Plays Well With Others – So You’re the Boss Now…

I’m frequently asked the following paraphrased question:

I’d been happily plugging away in my job as a {DBA/Dev/Terminator/Warp Drive Engineer} for several years, when I applied for the manager position.  I was surprised and thrilled when I got the job!  But now that I’ve been in the job for a while, I find that no one on the team is thrilled with me.  I know that I made a lot of changes.  But they were all for the good of the team.  What should I do to reconnect with my team and rebuild my friendships?

A common theme in this series, “Plays Well With Others”, is that the skills responsible for your success as a database professional have little in common with success as a leader and manager.  And this scenario is a classic example.  It’s especially important to our situation because the solution to this problem is entirely people-oriented and has nothing to do with all those great SQL Server skills you’ve developed over the years.

It's not always comedy

First of all, if you haven’t already, avail yourself of the excellent and time-tested Blanchard’s Leadership and the One Minute Manager as well as The One Minute Manager, both by Kenneth Blanchard.  Management and leadership books churn through the bookstores as quickly late night talk shows on NBC have lately.  But this book has proven its worth over the years and its advice still holds up well.

Next, recognize that most management hassles can be defeated or at least deflated by publicly getting in front of them.  In a sense, the best way to solve this kind of problem is a bit of proactive damage control.  So instead of launching into a bunch of new initiatives and changes for the team (especially the kind that reduce a former teammates’ power or privilege), announce that you’re considering a bunch of changes.  You don’t have to be specific about your plans, but don’t be intentionally vague or evasive either.  Further explain that some of the changes may be uncomfortable, but you’re convinced they’ll make the team much more productive and return greater value to the enterprise.

Ask everyone on the team for input and ideas of their own within the next X number of weeks while you formulate your plans.  It’s very possible that you might 1) get ideas from team members that exactly matches what you’d planned to do, and 2) get new ideas you never thought of but would like to add to the mix or even put higher in priority.  Be sure to thank everyone who steps up to the conversation (or email thread).

Now, it’s time to book some one-on-one time across the team and have the “tough talks” well in advance and in private with those who might be on the losing end of your changes.  Also, invite suggestions about how to best go forward.  You might be surprised by their team spirit.  By treating everyone with empathy and dignity, you might turn one of these potential grumblers into a reliable “wingman”.  On the other hand, arguments are quite likely so explain that the changes are non-negotiable, but reiterate their contribution and value to the team.

By handling this situation with foresight, you send several messages.  The first and strongest message is that you are the leader.  This might not be comfortable for your friends or even to you.  But it’s extremely important to establish this role early on.  And by handling the situation with dignity, you demonstrate that you have credibility, which makes strengthens you in a sort of positive-feedback loop.

If it’s too late to establish your “street cred” and you’ve already fumbled the early stages of the transition to leadership, you can still recover.  But as the old saying goes, an ounce of protection is worth a pound of prevention.  Usually in a situation like this, you should implement a goal-setting and planning session with the entire team.  Explain that the objective is to collaboratively define the goals and objectives of the team and to adjust team responsibilities, processes, and duties to best accomplish those goals.  Personally, you should remember the purpose of the meeting is, primarily, to get everyone on the team knows buy-in to your vision of “success” for the team and, secondarily, firmly establish your position as leader.  It might take as much as half a day to hammer this down.

Prepare ahead of time.  Make sure that your changes mesh with management’s goals for your team.  Ensure that you and YOUR boss are on the same page about what characteristics would mark a team as “successful”.  If you have some extremely strong willed team members or are expecting outright conflict, you may need to conduct your goal-setting session as a one-on-one series of meetings rather than a single meeting for the entire team.  Schedule a conference room (with a white board) and appoint an official scribe to record the details of the meeting.  Encourage a lot of brainstorming during the meeting.  Make sure to discuss these topics:

  1. What are we here for? A comprehensive list of team goals that characterize the team as “successful”.  Be sure to project top management’s view of success to the team since you might be the only one who fully understands what management expects, plus you can contradict any false notions held by team members.
  2. What do we do daily? The bulk of daily duties and processes performed by the team (before your changes) put in place to try to meet the goals in topic 1.
  3. What could we do better? List any changes you put in place, as well as solicit ideas from the team.  Accommodate good ideas from the team, but not at the expense of meeting the enterprise goals.  Explain to the team that the goals of topic 1, as well as duties and processes of topic 2, are a sort of “contract” with the enterprise.  These are the things that the enterprise uses to evaluate whether you’re all successful or not.
  4. What did we decide? Explain that, as the leader, you’re interested in maximizing the contribution of the entire team.  This might mean that the best solutions for the team are not always what each individual prefers.  Reinforce that everyone on the team has part-ownership in the team contract.  Express confidence in the team that they can make the changes especially effect and thank each one for their contribution and efforts.

At the conclusion of the meeting, you should now have buy-in from everyone on the team and a strong consensus on expectations.  Going forward, you can use the “contract” agreed to by you and your team as the basis for evaluating performance and, if needed, for correcting underperformance.

So, after all of that, does that mean you’re still the buddy of the guy in the cube next to you?  Chances are good that you and your cube-mates can stay buddies, if that’s your main goal.  Just be mindful that most peer-to-peer relationships do change when one of the peers is promoted to be the boss of the other.  However, you can avoid these relationship issues by clearly and explicitly defining everyone’s role and then getting explicit, verbal (or written) confirmation that you and your workmates are in agreement.

– Kevin

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