Tag: management

Q&A with Paul Downs, author of Boss Life (Part I)

Paul Downs started making custom furniture in 1986, shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in engineering. Downs has only one line on his résumé, but he has a wide variety of skills gained in twenty-five years of running his business. His clients range from individuals and small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, all branches of the military, and foreign governments. A regular contributor to both Forbes and the New York Times, Downs lives with his wife and three sons outside of Philadelphia. His latest book, Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business, was a Forbes Best Book of the Year and Winner of 8CR Award.
I sincerely appreciate that Paul Downs pulled time away from his business and family to answer some questions for us. First-line supervisors have tough jobs and often little training. I expect that Paul’s comments will resonate with many and hopefully provide insight and new approaches. Paul also demonstrates a level of sharing and vulnerability that we can all strive to duplicate in our lives.
Axtell: Paul, you wrote: “You can’t understand a boss without knowing what he goes home to.” Please share more of your thinking about this.
Downs: You can evaluate a boss with objective metrics: growth, profit, whatever you can measure. And that may be enough. If you want to get a better sense of how someone operates and why they are the way they are, you need to look deeper. Who is that person? Why do they do what they do? Were they born that way or are they reacting to circumstances? And what are the circumstances? Are they only work events or is there more?
Ideally, the time spent away from work gives the boss an opportunity to rest and prepare for the next challenge. However, that’s not guaranteed. Personally, I found that having a special needs child led me to decide not to work long hours and to make sure I didn’t arrive home with my batteries completely discharged. That undoubtedly had an effect on the growth and success of my company.
Axtell: Paul, these three sentences struck me in one part of your book.

The day you have children, you enter a different world.
Every couple has a fight that just keeps coming back.
Keeping a barrier between work and home was a mistake.

How do you see these statements being related, and what did you learn from this?
Downs: There’s nothing unusual about these statements other than that they appeared in a business book. The first two are simply self-evident truth. If you are in a relationship and have had kids, you don’t need any further explanation. And if you aren’t and don’t, now you know what to look out for.
The last statement, that keeping the things that happened to me at work hidden from my wife and children, was a mistake for me. I’m not sure that this is the best approach for all people. If I had been capable of forgetting the stresses of work when I crossed my threshold each day, things might have worked out differently. As it happened, my family lived for years with a man who, on occasion, was upset, distant, and prone to sudden explosion for no apparent reason. Later they got a man who still exhibited those faults and was willing to share the reasons why, and assured his loved ones that they were not at fault. I found that providing a summary of my day, good or bad, allowed me to be a better father.
Axtell: Where does your best thinking occur…on your bike…elsewhere?
Downs: It can happen anywhere, really. My bike ride to work is especially nice because it’s a very low-traffic, flat, easy route. That’s a good time to let my mind wander. But I’m thinking of business problems all the time, and good ideas pop up in a variety of situations.
Axtell: What does a good boss do when an employee underperforms?
Downs: A good boss sets clear expectations from the beginning. When those aren’t met, I first ask myself what I did to contribute the problem. Have I provided the proper tools to do the job? The proper materials to work with? And does the employee have all of the information they need to succeed? Those things are my responsibility, and if an honest analysis reveals that I failed, I correct the situation.
When I’ve done what I should have, then I start with a discussion with the employee. They usually know that they have been underperforming, but sometimes they have no idea. I review the expectations with them and give them a chance to provide an explanation. I make it clear that excuses are interesting, but don’t absolve them of the need to do their job.
If a verbal warning doesn’t work, I have developed a procedure that serves as a formal warning to the employee. I write down what the problem is, examples of when and how it occurred, how this violates our company policies, what would constitute a correction of the behavior, and what the consequences are for failure to correct the problem. I get a witness and bring the employee into my office for a formal review of this document. This tends to be a very scary experience for the employee, which is what I want. Good workers straighten up. Bad workers either quit or have been given notice of the consequences of their actions. If they continue to underperform, I fire them. I make sure that the firing is done the same way: with a written description of the problem, with a chance to respond, but with the final consequence already determined.
Our employee manual has a list of behaviors that will lead to instant firing. When I’ve had to do that, I still go through the procedure: written description and meeting with witness. Sometimes I film the meeting.
None of this is fun, and describing it is a lot easier than doing it. Disciplinary meetings are the worst things I have to do as a boss. However, I believe that the procedure is fair to everyone: to the employee involved, to the company, and especially to the other workers. Bad colleagues make good employees feel bad. The boss owes it to those who are doing a good job to have the guts to discipline underperformers and get rid of people who aren’t working out.
 
Part II of this interview will be posted Wednesday, January 10.

Q&A with David Burkus, author of Under New Management

David Burkus is a best-selling author, an award-winning podcaster, and associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University. His latest book, Under New Management, challenges the traditional and widely accepted principles of business management and proves that they are outdated, outmoded, or simply don’t work — and reveals what does.
Read on for David’s insights on creativity, technology and how to be a popular boss.
Paul: Thank you, David, for you time and for your insights. In your book, The Myths of Creativity, you outline a practical approach for everyone to find new ideas. Would you share the essence of this approach with us?
David: Myths are stories we develop as a society or culture to explain mysterious things about the world or to reinforce shared beliefs. We’ve done the same thing with creativity. There are a lot of misconceptions about where it comes from or how it’s supposed to work that stand in the way of reaching our true creative potential. When we rewrite the myths about how creativity works, everybody benefits. For example, the Eureka Myth suggests that creative moments just appear suddenly rather than being the product of hard work.
Paul: Distraction and technology seem to be eroding our time alone – what do you think the consequences of this will be and what we can do that might impact this trend.
David: I’m both excited and terrified by connective technology. On the one hand, connectivity is going to enhance the amount of information we have access to and hence the raw material we can use to generate new ideas. On the other, as a temptation for distraction, that same technology can be a huge productivity killer. Everything in moderation – technology too.
Paul: You feature many influential authors and thinkers – like Daniel Pink and Nancy Duarte – on your podcast. Can you name four or five ideas that have come out of your of interviews that have somehow changed who you are or how you live your life?
David: I’m not sure I could narrow it down to four or five ideas, but I can mention a theme I’ve noticed with lots of people: time. Spectacular achievement, more than luck or talent, seems to be the result of putting in the time and continuing to work and improve. I realize that sounds like a cliché or something you’d see in a photo on Facebook, but at the same time, the reverse implication is fascinating. If you’re working hard on making a dent in the universe, you need to give yourself time and not get so frustrated that you haven’t “arrived” yet. It takes time.
Paul: You interviewed Anders Ericsson. How can we apply the idea of deliberate practice in everyday life even when we don’t have ten thousand hours or the desire to be the world’s best?
David: It takes a coach. When I interviewed him, he emphasized the role of feedback and spending time practicing what is hard over and over again until it’s not so hard. It’s not about the number of hours you rack up…it’s about how well spent those hours are. And without a coach or a guide, those hours likely won’t be used to their full potential.
Paul: What advice do you have for first-time supervisors who aspire to be a popular boss that everyone respects?
David: When people read my book Under New Management, they usually have one of two questions. Either they ask how to get started, or they ask what they can do if they’re not the CEO. Ironically, both are the same. Whether you’re sitting in the top seat, or you’re a brand-new manager, figure out what is blocking your people from doing their best work and find a way to eliminate it or shield them from it. Most people want to make a positive contribution, and many times the bureaucracy gets in the way. Your goal is to innovate the organization so that you can set talent free.

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