I know, I know... I've been horrible about paying attention to this lately. I'll admit, I've been busy
paying attention to clients and not my blog. Shame on me.

But here are 2 things for you all to look forward to...

1) I'll be posting on Tech Out of Water twice a week from now on, and

2) There is a secret project in the works that I think you all will really enjoy

Start looking for more information on this project in the next few weeks. In the meantime, please enjoy my returned attention to Tech Out of Water, and let me know if there are topics you'd like to see me cover here.
Author’s Note: I’ve had this post on my list to write for weeks now. I keep putting it off, hoping that I can forget about it, but the kind of events that inspired it just keep coming. After seeing reports from Baton Rouge and Miami this week, I can see where the need still exists for these words.

As leaders we all find ourselves needing to help a team member through a traumatic event. Typically these are things like the loss of a loved one - perhaps a parent or other family member - or maybe a divorce or significant illness.

For most people it is easy to tap into your humanity and provide the support needed. Your organization might even have a plan in place for these instances that can guide you through the rough waters of managing someone dealing with sadness and pain.

But what do you do, as a leader, in times of more public tragedies? Is it reasonable that your team may feel stress from something that happened to unknown people, hundreds, even thousands of miles away? And how do you manage your team through that stress?

National/Global Tragedies and the New Community

It is difficult to turn on the TV or radio, or visit the web without seeing reports of a tragedy. The unfortunate reality is that these events have become a part of our lives, be they in France, the Middle East, Missouri, Texas or Florida.

So is it conceivable that your team, sitting in an office with no direct connection to what has happened, can and are affected by these events?

The answer is yes, and why lies in the definition of community.

First, understand that when a larger scale tragedy happens, it reverberates through a community. Even those who don’t know anyone personally involved can feel the effects. James Hawdon, a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech University, identified that "The entire community often defines itself as being the target, as being the victim” in a study on the effects of the Virgina Tech shooting in 2007. In fact, 10 - 15% of a community can suffer from depression or PTSD after devastating public tragedies.

Notice the word that keeps cropping up, though. Community. It has an effect on the community. The important notion to tie up with this data is that, in the digital age in particular, the idea of community is no longer localized.

Where’s the complication? Let’s look for answers in the dictionary definition of the word:

Com·mu·ni·ty - kəˈmyo͞onədē/noun
1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.

2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

It’s that second part of the definition that we must be mindful of. Community is more than the people you live near. It’s the people you identify with. People who share the same thoughts and ideas and philosophies as you. They are a group of people that, for whatever reason, you identify with.

And those people may live hundreds or thousands of miles away. But they are still your community, and what happens to them has a good chance of having an effect on you, or your team.

Recognize the Need…

So we’ve established that members of your team might experience issues caused by stress, anxiety or depression in the wake of a public tragedy. But it’s unlikely they will come and tell you about it. They may not even recognize that their feelings are affecting them at all.

But their work and their demeanor can show what they don’t say.

Pop quiz - look at the list below and write down which ones are signs of someone who no longer cares about their job, and which are signs of stress:

  • Calling in sick or frequent allergy attacks
  • Overly worried
  • Mood swings
  • Anger easily/overreact to small annoyances
  • Frequently showing up late
  • Trouble learning new things
  • Isolating themselves from the team
  • Sloppy appearance
  • Reduced productivity
  • Saying they are overloaded (even when they have a normal work load)
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Disorganized
  • Forgetful
  • Highly defensive


From a management perspective, they all look like an employee who is about to tell you to take this job and shove it. The reality is, these are all signs of stress.

If you’ve got a great employee who suddenly starts acting differently, or shows some of the above symptoms, hold off on the call to HR for a performance plan until you’ve had a chance to talk to them about it.

Understand, too - they may not even realize what is going on. This is a critical time when being a good leader can make a real difference to another human being. Address it early, firmly, but kindly. Make sure they understand what they are doing, give specific examples and explain what it’s doing to the rest of the team. Then work together to figure out a way you can help.


…And Then Answer it


During that conversation, charge your team member with taking responsibility for identifying how you can help. They need to help you figure out how to help them.



