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Common Management Challenges and How to Deal with Them
By Ronald Hill
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Ronald Hill
All rights reserved.
Count to Three and Succeed
Define Your Management Success. Identify Critical Objectives. Stay Focused on the Vital Few.
We can all count to three, and we can count a wide variety of different things, some of which may be critical to our success as managers and others that can be totally irrelevant. What we choose to count and focus on is the critical factor for achieving management success. Accidental success is as nice as it is rare. As the saying goes, "When you fail to plan, you plan to fail," and you are doomed to accept whatever happens.
Define Your Management Success.
Succeeding as a manager is a journey, and the odds for a successful journey increase dramatically when you plan. Like all journeys, the road to successful management begins with the first step: defining management success.
Early on in my career, I thought being successful meant doing a good job. I felt that promotions would come my way as long as I was producing results. Little did I realize this was only one part of the success formula. Being successful can mean several different things, such as getting a project done on time and within budget, meeting specs, building a team, delegating successfully, developing the team, developing yourself, or getting promoted, just to name a few.
While succeeding as a manager can include all of these factors, I realized that really succeeding as a manager was more encompassing than individual successes. So I set about defining management success. I reviewed dictionaries and searched the web for an encompassing definition of management success. I found it much easier to find a definition of the word manage than to find a definition of management success.
The verb manage can be defined as
to direct/oversee or control an enterprise, business, resource, expenditure, or people.
Once this definition is understood, the extension to a more encompassing definition of management success is straightforward:
consistently directing/overseeing or controlling an enterprise, business, resource, expenditure, or people to achieve agreed-upon goals.
If your performance matches this definition, you are successful as a manager, regardless of your position in your company. This is equally true whether you are the CEO or a frontline supervisor. However, achieving management success requires additional skill sets as one climbs the career ladder from supervisor to CEO, and these skill sets are vastly different at the CEO level from those at the supervisor level. And even though management success can occur at any management level, it is generally a prerequisite for advancement to the next management level. Thus, management success and career success are intimately intertwined.
Career success involves reaching a predefined goal that you have chosen. This can be any goal (such as being an individual contributor, achieving a specific management level, having the best team, consistently exceeding a plan, getting promoted, etc.), but defining that goal is absolutely critical to a successful career. Write this goal down and put it in a place you visit often, like your computer desktop. Make sure your goal is measurable and specific. Use the concept of SMART goals, that is, goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-limited. Too many people fill their day with activities leading nowhere, and at the end of the day, they are one day older and no closer to achieving their goal. Sure, these activities may put bread on the table, ensure continued employment, and so on, and that is okay if this is your definition of career success. However, if you have more aggressive career ambitions, you undoubtedly have a specific position as your goal, which most likely includes being promoted to progressively responsible positions or changing jobs until you reach your ultimate goal.
Equally important to understanding management success is understanding your career goal and the stepping-stones leading to that goal. These stepping-stones are a series of intermediate, but critical, objectives that when successfully achieved will result in reaching your career goal.
Identify Critical Objectives.
In your quest to get promoted, equally important as being competent in your current position is getting ready to be competent at the next level. If you have defined promotions as part of your career success plan, the three critical objectives required to reach your goal are:
1. Learn the skills necessary to perform at the next level.
Although your first promotion was most likely due to the fact that you were good at your job, you rapidly discovered that being a good technician was totally different from managing a group of technicians. Before being promoted to the next level, learn the skills necessary to perform at the next level. Do this by observing or getting to know managers at the next level.
If possible, seek out a successful manager at that level who is willing to be your mentor. Ask him or her what it takes to succeed at that level. At least observe or talk to people who report to a successful manager at that level, and ask them their opinion of the skill set their manager possesses. At one point in my career, I needed to learn about manufacturing, so I asked a manufacturing manager if I could sit in on his management meetings to learn more about his operation. He was more than helpful and told me no one had ever approached him wanting to learn more about what he did.
2. Obtain the knowledge necessary to perform at the next level.
This can be done by asking people to recommend books to read, taking knowledgeable people to lunch and picking their brains (people love to talk about what they know), spending some time observing workers and how they do things, learning what management information systems managers at the next level use, and taking classes. Oftentimes the next level requires some knowledge of a discipline other than the one you were trained in, such as moving from an engineering manager to a management position that includes overseeing manufacturing and accounting operations.
