First time managers often realize they underestimated how many additional responsibilities management entails and the efforts supervisors perform behind the scenes. So, before you suggest your boss does not work as hard as you, does not appreciate your contributions, or simply doesn’t “get it”, consider this short parable about one such – admittedly imperfect – manager. It begins with a long, restful evening…
Michelle awoke to the obnoxious sound of her alarm clock ringing at 2:45 AM. It was 3:45 PM for her Asian colleagues she had visited earlier that month. While there, she learned how frustrating it was for her team members to always conform to U.S. time zones. Michelle believed in supporting her team and began accommodating them by awaking incredibly early for these weekly calls. Ugh, she groaned, rolling out bed, trying not to wake her husband anymore than the alarm clock.
Before she got into the agenda with the team, Michelle was interrupted by Yoko, the team lead in Japan. Yoko explained that one of her team members quit yesterday and another threatened to leave, based on a disagreement with management in a parallel department. Michelle was surprised – these were two rising stars in Asia. Losing one was bad, but losing both could have disastrous results. The meeting agenda was out the window, as Michelle began a deep dive, asking what it would take to make the situation right and if anyone had suggestions. She left the meeting with a list of ideas to review with Human Resources. However, she knew time was of the essence and needed to resolve this before the start of the business day tomorrow in Japan – seven o’clock PM her time.
When the conference call ended, Michelle sent a long, thorough email to her HR representative. She would be in meetings most of the morning and had another important dialogue with the VP of Marketing at noon. As a result, she’d only have brief periods to respond to questions. By the time the email was out, she had just enough time to get ready for work and be in the office by 7:30 AM. Her boss called an urgent meeting where she anticipated a discussion on the current financial crisis. Michelle feared the worst expectations would be delivered.
Michelle entered the conference room as the meeting started. The vice president of her division began by getting straight to the point. He laid out the bad news Michelle feared most. The difficult year resulted in drastic requirements for the fourth quarter and the company had to make some serious cuts. Each department would have to reduce head count by at least one employee in the United States. Michelle immediately recalled the advice of one of her mentors who said, “remember, you’re not firing a person, you are firing a family.” Her heart sank as she tried to determine which employee’s family she would let go from her already understaffed team. Before leaving the meeting, she reconfirmed, “Yes, I’m sorry, it must be a U.S.-based employee. Remember team, this is for the greater good”, her boss assured the team as they filed out.
On the way back to her desk, Michelle saw Jonathan coming in late… again. “Great”, she thought to herself, “now Mark, has more ammunition to press for firing Jon”. Mark, one of Michelle’s peers, seemed to have a personal vendetta for Jon. But Michelle knew better. She knew Jonathon was a great performer, in spite of his spotty tardiness and occasional missed deadlines. With the morning’s pressure, Michelle uncharacteristically let a roll of her eyes slip out as she passed Jon in the hall.
With 15 minutes before her next meeting, Michelle sat in her office to figure out who she was going to layoff. She also emailed the HR department again about the Asia surprise. Unfortunately, it seemed HR could not meet any of the options her team in the region suggested. “Stumped again,” she thought. Feeling it was necessary to speak directly with her HR department head, she walked into his office and presented the facts. “I’ve already lost an excellent team member in Japan last night and I’m about to lose another. At the same time I am being asked to reduce head count in the U.S. – can’t we leverage this situation to minimize the impact to the team?”
Her HR representative leaned back in his chair in deep thought. Michelle took a seat. “Hmmm…” the HR guru pondered. There was a long silence, before he spoke, “The cuts in headcount are ultimately about saving expenses. For a variety of reasons, there must be position elimination associated to your cuts and the budget reduction must be from your U.S. budget.” He paused, as if hesitating on whether to provide the following option. “However, I suppose you could reduce your U.S. budget accordingly and match that with a headcount reduction in another region.” Michelle saw a light at the end of the tunnel, but knew this, in effect, meant doubleing the expense reduction, something she was not certain she could do, but she’d try. Michelle thanked him and began heading out the door when she heard him say, “just remember, we need your decisions before the start of business tomorrow morning.”