If they can’t come up with anything, make a few suggestions:

  • Time period of reduced workload: You’re probably not getting the best out of this person anyhow. Give them a chance to right themselves with less work for a specified period or time
  • Suggest a few days off: again, if you’re not getting the best out of them, or they are hindering your team’s productivity, it’s better for you and them if they take a day or two
  • The option to walk away: Are they flying off the handle at almost nothing? Encourage them to - gracefully - remove themselves from a conversation that is raising their hackles. Go for a walk. Then come back and address what’s needed
  • Come to you with requests: if they find something later that will help, your door should be open to them


Walk the Fine Line


Many people won’t want to talk any further about what’s going on in their heads. Knowledge workers are notoriously private people in the workplace. But that’s not a hard and fast rule.

Your job in this is to remove the obstacles that are preventing a productive workplace for the employee and for the team as a whole. Juggle schedules, move dates (if you can), see if you can get in additional help. But sometimes the conversation goes outside the bounds of the workplace.

Some people will want to share what they are going through. They will want to unburden themselves. And as humans we have a natural tendency to want to help. But what if the discussion makes you uncomfortable? You’re an IT manager, not a psychologist, after all.

Situations like this can put leaders into a tough spot. It’s hard to find that appropriate balance between being helpful and caring and being a dumping ground of personal information you never wanted.

The good news is, you’re not alone. There is lots of help within and outside your organization that you can point the employee to. It’s ok to say “I want to help you, but I’m not the right person for this” as long as you help them find the right person.


Help is… Over There


First and foremost, you should talk to your HR department, whether you need help or not. They should be aware what is going on in case other team members, or other teams, bring up any issues. They can, and will, help run interference.

If your team member is someone that needs extra support, HR can help there, too.

Their job (or someone in their department’s job) is to be deeply aware of employee benefits, and what help can be called upon. For instance, do you know if your company has an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) and how to use it? Are you aware what level of benefits the employee has, and the ins and outs of their coverage?

Of course you don’t. But HR does. And they live and breathe to help in these kinds of circumstances, just like your team lives and breathes code or architecture or networking.



Many of these rules apply whether your team member is dealing with a very personal tragedy or are part of a community coping with loss. A good leader will watch out for increased signs of stress and depression in their teams, and then help and get help for those that need it.
Mike was one of my best employees. His projects were on time and well tested before going to QA. He worked well with other teams, and with out team members. He took direction well, and sought out guidance on his career. He was communicative, and years after I left the company where we worked together, he continued to advance his career and moved in the direction he had wanted to go, into management.

I hired Dominic twice. The first time it was a recommendation, the second I dragged him across 2 states to get him to work for me. Dominic was always dedicated, constantly working to improve his skills and knowledge. He would ask for help when he needed it, and pushed me to be a better leader by always challenging me.

John I also hired twice. John was the first "regular" employee that I coached into management. He was dedicated, open to feedback, and highly technical. He worked hard to understand the business side of the equation and was well respected by those he worked with. He had the kind of confidence you love to see in a leader, and a collaborative style that makes you want to work with him.

While not the only top performers that ever worked with me, these three share a common thread, beyond being fantastic employees. How were they similar? Unless there was a good reason, none of them came in before 10 am (Dominic usually edged toward noon). They each had their reasons. And if there was an early meeting or a dire need for them to be in the office by a specific time, they were there. Otherwise, it was a late start to the day for each of them. And each of them stayed late each day they came in late, without anyone telling them to.

This seems directly counter to what is expected in most business cultures, doesn't it? Aren't you supposed to be in your chair by 9 am (or 8 am)? And you're only a good, productive employee if you sit there until 5 pm, right? If you don't follow that pattern, you're a slacker. That's what traditional business philosophy tells us, and I've worked for many places where that remains the expectation.

But these 3 - and many others - prove otherwise. Most of the time they had choice and autonomy in their schedules. They came in at a time that worked for them, and they worked until they were done. They were loyal, talented, strong performers with a sense of urgency in their work. They were, and still are, the antithesis of "slacker".

You may not have a lot of flexibility with time management with your team, but if you have any at all, let your team benefit from it. Start by remembering that each person has different needs. Try and meet those needs as best you can within the constraints you have in your role. Try one of these strategies that will meet the letter of your company's policies but still give some flexibility to your team and their schedules.

