MarieAnn North

Moving up the career ladder usually involves managing people.

Some enjoy this role, but many others find it to be an exhausting and thankless task. Although inadequate people skills can destroy a career, not enjoying the people management part of our jobs need not be career limiting. There are lessons to be learned that will allow all levels of managers and executives to improve their skills in people management, often our most challenging task.

I learned early that people management was not going to be among my favorite things to do. My first boss pointed this out to me in rather graphic terms. The average boss would have sent me back to my cubicle, buried me in spreadsheets for the rest of my career (I was good at spreadsheets), and promoted someone else. Fortunately for me, my first boss was far from average. Instead of focusing on my weaknesses, he focused on my strengths. (This is the opposite of the usual performance appraisal process, an outdated approach geared toward the fruitless task of improving on weaknesses.) He believed in my unlimited capacity to grow, learn, and excel no matter what path my career took.

Mastering Avoidance

One strategy I learned early on was avoidance. I had no difficulty finding highly visible projects that didn't involve people management. It was much more fun opening up a new primary care center, leading an IT vendor search, or improving a budgeting process than telling people to come to work on time and not to wear "that" ever again.Inevitably, people management became part of the job, no matter how much I avoided it. The toughest role for me was managing entry-level staff. I had to understand that not all support staff were up-and-coming executives willing to do whatever it takes to get to the next promotion. In fact, most were fairly happy with routine tasks and did not care about my lofty goals for the good of the greater organization. In fact, many were excellent at the tasks at hand that actually made the organization run. They knew more about their jobs than I ever would, and I'm sure often wanted to tell me to "stop helping and go away."

I learned many lessons along the way. One of the most useful was that entry-level staff do not multitask well. Executives multitask continuously. When I put the same demand on entry-level staff (answer the phone, book appointments, check in patients, collect cash, and enter charges), error rates went up and customer service went down. Neither did things work well when work became so fragmented that boredom set in and teamwork evaporated. The best of all worlds was rotating staff through various areas, allowing them to spend more time in their favorite rotations. The cross-training that resulted helped greatly in covering terminations and absences.

Junior-level staff often did not feel empowered to make changes in their work environment even when they knew best what was needed. I modified the suggestion box idea. Once a year, I gave out ballots (no silly anonymous suggestions allowed) letting each employee submit his or her best idea. A small committee of employees selected the 10 best ideas. The submitters whose ideas were selected received an award. We implemented one idea 10 months of the year (skipping July and December). The implementation teams were composed of employees. Loyalty, teamwork, and outcomes improved as employees took on more responsibility and accountability for their work environment. My role became less "management" and more "communicate and appreciate." So once again, I had found a way to avoid the task that wasn't my strength and adapt the people-management process to something more tolerable.

Managers Managing Themselves

The next role on my career path was managing managers. This responsibility required new skills and different interactions. My role had to become less task/process-focused and more people-focused. I had to set people up for success. I had to get results through others-knowing when to step in versus letting managers solve problems. I had to not allow myself to be fooled by people who always looked busy and stressed. I had to know where to allocate resources. And I had to recognize who was ready to move up and take on more responsibility.

At one point, I had 30 direct reports, so I developed a process that I have used successfully ever since. I devised a one-page bullet-form monthly report required of managers. The reports originally came on curly fax paper; now they come in e-mail. Each month, all managers had to answer the same five questions.

What have you accomplished? If this question stayed blank too long, I knew I had to step in.

What are you working on?This question allowed me to see if my management staff was focusing on what I viewed as important. And it allowed me to track that the "working on" list made it to closure in a timely manner and showed up under the first question as an accomplishment.

What obstacles have you encountered? Obstacles are a fact of life, and I expected people to recognize them and overcome them. However, if everyone reported the same obstacle (for example, we can't get our open positions filled through HR for months on end), I knew it was time for me to step in.

What do you need help with? I didn't want people who expected me to do their jobs. On the other hand, I didn't want managers to fail because they were never given the opportunity to ask for help in a nonthreatening way.

What have you learned? I've always been passionate about new knowledge. It was important for me to create that culture. If my managers weren't taking the time to learn, the same mistakes would be repeated time and time again.

When annual evaluations came around, I could pull out the 12 monthly reports, and it made my job easier to appraise performance as well as making the process more valuable for employees. Again, I was able to avoid people management by eliminating ambiguity from the work place, setting standards, communicating constantly, improving teamwork, intervening appropriately when needed, and setting people up for success. All of a sudden, managers managed themselves and supported each other, and I could focus on things that brought me greater job satisfaction.

Managing People Becomes Fun

Eventually I reached the point where I was managing executives. This is one of the few things that got easier as I moved up the career ladder! I had more control over the number of my direct reports. For me, the perfect number is five. Small, dynamic, opinionated, ambitious, creative groups energize me, whereas large groups exhaust me. I could define the team, and surround myself with people whose strengths were my weaknesses. I had more control over the environment I created-my morale, my vision, and my style had a very direct impact on my team as well as the organization's culture.

Managing people at yet another level required an entirely new skill set. This was more intense. It required a much greater "up close and personal" investment from me that initially caught me off guard. This was my inner circle. I had to nurture, motivate, accept their criticism of me, and decide much faster who would not make the cut and get them off the team. Transparency was critical: My team shouldn't waste energy on trying to figure me out. There were more important things to do. I had to inform them what the "do's" and "don'ts" were to succeed with me. I had to let down my guard. Leadership was going to take guts and charisma. This was highly personal and scary.

This was also fun! The team was able to accomplish more than each individual could. Excellence bred excellence. Strategy, goals, accountabilities, metrics to manage to, consequences for nonperformance, clearly documented plans that avoided crisis management, superior communication, and great rewards were part of the package.

Now I was truly avoiding my people management weakness. Instead, I was coming from my position of strength-leading and mentoring, not managing. The team thrived, the organization thrived, and I thrived.

Lessons Learned Along the Way

There were common themes to managing at each level. We fail without the right team. We fail without creating an environment where the team can succeed. We fail if we don't care enough, appreciate enough, communicate enough, and listen enough. We fail when we don't share the same definition of success at every level and layer of the organization (that's called culture!). We fail when we focus on improving on our weaknesses, rather than coming from a position of strength and competence.

There are days that people management is still truly annoying and exasperating. But not as many as there used to be. Given the right team in the right environment, managing people can be quite rewarding.


MarieAnn North, FACMPE, is CEO, Posada Consulting, Charlotte, N.C. (MNorthTHG@aol.com).

Publication Date: Tuesday, July 01, 2008

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