Leaders are Readers
By Colton Janes
I once received a note from Harry S. Truman (via Rick Fox) that said "Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers." I believe this to be true.
Earlier in my career, I accepted a management role with little prior experience. I understood that I could learn the hard way through inevitable personal failures and then eventually time-based, experience-reaping successes, or I could stand on the shoulders of giants and glean as much as I could from seasoned managers who had already documented their learnings.
I chose the latter, and some 40 books later, I continue to reap the benefits.
I began reading works from various authors on a number of professional topics. Amongst my favorites were Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, The Oz Principle by Roger Connors, Tom Smith and Craig Hickman and The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. These books taught me about change management, the power of accountability and building a healthy work culture.
After a little while, many of my peers began to ask me about the books I was reading. This made me realize that many of us who work in water and wastewater don’t have a forum for swapping management best practices. Recognizing this knowledge gap, I talked to Laurie Dougherty, the executive director of the Illinois section of the American Water Works Association (AWWA) about starting a book club.
She liked the idea, and she helped me turn it into reality.
After spreading the word, we had 40 people sign up for what we titled the Leadership Book Club. We planned our first virtual meeting for Wednesday, January 25, and most of those who joined the book club attended.
The goal of our first meeting was to set the course for remaining meetings. Using a webcast format, we had a lively and interactive discussion about what participants hoped to get out of the meetings; best, as well as worst, practices of managers with whom the attendees have had experience; a poll of which books to choose for future meetings; and time for questions to answer as a group.
We determined that the group would meet one hour each month, and among the chosen books were Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, as well as one of my favorites, Switchby Chip and Dan Heath.
I'd love to encourage members of our Aqua family to join in the discussion. If you're interested in participating, email me at CJanes@AquaAmerica.com. Book recommendations are also always welcome.
As a manager of 100 employees, Colton Janes believes in a hands-on, team-oriented approach, working directly with operators to improve standard operating procedures and to optimize existing systems to meet company goals. He enjoys exploring new and innovative management practices and is an avid reader.
Prior to the creation of the Leadership Book Club, Janes got in the practice of sharing reviews on the books he read with his colleagues. The following review of The Effective Manager is one of them:
Last fall I was driving home from work on a breezy Midwestern afternoon and thought to myself, “I didn’t talk to Brian this week…yup, didn’t talk to him once this entire week. I’m a terrible manager.” I tried to rationalize my actions since it was a busy week and there were fires that needed dousing, but after a few stoplights I thought there has to be a better way. A few months later I was turned on to the Manager Tools podcast. I binged on these for a few weeks and bought The Effective Manager so I could write this review.
Few managers have been trained on how to manage employees. Many “fake it until they make it” or do what the person before them did. Although management theory is helpful on a strategic level, tactical step-by-step instruction has a place in creating repeatable managerial results. Instead of discussing “absentee managers” or other forms of lackluster management, can we all just agree that nearly every manager has room to improve?
The Effective Manager by Mark Horstman focuses on four critical behaviors to best manage people:
- Get to know your people
- Communicate about performance
- Ask for more
- Push work down
Each behavior has a management best practice to ensure success.
The first behavior, “Get to know your people,” is accomplished by weekly 30-minute one-on-ones (O3s):
All of our data over the years show that the single most important (and efficient) thing that you can do as a manager to improve your performance and increase retention is to spend time getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of your direct reports. Managers who know how to get the most out of each individual member of the team achieve noticeably better results than mangers who don’t. The most efficient way to get to know your team is to spend time regularly communicating with them.
Weekly meetings are required and structured in a specific format to increase effectiveness. The focus of this meeting is to get to know the employee, so the first 10 minutes are given to them to discuss anything: kids, sports, home life, weather, work, projects and pets are all free game. The second block of 10 minutes is for the manager to discuss whatever is deemed necessary (i.e. projects, performance, upcoming changes or budgets). The final 10 minutes is set aside for coaching and delegation.
An example of this working successfully can be seen in Pat Wren, the regional supervisor for Northern Illinois, who has 12 direct reports. He meets with all of them weekly and continues to get rave reviews. Employees feel valued, heard and up-to-date with company news.
Second, communicate about performance through the feedback model. I believe this is the real test of an effective manager. Providing quick and consistent feedback allows for gradual adjustments with little lag. This behavior has four parts:
- Ask: Ask for permission to give feedback. Example: “Can I give you some feedback?”
- State the behavior: Focus on behaviors, not attitudes or hard-to-define items. Example: “When you…”
- State the impact of the behavior: Describe how the behavior helped or hurt. Example: “Here’s what happens when you…”
- Encourage effective future behavior: The goal is improvement, not dwelling on the past or punishing. Example: “Keep it up!” or “Can you change that?”
The third behavior, “Ask for more,” is about coaching your employees. Coaching seems intuitive to most managers, but it requires planning and time. Horstman explains a simple process to build a coaching plan.
- Collaborate to set a goal: What skill or behavior does the employee need to get better?
- Collaborate to brainstorm resources: Note all the resources that could be helpful. This should be a safe place where no suggestions are dumb.
- Collaborate to create a plan: Create a plan for quick wins to gain momentum.
- The employee acts and reports on the plan.
The final behavior, “Push work down,” is about consistent delegation. As we move higher in title and responsibility, expectations change. It is less about what I can do and more about what we can do. Sometimes very strong performers get promoted but never embrace delegation. Initially they seem to excel, but in time they burn out. Becoming overwhelmed and stressed by the increased workload often leads to resignation or forced resignation. The best practice is simple: Pass tasks down so you are free to do more.
This is powerful material. I have committed to training the Illinois management team on each section. These tools are an investment in becoming a better manager, encouraging positive company culture and helping employees shape their career paths.
If anyone wants to hear how the implementation is going, feel free to reach out.