3. Promote yourself.
This simply means letting appropriate people know that you are interested in a position at the next level and asking them what you would need to do to be considered for promotion. Ask them if they would be willing to provide feedback as you acquire the necessary skills.
When I was in graduate school, I was finishing work on my master's thesis and looking for a project for my PhD. A friend of mine was in the final stages of research on his project, and there remained additional research to complete the total project. I approached his thesis advisor and asked if I could take over my friend's project when he graduated.
The advisor wasn't sure of my qualifications since my major had been electrical engineering and the project had to do with physics and metallurgy. I told him I had some knowledge of solid-state physics theory and asked what it would take to get the project's next phase for my research project. I also asked him what he would recommend I study in order to qualify. To make a long story short, I took his advice, and within three months, he gave me an oral exam and awarded me the project.
Stay Focused on the Vital Few.
Each day, review your activities and see if they have moved you closer to your objectives. Remember: those activities that move you closer to your goal are classified as vital, and vital activities that are most important at the current time are the vital few. There may be several vital activities at any point in time, not all of which can be done simultaneously. Pick the three most critical and get them done first. Don't move on to lesser objectives unless they can be worked on without delaying any of the three most critical objectives. Rigidly adhering to this discipline will guarantee the quickest path to success.
Be sure to differentiate between vital and urgent, as discussed in the next chapter.
The Vital Few
Identify the Vital Few. Don't Confuse Vital with Urgent. Keep the Vital Factors Nonurgent.
Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist (1848–1923), is credited with the discovery of the 80-20 rule when he noticed that 80 percent of the wealth in Italy was controlled by just 20 percent of the population.
Throughout time, others have made the same or similar observations. For example, Microsoft in 2003 noted that 80 percent of errors and crashes in Windows and Office were caused by 20 percent of the detected bugs. Additionally, a 1992 United Nations Development Program Report showed that the richest 20 percent of the world's population controlled 82.7 percent of the world's income.
Given that this appears to be the rule rather than the exception, the common extension of these observations states that 80 percent of results are obtained from 20 percent of the effort. Stated a different way, 20 percent of all activities produce 80 percent of the results. The activities that fall into this 20 percent category can be classified as the vital few.
What about the remaining 80 percent? How are they classified? Are they not important? While many activities contribute to successful goal attainment, the fact of the matter is that some contribute in a more significant manner than others. In other words, they are the most vital, while the remaining activities are less vital. These less vital activities, in relation to the vital activities yet to be performed, are referred to (in this book) as the trivial many. As time passes and the vital activities are completed, some of these trivial many will move into the vital few category, becoming the most important activities necessary for successful goal attainment.
Good managers have the ability to separate the vital from the trivial. Perhaps a bit overstated, the manager's golden rule should be "Concentrate on the vital few; ignore the trivial many." Sounds like good advice, but can a manager really ignore the trivial many? The answer is always yes if it impacts the ability to accomplish the vital few!
This is not to say that trivial activities should be tabled until the vital activities are completed. Obviously many activities get performed simultaneously with achieving business goals. The important lesson here is to make sure the vital few are being addressed to the greatest extent possible at all times and to not let the trivial few detract from that vital effort.
Identify the Vital Few.
The vital few can be time-dependent. For example, in project management there are usually several sequential and parallel activities leading to intermediate results (usually referred to as project milestones) that are vital to project completion. One can make the case that all these activities are vital, since eliminating any one of them results in incomplete goal attainment. However, at any given point in time, certain project activities are more vital than others, depending on whether or not delaying the activity delays project completion. These activities are referred to as vital and urgent and lie on the critical path (sequential activities that if delayed, delay goal attainment) and change with time as various activities are completed. At any given point in time, activities not on the critical path can take a certain amount of time longer than normal without impacting timely goal attainment (called slack time). However, as the activity consumes its slack time, it becomes part of the critical path and moves into the vital-urgent category. For a more complete discussion on project management theory, search the Internet for "project evaluation and review technique" (e.g., PERT) charts.
