“Steve Jobs, technologist and tastemaker of modern digital culture, described himself as a captain of product design inspiring his teams of workers, as he once said, to go ‘beyond what anyone thought possible’ and to do ‘some great work, really great work that will go down in history.’” 1
Although we don’t often think about it this way, at its core your job as a manager is to make a difference. If you aren’t making a difference in your laboratory’s climate, its future prospects, and the development of your staff, what are you being paid for? Maintaining the status quo isn’t valued and probably isn’t possible for more than a short time. Organizations wax or wane; they don’t stay the same. So putting out fires and handling day-to-day problems, while necessary, aren’t really what your job is all about—think of these activities as buying you the time to make a substantial, lasting difference.
Middle management’s failure
A decade ago there was a scythe that went through the ranks of middle managers. Entire levels of management structure were eliminated. And you know what? Except for the pain for the individuals involved, there was very little impact. The reason, from my view, is that too many middle managers had defined their role as passing on directions and orders; they had become a communications link, one that not only wasn’t needed but actually impeded achieving results for the organization.
“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith.” — Steve Jobs
It is easy to spot the contribution of “individual contributors.” I love that term! They are assigned tasks to perform and they are either successful or unsuccessful in achieving the goals that are set for them or, better, that they participate in setting. For managers, the easy goals are not a problem to assess—they are measured by the aggregate of the production of the staff—but the impact the manager has can be much more difficult to determine. The vagaries of the economy, changes in tastes of consumers, or a short-term run of poor results can have much greater impact on production than the results achieved from high-quality management.
What have you done that has made a difference in your department? That is posed as a rhetorical question, but I hope your mind is racing to find an objective response.
“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” — Steve Jobs
Where to focus
How do you find things to do to make a difference? It takes time and knowledge of the intricacies and unique characteristics of the lab, the staff, and the total environment. Following are some analytical tools to help you.
I believe that you can sense problem areas in your organization. There are “tells” in the vernacular of the poker stars; these are subtle clues that give hints about people and functions that need your attention. Often these are the places that can have the biggest, quickest impact on the total organization. Look for visual clues: wear and tear, traffic flows, posters and cartoons, books displayed prominently. Listen for subtle sotto voce comments; watch for facial expressions that don’t match the words; watch the interactions between people; and listen for hesitations in speech, a sense of seeking permission to continue. Mostly, listen with purpose. There is a feeling, a mood, a style that tense organizations exude; it’s the fear that horses and dogs pick up, the attitude that precedes a downsizing. It’s something you can feel but can’t get your hands around. Use the data you have access to in order to support your sense—trends in or high turnover, complaints, mistakes, accidents, and other objective indicators.
If this description is leaving you cold, perhaps you need to tap into your sensitive, nonscientist self. You may find that some of your trusted allies are better at identifying subtleties and trends. Ask them what they are seeing and what they think needs to be changed. You do have trusted allies, don’t you?
“I think we’re having fun. I think our customers really like our products. And we’re always trying to do better.” —Steve Jobs
Communication problems plague every work group. (Observe my communication with my wife if you need an example!) Have you been surprised by something lately? What happened? How were you isolated from the factors leading up to your surprise?
Think of three things that you can do to improve the clarity and effectiveness of the communication in your lab. (Hint 1: Start with reducing the fear of retribution—a shoot-the-messenger climate! Hint 2: Listen!)
In a recent conversation I had with the manager of a restaurant, he described his role in making sure the wait staff had what they needed to do their jobs. For him that meant a corkscrew, order pads, and pencils—he had a stash of these items to help his staff be successful.
Spot some little things that get in the way of your staff and fix them! Sounds easier than it is.
Niggling, lingering issues
I recall one situation where there was an accounting problem. It was taking my staff an inordinate amount of time to get the final accounts finished and filed following major events. There were a number of issues involved, but the problem had persisted for several years. Part of the problem was that as soon as one event was completed, we were up to our neck in the next event. There was no time to fix the problem; it was easier to live with it than to get it resolved. The department manager and I got together with the accounting folks and, after spending a couple of hours in three or four meetings, we had a solution!
“The people who are doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh. My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organization and keep it at bay.” —Steve Jobs
Ask the question “What do you need from me to be more effective in your job?” And stash some corkscrews!
Improving the climate
What is it like to work in your lab? No, really! Bad economic times shield managers from the truth—people are afraid to leave, and a lot of people want a job. If the economy turned around tomorrow, how many of your staff would leave in a flash? A clue is how often you find resumes on the copying machine!
What one thing could you do today that would improve the openness for creativity in your lab— reduce restrictions, enhance rewards, improve resources?
“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” —Steve Jobs
Developing your staff
A few years ago, I ran across someone who had worked for me many years earlier. She said that she had just completed an essay as part of an application for graduate school. She used me as the example in her essay and said that I set goals that were thought to be beyond the skills of the staff—and they were surprised and energized when they were successful. Stretch your staff ! Set high but achievable expectations and be a coach in helping them achieve the goals. People tend to get into a rut and do the same things over and over. When an opportunity to do something different arises, they tend to be resistant to taking on a challenge and doubt their ability to be successful. See “Leading Change,” Lab Manager Magazine, Volume 5 Number 4, May 2010.
Stretching your staff is one of the most important ways to make a difference now and at the same time establish a climate of growth for the future.
“Mr. Jobs did not make the technology himself; he led the teams that did, prodding, cajoling, and inspiring.” 1
Think of two or three things that are getting in the way of your staff ’s productivity. Fix them!
Input from your boss
“How will you know if I’m successful?” That’s my favorite question for a new boss. It elicits some surprising answers and will give you an excellent insight into the priorities that your boss has for you and your lab. Over time you will be able to tell your boss the answer to this question—how he or she should tell if you are successful.
Telling your story. Think of three or four things that you have done that have had a positive (hopefully measurable) impact on your lab. (If you are new—how would you want to answer this question in three years?)
“Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.” —Steve Jobs
I have the privilege of serving on the boards of two charitable organizations. Following their presentations on the state of their departments, I frequently ask staff members, “What should we be concerned about?” This question gets them thinking. They know that our role is to spot potential problems and help resolve them before they become serious. And they learn that they need to become focused more on the future than on day-to-day operations.
Ask yourself the question: What do I need to be concerned about?
Not invented here
Be wary of the “not-invented-here” syndrome! Making a difference is a great opportunity to find out how others have solved the problems you are dealing with.
“And no, we don’t know where it will lead. We just know there’s something much bigger than any of us here.” —Steve Jobs
Redefining your role
The best leaders I have worked for seemed to be constantly weighing the now and the future. They are always thinking about the impact of today’s situation on the future, always encouraging and stretching their staff, and always looking for ways to improve and open the lines of communication. So make a difference in your department—now!
“The system is that there is no system. That doesn’t mean we don’t have process. Apple is a very disciplined company, and we have great processes. But that’s not what it’s about. Process makes you more efficient.” —“The Seed of Apple's Innovation,” Bloomberg Businessweek, October 12, 2004.