Journey into leadership: Two interesting days

New leaderThis post is part of a series that follows A.M. Starkin, a young manager taking his first major steps into leadership. Starkin writes here to share his experiences and to get input from others, so please share with him your thoughts and ideas.

Dear me! – and dear anyone. Let me pick out two significant days since my last post that are really significant.

Thursday last week, 9:15 in the morning – everyone comes in systematically late.

My ops manager/deputy pulls me aside and says that she has had enough of this place, and that she is only waiting for a better salary offer to leave. And that I might as well begin thinking of hiring because two others are going to leave real soon.

Early afternoon: I go through the current workfiles with everyone and find out that we are neither paying our suppliers nor invoicing our customers – or that we are doing both much too late and accumulating a HUGE backlog.

Thus: People are demotivated to the point that nobody wants to do anything. Those of my team who still believe in us seem to be expecting a superhero who arrives with answers to all their questions – while others have lost every hope and are just waiting for an opportunity to leave.

Can you think of a point of departure for my journey which is more basic than this one? Apart from the office being on fire?

My ops manager can be really strong if she is on ‘our’ side. If she would take the same responsibility for her job as she apparently does for her private life, she will be really good for us. Right now she is extremely illoyal. To be worked on – brutally honest, affirmative and extremely constructive.

There are a couple of really resourceful people in my team and I am sure that changing the environment quickly will bring out the best in them. I am also convinced that the rest can become responsable and happy colleagues. It will take some courage on my part!

I have a lot of ideas on how we can change for the better, and they will have to like it for it to work. My seniors have all adviced me to use fear as motivation: If we don’t change this quickly, we’ll close the subsidiary and you’ll all lose your jobs. Or if you don’t behave we’ll fire you!

Let’s see……

That Thursday I had decided to present my strategy to everyone:

1) We need to go out and find customers as the corporate salespeople are too busy elsewhere
2) We need to fix all our IT-problems which are making payment and invoicing hyper difficult
3) We need to begin learning constantly, all of us
4) We need to begin putting in place all sorts of small productivity-increasing things which will enable us to make more money and be less irritated by routine
5) we need to have fun while doing all that and our daily jobs.

I wanted everyone to pick whatever they felt for working on of those areas – except the part about having fun, where I proposed to take turns on being the chief happiness officer (called it something else). I suggested that those who were completely against my strategy considered whether they wanted to be part of this project at all – and thus whether they wanted to stay in the company – and I proposed that they all spend a week to consider how they would like to contribute.

The room was painfully silent – and I had made the usual mistake of not noticing my audience while I was speaking – consumed by enthusiasm over my idea. I expected some scepticism because everybody already had problems getting everything done in a day. But this silence – ssshhhhh – was a bit scary given what the day had brought so far.

I then pulled my ops manager aside to discuss her future: Did she want to stay or go? Ded she buy in to my project? I tried to be as sincere and positive as possible. How did she feel that her own attitude contributed to her happiness? I gave her the task of redesigning her own job for bext week: Tell me what you want to do in this company – no limits – and we’ll rewrite your job description next Thursday.



Thursday next week – today:

(Let me just add that this is a second job for me – I have a full time job in another city which I tend to 2-3 days a week. I can only spend 2 days a week in the company we are talking about here – so that limits the time I can spend)

The office fills up around 9:30: Headache, frustration over traffic, one didn’t sleep well. In the afternoon I had called for a first operational meeting, which I started out quite conventionally by asking everyone in turn to tell briefly what was happening. Which happened hesitantly, reluctantly for some. (You have to imagine me trying to convey a positive, affirmative, enthusiastic attitude out into this thick fog of frustration and lack of hope.) Then I asked everyone to get up from their chairs and continue the meeting standing. I spoke once again enthusistically about my project and asked who was against it and who doubted it. One said she wasn’t against but frankly she didn’t care about it and did not want to participate.

I had put all 5 of the above strategy domainson a whiteboard and while I went out to make a phonecall I asked everyone to sign up for as much as they felt like.
When I came back there were two camps in the meeting room: Camp North had all signed up for at least one project and were joking about ideas and stuff they could do – and Camp South were standing mute, critical and passive – one asking whether we could sit back down again.

My deputy and I spent an hour together where she did all the talking: About what she wanted to do, about being proactive – and we ended up agreeing on a pretty darn excellent project for her, which would be a huge win for everyone. The room was humming with motivation and good vibes.



Now what? What do I do about those sceptics? Is the enthusiasm that we created today enough to set the project afoot? We need a quick success story, wouldn’t you say? Will the urgencies of non-payment and non-invoicing make the corporate headquarters enforce rigid control procedures that ruin the new deal?
Should I celebrate or bite nails?

A.M. Starkin

15 thoughts on “Journey into leadership: Two interesting days”

  1. Not everyone will buy in. The point is everyone benefits from the good environment, not that everyone actively contributes to something larger. You don’t have to be the happiness police.

    More people will contribute if things get better.

    Is it really important that *everyone* contributes? Nope. Nothing ever works that way.


  2. A dysfunctional team can’t be fixed over night. Use the energy of those who are willing, and once others start seeing results and improvements, they’ll either get on board, or they’ll stay in your way, but if you’re always showing that you really on their side, and want to help, then they should come around.