The vital few can also be time-independent if they are continually vital and urgent. Examples might be maintaining technical superiority in semiconductor products for a semiconductor manufacturer, maintaining product quality in any business, obtaining patent protection for products, maintaining long-term profitability, and so on.
Whether you are the CEO of a major corporation or manage a small group of individuals, you should identify and stay focused on the three most vital factors for success. Staying focused on three ensures that the top three priorities get accomplished first. Once one of the top three is accomplished, the next most important vital factor joins the top three. If there are more than three top priorities, the attention on each priority gets diluted.
Corporate executives for one company I consulted with had established fourteen corporate goals for the new year, all ranked as top corporate priorities. None of the managers I worked with could recite the top three goals, let alone all fourteen goals. By limiting priorities to the top three goals, the entire organization can understand and remember corporate priorities on a daily basis and make appropriate decisions on where to devote their effort.
Vital factors, whether urgent or not, need to be identified and tracked on a regular basis in order to ensure that they command the appropriate attention. Be careful to track the vital results you are looking for, in addition to the activities leading to the vital results.
For example, I was working with the manager of the loan officer group in a well-known bank whose goal was to produce new loans. At his weekly staff meeting, the loan officers were required to report new contacts made during the week. As a result, all the loan officers made sure they had contacts to report. However, the vital factor remained getting new loans, regardless of how many contacts were made. This tracking system placed the emphasis on activity instead of results. We changed the reporting procedure to include new loans closed as well as new contacts, quickly identifying loan officer productivity, allowing the team to set reasonable standards for loan generation, which in turn became the new criteria for acceptable performance.
In another example of the vital few, a manufacturer of stainless steel restaurant equipment (sinks, worktables, etc.) wanted to increase revenues and had identified that 30 percent of all proposals resulted in contracts. So the owner set goals for the sales force to increase the number of proposals generated. The number of submitted proposals met the new goals, but the sales remained the same. The owner was puzzled by this result. When we examined the newly generated proposals, we found that the sales force was meeting the new goals by splitting proposals into two or three separate proposals—one for sinks, one for tables, and so on. Once we explained the reasoning behind the new proposal goals (i.e., to increase sales, not just proposals) to the sales personnel, the sales force quit splitting the proposals and increased proposal activity, and the company began to realize its increased sales goal.
Don't Confuse Vital with Urgent.
Vital means the task is mission-critical, and urgent means the task needs to get done immediately or in the very near future. Just because something is urgent doesn't mean it is vital. For example, a task not on the critical path that is late, although vital, is not urgent until it becomes a task on the critical path.
Recognizing and addressing the vital few is the key to successful goal achievement. However, we are often distracted by non-vital tasks, especially if they are also urgent. The matrix above helps to stay focused on the vital factors.
Vital means it is mission-critical. In other words, if it is not completed, the mission will fail.
Non-vital is not mission-critical, and the mission can succeed without it.
Urgent means it is time-critical (i.e., it is approaching the deadline).
Nonurgent means there is still adequate time to complete it.
If something is vital and also urgent, it must be addressed immediately to keep the project on track. You have no choice because if an item is not addressed immediately, the project will not be completed as scheduled. If it is vital but nonurgent, it is no less critical, but there is still time to complete it without delaying the project. However, if not completed, as the arrow indicates, it will migrate from vital-nonurgent to vital-urgent.
If it is urgent but non-vital, it should be addressed only after vital items that can be currently addressed have been addressed. An example of this might be a deadline to renew a magazine subscription.
Non-vital and nonurgent are don't-care items to be addressed only if there is nothing else to do.
Keep the Vital Factors Nonurgent.
In the beginning, the vital items are usually nonurgent, since there is still time left before the vital task has to be completed. As time passes, the vital become more and more urgent, usually because the trivial many detract from the vital few. The manager who spends too much time on the non-vital issues will find the vital issues migrating from the vital-nonurgent to the vital and urgent arena. When this happens, there often isn't enough time to adequately accomplish the vital tasks, resulting in delays and cost overruns.
Excerpted from Common Management Challenges and How to Deal with Them by Ronald Hill. Copyright © 2013 Ronald Hill. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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