- Stagger start times - let earlier risers come in and leave early, and night owls come in and leave late. This allows you to always have someone on your team in the office
- See if you can set "core hours" - times when everyone must be there but they can come in before or after that time as best fits their needs
- Strict office start and end times? I never forced my teams to take PTO for appointments and such. Giving someone 2 hours every few months to take care of something important let's them know you care about their well being, and, really, when's the last time any of us only worked 40 hours in a week?
- Be willing to treat each person's need for flexibility differently. Treating people fairly is different than treating everyone the same

The people who work for you should be - and hopefully are - adults and professionals. Treating them as such shows that you respect them as individuals, and makes it easier for them to return that respect. By giving them some autonomy over their own schedules you'll be on the path to creating a happier and higher performing team.
Let me be completely clear - job titles are critically important.

Now, anyone who has heard me speak on the subject, from small groups to round tables on careers in IT, will be shocked to hear me say that. I’m usually pointing out to people that chasing a title is ridiculous. And that still holds true. If you want a job because you want the title - Lead, Manager, Director, VP - you’re making a mistake and you’re doing yourself a disservice. A title shouldn’t drive your career. A title won’t make you happy. In fact, my conclusion in these conversations, always, is “Titles aren’t for you, they are so other people know what you do.”

“So why the flip flop, Dawn?” you say. Because saying they aren’t important is true - as an end goal titles don’t mean much. But saying they are important is ALSO true - as a descriptor they have value. Internally they shouldn’t hold sway, externally they are a short cut for people to understand what one another does, professionally.

A title is a tag, if you will, for not only your skills but what is expected from you as part of your job. You know that someone who is a Senior Web Developer does something different than a Director of Business Intelligence. Both are important roles within an organization, both use different skills and have experience in different arenas.

In fact, you can recognize that a Senior Web Developer has different skills than a Senior Embedded Developer. At a glance you know that one is dealing with Internet based languages and frameworks and markup - HTML5, .Net or PHP, REST, SOAP and so on. The other is dealing with a completely different set of technologies - RTOS, C, Assembly. This isn’t to say that a web developer can’t become (or hasn’t been) an embedded programmer, or visa versa. What it does say is that someone holding the one title is currently using a different set of skills and experience than the person that holds the other.

And it is because they help to inform the outsider, the casual (or even interested) observer as to what is what that, as a manager, you need to think very carefully about the titles of the roles on your team. They will tell others what the members of your team do, and collectively what your team does, at least at a high level. They create a common language for us all.

This is especially critical when hiring. Companies love to come up with titles that are creative, that have meaning within the organization and that tell people you work with what projects you're on and in what business unit. Potential employees, on the other hand, need a guide book for what the role entails without deep diving into the job description.

Modern job searches generally begin with someone typing a title into a search bar. Consider, for instance, the data compiled by CareerBuilder in their 2015 Candidate Behavior Study. The study
breaks up job search behavior into 4 phases:

  • Orientation: candidates begin assessing their talents and what is available in the market, usually by doing some searches and talking to friends. They also start updating their resumes.
  • Consideration: The job seeker starts to engage their community and network. Some of that takes place on social media.
  • Action: Candidates are actively applying for jobs.
  • Engagement: There is active communication between companies and candidates, including interviews and negotiations.


In which phase do you think the job title isn’t important in some way to the job seeker? If you said “None of the above”, you’re correct. Let’s take a closer look as to why that is.

For our purposes, we'll pretend you have a need on your team for a user experience architect - someone who will do user research, usability testing, and create high and low fidelity wireframes. You are told, or convinced, to call this a UI Design Engineer (I’ve actually seen this title). What effect is that title going to have in each of the search phases for a candidate?

During the orientation phase, candidates are poking around, seeing what jobs are available. Almost all of them are using Google at some point for this. In fact, according to the CareerBuilder report, at every job level from entry to executive, 70% or more of these candidates use Google in phase 1. So someone looking for your job will search, and they will search for the key words that are closely related and commonly accepted in the industry to match their skills. They will type in user experience, UX, UX architect, maybe even UX designer. Based on the title, your job will only show up in one of those searches, and it won’t be high on the list.

Let’s move on to phase 2, Consideration. Here, candidates are getting social about their search. Again, referring back to the behavior report, 68% of men and 71% of women will use social media as part of their search at this point. But with so much noise in social media (a medium that pioneered the acronym tl;dr) you need to catch someone’s attention to get them to read deeper into what you’re looking for. If your title doesn’t speak to them, they won’t look any further.