As she went in and out of meetings the remainder of the morning, Michelle spent the better part of her time working out a solution. She emailed the draft to HR and her boss just before her noon meeting. She knew it was not bullet proof, but if she could get their alignment, the finer details could be resolved this evening.
Always Blaming Others
Michelle headed down to Jonathon’s office to pick up a report he promised. On the way, she bumped into Mark. “So, you know who you have to let go, don’t you Michelle?” Mark asked without reservation. Mark had been with the company longer and technically had a more senior title. As a result, though he had not earned Michelle’s respect, he felt he had positional authority over her and often made demands of her as though he was her boss.
“Mark, I appreciate your position, but I need to make this decision on my own and I will make it based on the requirements of my team and what we need to be successful” Michelle responded, trying to make as little eye contact as possible. “I’m sorry, but I have to run as I am late for a meeting.”
She needed to only pop her head into the office to see Jonathon furiously typing away in a chat sessions. “Michelle, I’m really sorry, but I don’t have that report for you” Jon’s bad news was just one more in the string of unfortunate news that morning.
“Damn it Jon, I really needed those numbers” recognizing the impact of the morning’s events, Michele tried to control her increasingly short temper. “I’ve got a meeting with our VP of marketing at noon and I promised him I’d have it by then.””
Jon did not realize Michelle had made a commitment to the business by noon. Before he could explain further, Michelle continued, “I think we have an issue Jon. You need to work on meeting deadlines and your prioritization methods.”
Tired from an early morning support call and feeling a bit defeated, Jon looked down and replied, “I understand and I’ll work on it Michelle.”
“Right, well, that’s all I ask. Thank you. So when can you have the estimate completed?”
“Certainly by the end of the day today, maybe sooner.” Jon promised.
“Alrighty then, I’ll tell him to expect the report on his desk in the morning. Thank you Jon.” Michelle knew it was important to thank him. Jon was a hard worker, he just didn’t always have his priorities right, she felt. So she didn’t like being hard on him, but had to let him know she was unhappy.
Michelle had to explain to the Vice President why she did not have the promised report. She took accountability and explained she should have managed it more closely. However, she assured him it would be ready in the morning. He seemed unhappy, but was comforted to know it would be there in the morning. This was not the impact Michelle wanted to have. She liked ensuring her customers knew they could count on her, and her team, to deliver effectively, but it was the best she could do to promise the report the next morning. After leaving the disappointing lunch meeting, Michelle went back to work on her challenge with HR and her boss for cost reductions. There were several questions in her inbox regarding the proposed solution. Although it would reduce her budget substantially, Michelle was focused on retaining the employees she could. This would take all afternoon.
It was a frantic 5 hours as she responded to question after question, both from her boss and HR. Each answer seemed to bring new questions. Each question required more research, charts and data. However, by 5:30, she received the answer she hoped for – she could use the open position in Japan, balanced with expense savings elsewhere in the U.S. to meet her cost reduction objectives. She was momentarily relieved, before she reflected back on the other employee in Japan that threatened to leave. She still didn’t have an answer for them, HR had left for the day, and she wasn’t sure what she could promise.
Always Leaving Early
Tired, knowing she had another 4:00 AM call the next day and several emails to send out yet that evening, including the message for the estimate she hoped Jonathon was sending later, Michelle decided to go home for dinner before getting back online for the evening.
It was about 8:30 PM when Michelle finally got Jonathon’s report. It was very well done – an example of the quality of work she knew he was capable of. She was tired though, had an early morning ahead of her and still had to write the email to her business customer that requested the estimate. As a result, she sent a short note of gratitude to Jon:
Thanks Jon. Looks great. No questions.
Michelle went to bed with her head racing. What would she propose to her team lead in Japan? How would the VP of Marketing receive the estimate? What would Mark say when he found out she had found a solution that did not require laying anyone off in the U.S.? How would she formally address Jon’s missed deadline. She wondered if she would get any sleep before the 3:45 AM alarm rang again.
NOTE: This deviation from the usual format is part 2 in a 3 part series on the importance of transparency between team members and their leadership. I welcome your comments and feedback on this foray into business parables. Part 1 is titled “A Day in the Life of Your Staff“. Part 3: “Transparency Between Leaders and Their Team” is coming soon.