    The comment “My seniors have all adviced me to use fear as motivation” made me laugh. It sounds like a number of people are already on their way out, and putting the fear of getting fired/laid off over their heads probably won’t motivate them. It’s one thing to say that people need to get their acts together at this time when you’re looking at turning the team around and the business you’re in, but make sure that doesn’t come off as, “do what I say, or else” because that’ll only make people more disgruntled.

    I like the 5 point plan, except for point 4. My only objection is that you shouldn’t focus any amount of energy on the small production agains. 100% of your time should be about doing those things that make a real and major impact. If you focus on little things, then they’ll end up becoming a distraction from things that matter. The team’s goal should be the reduction of work, and especially the work they dislike the most. They should all proudly have lazy jobs because they’ve made work so easy (and fun).

  3. I was also recently given the opportunity to lead a team through a ‘transition into proactive work ethics’, so i find your commentary very colorful.

    I am in my fourth week, but the one thing that i found the most difficult to learn was that some people are so accustomed to being unhappy in their work role that they pose the greatest resistance to change. Reaching my staff members who are accustomed to their numbness at the office is a true feat, they don’t like being miserable but yet every posed change is seen as threatening and every positive attitude or suggestion is met with ‘just wait till you really see how it is here’.

    Once i identified these dissenters (making sure not to include those who were honestly just afraid of change because they had been burned and burned out before) i concentrated more on damage control. A negative attitude is contagious, and i wanted to ensure the team members who had faith in the proposed plans and changes were not encouraged to become negative.

    My suggestion? Eventually you may have everyone on your team on-board with your ideas, but you cannot force people to embrace positivity. I would focus on those team members who want to make things work, and through their positive changes, their elevated happiness in the office and heightened productivity resulting from it, let the original dissenters come to you and express an interest in your way of doing things.

  4. I am in the process of creating and introducing a straight up way to make motivation better in my day job, reading this gives me ideas.

    Thank you for this Starkin!

    ps. Fear never works, you could post this as a fact to your seniors :) The first time you pull up the “…or else…” card is the cue in for the people to just stop working and start looking actively for the next job. This is unless you are the only company in the planet :D

    pps.I have seen that the positive and ongoing people will eventually get the others going too. If this does not happen, and the negative critics just continue on whining, you can ask yourself do you need these people in the first place? Sometimes it is just easier to change staff.

  5. This is great stuff A.M., I really like reading this!

    I think you’re doing great and I really like your approach.

    A couple of thoughts came to mind while I read your post:
    1: What you did for your deputy, could you do that for everybody, and Let everybody re-write their job descriptions according to this method:

    2: Is 2 days a week enough? I think you must really ask yourself this question. If you want to affect fast, radical, lasting change in this subsidiary – can you do that on only 2 days a week? Or do you need to, temporarily at least, spend more time there?

    3: Can you get people to buy in to each other?
    Right now, you’ve presented a plan and asked people to buy in to that. Some have, some haven’t. What if you asked the people themselves to think about whether or not things need to change, and what attitudes they expect from each other in order to change this.

    This way, it’s not a matter of them having a commitment to you but to each other, which is a more sustainable situation.

    Keep up the good work, this is fascinating!

  6. Pingback: Great comments
  7. This gave me an idea, whether its silly or not I don’t know. My boss recently took some initiative and asked that his supervisors talk to their teams and ask what motivates each person. We were suggested to talk to folks one-on-one as we tend to get a better response. The responses I’ve received have been interesting… one just wants to get along with their coworkers and have a calm environment that’s not too pressured, and another just wants money.

    What I’d like to do is utilize this information to and get a group discussion going. Everyone performs just about the same job, but each person has a specialty somewhere. I’d like everyone to discuss the job description and re-write their own, incorporating what makes them happy into it. For those that just want money, I’m interested to see the reaction I get.

  8. Ben, that’s a great idea. I’m pretty sure that even those people who are mostly in it for the money have tasks they like more (or at least hate less) than others, and will be able to contribute.

    Please let me know how it goes!

  9. It’s great to see that what I am doing spins off!
    I was hoping that this could be a kind of open-source leadership process where my writings and problems are the base but are entirely secondary to the thoughts and ideas that are the outcome.

    I am accepting the fact that not everyone buys in from the start. People are slowly understanding the new boss’ way of working and it’s a question of time before everyone is at least not against what is happening.

    To go faster – Alexander is right – I would need to spend more time here. I am not sure I have the choice right now, and if it’s a question of priority I am quite sure my boss will take me off this job and leave me to the other one (and leave this company in the dark).

    So the challenge is also becoming personal: How do I get everything done without cramming?

    I’ll get onto next post tomorrow evening.

  10. 1) We need to go out and find customers as the corporate salespeople are too busy elsewhere

    Isn’t getting customers the job of salespeople? What are these people so busy doing that they don’t have time to do their jobs?

  11. Hi NJG,

    It’s true that the salespeople should be selling my stuff.

    We are the little brother – a small subsidiary that have to share salespeople with the other subsidiaries.Therefore we systematically and consistently loose any power battle or prioritizaton.

    Its a strategy which is very strictly being adhered to, although very few people understand it and a lot of people agree that it is inefficient.

    Would you agree with me that just pointing the finger at the salespeople won’t get me far?

    I am too small to turn the supertanker by myself – and I don’t have time to start an uprising – I simply have to get my stuff sold so I’ll take the strategy a bit light and do it myself.

    What do you think about such an attitude?


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