When candidates reach the Action phase, phase 3, they are submitting their resumes. Let me ask you - have you done this lately? I’m here to tell you that most of the time, it’s PAINFUL, with a capital everything. You upload your resume, then you're asked to type in everything you just uploaded. Candidates don’t need more deterrents keeping them from applying for your job. Most applicant tracking systems are enough to make you want to be homeless instead. So if the title doesn’t tell them what it is they will be doing, or makes you seem confused as an employer as to what the job should be, they will spend their time elsewhere. This leaves you with the bottom of the barrel, truly desperate job seekers.

In phase 4, Engagement, candidates are actively engaging with companies. Assuming that you’ve gotten past the previous hurdles you might have a hard time getting your great candidate to want to take a job with the title as it stands. You have to think about this from an employee’s perspective, and at the end of the day they will wonder if the job title they are about to commit to is going to help them get their next gig. Think about it for a moment. If you received a resume with an ambiguous title listed, you’d want to know what it is they really did. I’ve had candidates ask me as part of offer negotiations to change a title for this exact reason. Referring one last time to the CareerBuilder report, 67% of High Technology industry workers would compromise on salary for good experience. But if that good experience can’t be reflected on their resume, what value does it hold?

Job titles are for other people, and sometimes those other people are the highly skilled and valuable candidates that you hope will hold that title soon. It’s time for us as leaders to step away from the thesaurus and create job titles that have actual meaning for job seekers and everyone else.
Our post today is a guest post from technologist, public speaker, and leader, Jer Lance. You can read more of Jer's thoughts on these topics as well as Agile, kayaking, teaching, and life over on his blog, JerLance.com.

It's 10am and I am sitting in my home office corresponding with a broad network of contacts and contacts of contacts, and it occurs to me that for a hopeless introvert, the last 24 hours amounts to more "being on" than I typically muster in even a busy week.

And I haven't even started trying to find a job for me yet!

Let me start from the beginning. Yesterday, a large group of us were assembled in a conference room and given a speech that is probably familiar to an astonishing percentage of the sort of folks that would be reading this post. So many unimportant words used to get to the important one, we were being reduced. We were all unemployed starting now.

In my career, I've been on both sides of that conference room table numerous times, and both are really difficult positions.1 It was sitting on the other side of the table over a decade ago, though, that I made a simple decision as to what sort of a leader I was going to be. Business needs might dictate that I have to let you go, but it doesn't dictate that my leadership terminates there. Leadership doesn't just end like that.

Leadership lives on in so many ways; sometimes it's as simple as the regular requests I get for letters of recommendation or to be a reference for someone. Sometimes, it takes the form of a former teammate reaching out for mentorship, coaching, or another point of view in difficult times. I can't even count the number of email exchanges or lengthy phone calls that have taken place when a member of my team from years past simply wants to hear my thoughts about a job they are considering taking. People follow a leader because they respect them; and that doesn't die immediately upon the end of the workplace relationship.

So it is that for more than 10 years now, when I've had to lay off good folks for business reasons, I've taken it upon myself to reach out to my network and shake loose at least a couple of options for my former teammate to pursue. Who knows the workplace 'them' better than I, and who is in a better position to help them balance strengths, weaknesses, and goals in order to ensure that they have actionable leads that will give them a chance to shine as they progress and grow. What he or she does with that lead is up to them, but I have done what I can to take care of my team one last time in the best way that I have at my disposal.

So it was almost autopilot that drove me to reach out to my network as I was leaving the building and start finding positions for my folks. The last 24 hours have been profoundly satisfying as I chip away at finding possibilities for everyone to pursue, and this is coming at a time when it would be very easy to find life to be quite unsatisfying.

With me also being out of work, one of the first questions I'm asked is fairly obvious. I have heard so many forms of "shouldn't you worry about yourself first?" at this point that it barely even registers. I have 20+ years in this industry. I have 20+ years of contacts, experience, public speaking engagements, and general presence in an industry that rewards all of those things tremendously. We are not even competing for the same jobs. I will almost assuredly be okay.

But let's assume for a moment that none of that is true. Let us assume that my teammates and I will be competing for similar jobs in a field with less opportunity. I've said it before, and I will say it again until the message sticks: the leader that you are isn't the leader you choose to be when it's easy; the leader that you are is the leader you choose to be when it's risky, scary, and tough.

