Straightening Out the Mess of Managing


I had two great conversations this week, which I will relate today as the foundation for a month-long series to help you think about how you might manage better.  Breakfast #1:  Bill* and I were talking about a CEO we both worked for.  “He was so hard to figure,” I said.  Bill said, “I had the same experience.  Some days he was great, but then other times, he’d give me the feeling I was really messing up.  But I was always guessing what it was.”  We agreed that whether  he told us that something was great, or that something wasn’t done right, we never felt we were getting the straight poop or the whole story.

“I couldn’t believe this,” my friend said and got this look of amazement. He continued, “Before he left the organization he gave me a long letter – I mean a long letter – telling me what a contribution I had made.”  Bill said the letter was carefully written, full of both detail and enthusiasm.  Looking as amazed as if he’s just read the letter, Bill said to me: “In five years, I never knew that he felt that way about my work.”  I nodded and told Bill, “To this day, I’m still not entirely sure how he saw my work.”

One of the foundations for the lessons I will draw out in the coming weeks is this: What bosses think about our work really matters. This guy and I are both fairly accomplished executives, well into mid-career, and looking back over a decade. As people committed to doing a great job, we (or at least I, who never got such the “all’s well” letter) still wonder how we were doing, and where we really stood.

Breakfast #2. My friend Carol* says, “Here’s the tough thing. As a boss you have to be concerned about quality. That’s your job as a CEO or an Owner or a Principal.” So, she said that when she reviews work, she can be critical and tough. She knows there’s some fallout. She sure doesn’t want to deflate or discourage or diminish the pride and energy of one of her team members, but there’s often time pressure, a client or customer to be pleased, and a need to be clear and decisive about a point.  So she lays it out.  She said, “I tell them ‘Good job’ at the time.” And she said she often goes out of her way later to thank them, but she said her gut tells her they don’t really hear or believe the praise, while the criticism rings in their ears for a long time.

So, here’s the challenge to which I will come back in each of the next four weeks: How do you offer the necessary, clear, critical-yet-constructive feedback – which people say they want and you know they need – yet still build them up? Maybe you’ll quickly say, “It’s not an either/or,” and of course, you’re right. But the human psyche’s not so simple, not so linear. Instead, let’s share some serious thought about what it takes to make it really work.

Let me kick it off with a question. You can apply it to my two breakfast stories or any  situation in which you manage a worker or child. What is the value of distinguishing between what you say .  . . and what they hear? (How) could that help?

Maybe observe this distinction this week, as you lead with your best self!


*Not their names.