Sunday, January 11, 2009

Growing people in a growing organization

How does an organization grow? Does adding heads make an organization bigger? Or is size a product of various factors, including but not limited to diversity of business; geographical spread; success of external and internal ventures; maturity of your practices and the abilities, potential and growth of your own people? I am inclined to think of the latter. Being a professional in the people function I feel quite strongly about growing people and while I'm sometimes guilty of the same mistakes that I may point out in this post, my views remain as strong as ever.

In the services/ software industry I hear the term "project management" quite often and the "project manager" is seemingly a prized commodity. In ThoughtWorks, I've in fact had the privilege of working with one of the finest project managers - Tiffany Lentz. This said, I get the impression that the "fine project manager" is turning out to be an endangered species. With delivery pressures consuming most teams; a project manager's role remains confined to assuring successful delivery of a project. Its difficult to recognize though, that the role has a two fold responsibility:
  • managing your project;
  • and leading your people

I've been a functional manager for quite some time now but have little or no experience of managing software delivery projects. As a manager though, I remember one thing one of my old mentors told me the first time I started to handle a team; "Lead your people well and the function will manage itself." I might be naive to believe that this can directly translate to a project; "Lead your people well and your project will manage itself." I somehow believe that this could really be true. I've been fortunate to work with some extremely capable individuals; highly motivated, responsible and intelligent. I've strongly believed that each of them could perform almost any task given the opportunity; thankfully no one let me down. What did I have to do -- I guess nothing special. I just ensured that I was investing two things - my time in them and me in their growth. Many of us hear that a bunch of highly intelligent people will produce great results regardless of the quality of management. OTOH; I believe that productivity != busy-ness as some managers will make you believe. As a great manager, one should be able to develop people and accomplish results at the same time. Trading one for the other, is equivalent to settling for mediocrity.

Unfortunately this is easier said than done. Given the pace of business today, while there's a lot of technical training available for billable professionals, there's little or no training for new/ potential leaders. As it turns out, many of us young managers have learnt by observing others; by trial and error and by imitating "the easy way out". Its quite harsh then that your people expect nothing but the best from you as a leader! Regardless of which organization you work, we expect great things from our leaders. Given the quantum of "management work", how do we invest anything in our people, especially time? The answer as "Esther Derby" puts it is, "Spending time with people is management work!". So even if you spend four hours each day in meetings; it leaves you with at least 1.5 hours each day to spend with people. If you have a team of 10, you could happily afford one-on-ones with each of them in the week. The advantages of spending one-on-one time with your people are plenty. To quote a few:
  • you get to delegate intelligently and effectively and follow up on progress of actions;
  • you get to remove obstacles from your people's paths;
  • you get to offer help if someone needs it;
  • most importantly you get invest time in their career and build a relationship based on trust.

If all works well, you'll hopefully not have to spend four hours in meetings each day, since your team members will soon step upto many responsibilities. Hopefully the so called "management work" could be taken up by more seasoned members in your team, while you can focus on growing more people. I guess this is your investment in making your function/ project the best you can make it. I'm no expert at management - if you're interested in the topic of leadership through the act of individualization, refer Esther Derby's little book - Behind Closed Doors. Its a thin little book and quite a gem.


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The most astounding capacity of a pioneer is not simply to lead others; the most noteworthy capacity of a pioneer is to create pioneers who can lead others. There's no outsourcing the obligation to build up the initiative limits of your kin.

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