I will not dishonor the work that I've put in to become the sort of leader I wish to have by choosing to be a different sort of leader as soon as it actually matters. I think a better question is, what will you do when it matters? Will you be a leader, or merely a manager?



1Both are difficult positions, but I'm not going to lie to you, giving the layoff message is far preferable to hearing it--no matter how hard it is to give that message, you can still go home and cry it out into your paycheck, which is a thing that still exists for you.
In Part 1 of Lions and Cubs, I talked about how leaders shouldn't treat their experienced resources the way a pride treats their mature males. In a lion's pride, when a male is on the cusp of maturity it's outed from the pride and forced to find it's own way. This is not the way you want to treat your highly valuable, highly experienced team members. Today I want to look at the way a lion, just taking over a pride, deals with the existing male cubs and, again, how this is a poor path for a leader, especially a new leader, to follow.


The male head of a pride keeps his place for around 5 years until he's pushed out by a younger male
(probably with an MBA). The new male then kills any male cubs, for a couple of reasons. One, he doesn't want the competition and two, female lions won't be fertile until their cubs reach maturity. Do the math - if you take over a pride, and you're only going to get to run it for about 5 years, and you have to wait 2 years before the females are ready to produce your offspring, you're only going to get one good push at getting your genes out there. While this may seem cruel, getting rid of the cubs doubles and maybe triples the number of offspring you'll leave behind.


That's the logic of a new male taking over a pride. But what about a new manager taking over a team? This isn't an uncommon occurrence - managers get moved around to new teams. They get promoted. They get re-org'd. They get RIF'd. They get hired. It’s inevitable. At some point in your leadership journey, you’ll be the one taking over a new team.


Obviously, when this happens to you, don't kill off all of the junior team members that the previous manager hired. But in the chaotic and rushed days that follow you taking over a new team, the resources with the least amount of experience may seem like those with the least value to add as you try and get your legs under you. While you’re trying to figure out where your team fits in the larger organization, where you fit into your bosses arm of the org chart and sometimes exactly what it is that your new team even does, it makes sense that the long time resources and those with the most experience will be the ones with the greatest value in helping you get on top of things.

Right?

Not entirely. While it’s true that the “old timers” on the team might be able to get a new manager up to speed quickly on the status quo, it doesn’t mean that the less experienced resources can’t help, too. In fact, they may hold the keys to the knowledge needed to take a good team and make them great. Their lack of experience can become one of your greatest assets.

To begin with, remember that they have recently walked in a version of your shoes. They, too, had to figure out what your team does, and where they fit in. They may have documented things they were told that aren’t in the employee manual, or are different in real life than they are on the oft referenced but rarely updated company intranet. Asking your “cubs” if they have answers to company questions won’t make you seem weak. It will show that you’re human and occasionally need questions answered, too. This opens the door for your team to come to you with their own questions later on.

Your junior team members are also less likely to ignore the dead body in the room. We’ll talk more about this principle in a later post, but for now here’s the short version - imagine there is a dead body in the middle of the room. At first, everyone is freaking out and talking about what to do with it, how to get rid of it. But eventually they just walk around it. They get so used to it being there, they no longer even notice it.

Bad process, bad code and inefficient methods are the dead body in the room. Your experienced resources have learned to deal with them. They consciously avoid these problems, or have developed work-arounds and unconsciously ignore the issues. But the newer folks? They are still freaking out about the dead body. They know it’s there, they can’t ignore it and DEAR GOD WON’T SOMEONE DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

That’s where you, their new manager, comes in. They hope you’ll see it, too. Spend the time talking to them and out right ask them if there are things the team does that just doesn’t make sense. Is there a code deployment process that’s out of date? Technical debt that, once completed, would save the team hours a week? A hole in the overall team’s knowledge? Your juniors are more likely to have noted these things, and are less likely to tell you “but that’s the way we’ve always done it”. By engaging the entire team in advising you on what works and what doesn’t, you’ll get a holistic picture of the work that needs to be done to rev the team up and meet their full potential.

There is a second benefit here, too. By directly asking your junior team members for their thoughts, you create trust. That makes it easier for your team to come to you later with issues and instills in them the understanding you really are there to help make the team better, not just push projects through as quickly as possible.

New or old, each member of your team will have a perspective on how the team operates and what is holding them back. Collectively these points of view will help you push your new team through their road blocks to being a productive and happy group.
Copyright © 2013 Tech out of Water