develops employees?
  • Keeps confidences?
  • Dresses appropriately?
  • Does not take credit for others’ work?
  • Does not play favorites?

There were many more questions than just this, but the power of the process was that my manager would invite all the raters to a conference room and then have an open discussion about the feedback.  Not everyone would go, but the ones who did attend gave some very constructive feedback and her strength as a manager was her ability to intently listen to what was being said. She worked at listening and taking the comments to heart. 

There were some things said in those meetings that were painful and difficult for her to swallow, but they were said out of care and concern. You could tell she worked at taking the information to heart. By her openness and willingness to listen, it set a tone for the entire department. Everyone tried to be more open and to listen more carefully. You could tell after the meetings it made a difference with everyone.

The amazing thing was the impact it made on the entire company. As a manager, she grew and became better because of the feedback she was getting. However, the company did not endorse nor use 360-degree feedback. Nevertheless, once word got around that she was using it and the results were positive, within two years the Human Resources Department used her method and taught it to other managers.  

This simple technique changed my first day of being hired, because I was invited to be part of the feedback team for my boss, but it also changed our department, and then ultimately changed our company, because the entire company started to use her method. By watching her work at improving herself, she helped improve the discussions in the entire company.

Teacher and Mentor by Jeff Varney

December 13, 2010

Experience is the worst teacher. It always gives the test first and the instruction afterward.”    Zig Ziglar

 The late Lynn Gernert was the best boss I have ever had.

 In the formative years of my professional growth, Lynn Gernert, earned my respect and admiration with everything he did.

 As a recent college graduate working as an engineer in my very first job, I was surrounded by colleagues of my age and education level who were doing the grunt work. For them it was a very challenging time in their career, they did not sign on to do calculation after calculation. They wanted to be challenged and they wanted to do some higher-level thinking. However, they were not as lucky as I was because, Lynn Gernert was my manager.

Lynn did not assign me menial tasks of a repetitive nature. He would give me a vision of the task because he had the ability to sit down with that vision on a piece of paper and to convey that vision to me.  With Lynn, I did not feel like I was an employee; I felt like I was a colleague and a partner in the project, even though this was my very first job right out of college. Once he assigned the task to me and he was always successful in his vision instruction. However, once I had the task assigned, he gave me the latitude and the leeway to do it my way.  The task did not always have to be done his way. He understood that creative and educated people could come up with a variety of ways to solve a problem.

Lynn also recognized my abilities and could sense when I could only take on so much of a project.  He would allow me to work as far as I could and then he would wait for me to come back for additional instruction.

The real skill was his ability to keep me in the industry when my other college friends were not challenged and wanted to go into another field of endeavor. They were given grunt work and repetitive processes and it drove them nuts. However, with Lynn’s help, I was given the opportunity to do very interesting things.

The best thing about Lynn was his ability to always learn. That challenged me to always learn too. Those were his best skills to inspire me to think and work through projects, to continue to learn and grow and to give me interesting work. Now that I am a manager, I try to emulate his style.