Monday, May 2, 2011

No Surprises

This last post in the Five Rules for the Road on Managing Up is all about dealing with ‘reality as it is’, communicating that reality and managing expectations. Whether your boss is a City Council, a County Commission or the Executive of the organization, except on their Birthday... nobody likes surprises.

As much as anything, creating no surprises is best achieved by dealing with ‘reality as it is’ and communicating that reality. People can respond to reality if they know what it is. Way too often surprises occur because we haven’t told folks above us in the organization the reality of our situation. We are then set up to take reality like a punch. The truth is always best told early.

Our dear friend and long time colleague, Charles Curry, has fun talking about the ‘temporary comfort of ambiguity’. A foggy sense that ‘everything is okay’ actually is comfortable for a while, until reality comes barging in. Apply this to performance. If you don’t know what your performance is, there isn’t much to worry about. Well, actually there is. Sooner or later your customer will tell you about your performance, and at that point it becomes a surprise. A couple of years ago, one of our favorite County Managers was surprised (ambushed may be a better term) at a meeting of business leaders when he was told how poor the county’s performance was in issuing permits on a timely basis. You can imagine that from that point forward, he asked for and received performance reports on the time it was taking the County to issue building permits.

It takes time to communicate what to expect, and it’s worth it. Surprise your boss with an issue or problem and you are almost certain to get a negative response, especially if it is too late to do something about it. This requires us to think ahead, plan ahead, analyze ahead - anticipate and plan for what will actually happen – then communicate as you move forward. If you are the boss in a given situation, you can and should expect the same.

Imagine the surprise of an elected Commission member (not in one of our customer jurisdictions) who was recently told that there was a multi-million dollar problem with the coming year budget, because the operating cost of a new facility was that much more than anticipated. You can imagine the conversation when that information was shared. Really? How did that happen? We knew the staffing levels, the utility costs, etc. How could we have been that far off? All those priorities that were lined up to receive money now won’t. Not good.

Manage the expectations of your bosses away from surprises and expect the same from your direct reports.

Managing Up. We all do it because we all have a boss or several. The question is how we manage up. Because this site is mostly for executives and senior managers, you no doubt have people managing up to you all the time. My advice is to be clear about what you expect. Your chances of getting what you want are that much better.

These Five Rules of the Road have been with me a long time and have served me well. Let me know if they work for you or if you have some other ‘Rules for the Road’ for Managing Up that work for you.

Managing Up – Initiative, Take It! – Never Make Your Boss Ask or Wonder What You are Doing – Manage Expectations Around Deadlines – Never Reverse Delegate – No Surprises

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