Ask Alice: Advice for Leaders

Executive Coaching: Fad or Fantastic?

Question: I am a CEO of a mid-sized financial services firm. It seems that every time I turn around, someone is trying to sell me executive coaching. Why do I need a coach? Is this just another management fad that will go away or am I missing something I should be pursuing?

Alice Waagen says:  There are whole books that have been written to answer this question. Let me give you a summary of my point of view on executive coaching. A good coaching relationship can be a valuable learning tool in your leadership development arsenal. But the key to making it work is to realize that coaching is a solution to an identified problem. Any solution, matched to the right problem, makes sense. (more…)

Coaching Upward: Getting the Boss to be a Better Listener

Question:  My boss is a lousy listener. Every time I try to talk with her she has her mobile device in hand and one eye on it. When I ask her to please not read email when we are talking, she gets cranky and says that she is perfectly capable of “multitasking.” Yet half the stuff I tell her she later claims I did not say.

Alice Waagen says:  Ah the curse of mobile technology. You have a real challenge here because what you are really talking about is upward coaching and feedback. Some bosses welcome getting feedback from their staff, others get defensive and belligerent. Sounds like you have one of the latter. (more…)

Assertive Leadership: Confidently Stating your Needs

Question:  I recently completed a 360-degree feedback process at work. Everyone around me was asked to rate me on a list of leadership traits. I got a big thick report with my feedback and heard from a lot of folks that I need to be more assertive. I don’t know what that means.  What I am supposed to do differently?  Any thoughts?

Alice Waagen says:  Oh boy, you just gave me another example of how NOT to do 360-degree feedback programs. Reading and understanding 360 feedback is not easy.  Figuring out what behaviors to change to increase your effectiveness is virtually impossible to do without someone trained to guide your analysis and reflection. (more…)

Discretionary Time: A Critical Leadership Asset

Question:  I am the founder and CEO of a mid-sized professional services firm.  In the early, giddy start up years of building my business, I had laser focus on a single task:  business development.  I ate and slept contract negotiations and thrived on the break-neck pace of growing my own firm.

Fast-forward 10 years to today.  I am totally drowning in the daily demands on my time. Every day is booked solid with meetings and commitments.  I have little time left to think long-term strategy.  I am afraid that my hard-won business success will start to suffer if I don’t get a handle on being more strategic.

Alice Waagen says:  If it is any comfort, you are not alone.  A colleague of mine, Bob Corlett, has written about the shocking lack of discretionary time for business executives and its negative impact on hiring decisions.  Discretionary time, time that is not scheduled for a specific purpose such as attending meetings, is the mental life-blood that you are craving.  Open blocks of time, for as little as 30 minutes, allow you to drive the agenda and to lift your head up from the weeds to look to the future. (more…)

Delegation: Managing Upward

Question:  I consider myself pretty good at delegating work.  I spend considerable effort figuring out who is the best person on my team for the assignment, based on their experience and interest and the skills needed to be successful.  The feedback I get from staff is overwhelmingly positive, they feel challenged and are growing skills.  So what’s wrong with this picture? My boss, she is a control freak.  Every time we meet, she wants an in-depth update on all the work being done on the team.  I am always up to date on the big picture but honestly don’t have the time or interest in knowing every detail on how the work is getting done.  She bugs me for details; I bug my staff, a total waste of time and energy.  Any thoughts on how to manage upward here?

Alice Waagen says:  Start by realizing that these exchanges do not have to do with project work, they have to do with your boss’ level of risk aversion.  I find that most high-control leaders that I know crave the detail because it gives them the comfort that risk and error is being mitigated.  You need to determine how to feed enough information upward to keep your boss from anxiety attacks about possible doom and failure due to inattention. (more…)

Delegation: When to Check in, When to Back Off

Question:  I am drowning in work and need to delegate more to staff.  Once I hand off work, how often should I check in with my employee?  I want to be supportive but do not want the dreaded “micromanager” label.  Are weekly check-ins enough?

Alice Waagen says:  Weekly? Monthly? Never? I will give the standard consultant’s answer:  it depends.  For a staff person who is early in their career, weekly check-ins on a high-visibility project will feel like they are swimming in the dark.  For a highly experience employee, weekly check-ins will feel like a nuisance and a burden.  One of the most critical steps in delegating work s to come to a mutual agreement on how much checking and guidance are needed. (more…)

Delegation: There is Never Enough Time

Question:  My boss is always on my case to delegate more of my work to my staff.   Sure, I am carrying a big workload, but it will take me longer to train someone than to do it myself.  Why should I waste time delegating it if I can do it faster myself?

 Alice Waagen says:  Because you don’t want to get stuck doing the same work over and over forever.  If you don’t delegate work – reassign it to someone else and train them how to do – you will be doing it the rest of your work life.  Then when exciting new projects come up, your boss will look at your workload and give the new experience to one of your peers.  Over time, your peer will be identified as the up and coming heir apparent who will get promoted.  And you?  Stuck in job stagnation. (more…)

Making Sense out of Matrix Management

Question:   I am a project manager in a professional services firm.  Most of the projects I manage last between 6 to 18 months.  As a manager, I have 6 employees who report to me as their administrative manager.  As an admin manager, I approve leave and complete their performance reviews.  Providing performance feedback is a challenge since they are all assigned to different projects under different project managers.  To make matters more confusing, I manage projects staffed by people who don’t report directly to me and for whom I need to provide input into their performance reviews.  What should I be doing to be a good manager in this system?

Alice Waagen says:  Business gurus call this mess matrix management.   In a matrix management organization, staff works on various projects and tasks, each assignment belonging to a different person.  To keep the work all corralled one manager serves as a point person, the go-to manager who oversees all assignments and takes charge of the administrative employee duties like approving leave and overseeing administrative issues like payroll and HR.  This makes sense on paper, but if all the working parts don’t do their job, chaos ensues. (more…)

Feedback that Works

Question:  I always thought that I was pretty good at giving feedback but lately my employees have been telling me that what I tell them is pretty vague and confusing.  Is there a trick to giving feedback that I am missing?

Alice Waagen says:  Giving good feedback is so much more that dropping a casual hint here and there.  Good feedback requires thinking about what you want to communicate and planning the best way to share that information.  Here are my Top 5 Traits of Good Feedback(more…)