Benevolent Manipulation (aka Helping Someone Out)

Helping Hand

Our work lives require us to be professional. Being professional requires that we train ourselves with a filter that kicks in instantly to cancel out our base instincts. There may be times where that filter malfunctions. If the relationship is good, we can recognize what needs to happen. We can apply that filter for that person. And, it’s reassuring to sometimes hear that something sucks and someone understands. Then we can talk about how we’ll try to respond better next time.

In firms, bad things rise to the top. That’s a fact, and that’s actually the way it needs to be. Leaders are responsible for cleaning up messes and trying to keep everything neat and orderly. The tasks that arise that no one else can do, those are their tasks.

It’s a fact that in addition to the strengths they have, they also have weaknesses. Beyond what work throws at us, life adds another layer of surprises. As a leader, you are required to strive to be the best person you can be all of the time, and to certainly always be professional. If you show weakness, it will have impacts on those around you. If you are grumpy or if you snap… the ramifications go much beyond what you would experience at home where forgiveness is more often applied (hopefully). A work relationship can be seriously damaged by misplaced actions and words. There is such a thing as opening Pandora’s box. You are expected to be the solid and fearless leader… and you need to strive to achieve that.

Being a leader means that your brain churns with one non-optimal situation or another, trying to find the appropriate resolution. I know that I firmly believe that every situation does have a win-win option. It’s hard to constantly juggle all of the variables and organize them into something good.

That’s what it is. The higher you are in an organization, the more variables you are likely to be juggling. Just like algebra, an equation with one variable is pretty easy to solve. Two variables is a bit more tricky. Get to three and more, the complexity sky rockets. Not only do firm leaders work with multi-variable problems… they have multiple problems happening at the same time.

So, I titled this post benevolent manipulation… or, helping someone. Empathy and sympathy can be hard when we can’t identify with the experiences of someone else. We can’t be expected to know what it’s like to be responsible for the success of multiple people in a firm, until that’s what we do. Maybe the first step is to understand that the leaders of your firm firm are probably actively thinking about the best ways to activate you and enable you to be the best person you can be. They are trying to adapt themselves to maximize the benefits of your relationship. They have been where you are now, so they have access to direct sympathy  and empathy. One challenge is that their efforts to assist you will likely be invisible. They are trying to match your world-view, so it might just seem normal to you (and thus invisible).

Then, your boss has a bad day. Or a number of them. Where they might have addressed something perfectly constructively before, they now are short and perhaps negative. Empathy goes a fair ways… but, your duty is actually to try to adapt to those around you. If you notice that a certain action on your part resulted in a sub-optimal reaction… the first thing you need to do is to assess it. Can you separate the intent from the delivery? Can you empathize with their reaction? Is there anything you can do to manipulate future situations to ensure that reaction doesn’t happen again?

You are responsible to adapt to those around you and make their lives smoother (just as they owe the same to you). We don’t want to lose ourselves in the mix, but we can make choices that benefit those around us. Control the situation to help the other person be the person they want to be. We all want to be good… and it’s easier with help.

If you want another post with a more applied discussion of ‘benevolent manipulation’, see Benevolent Manipulation. [Am I already running short of titles?]

Most Important Skill Ever!!! Running a Good Meeting

I’ve had the luck to be on a commission, be on an editorial board, be involved with local professional association leadership, be involved with national professional association leadership, run my own company, and have countless discussions over “after beers” when I interacted with anyone else during the business of the above. If anyone were to ask me what the most important part about being a leader is… running a good meeting.

You are a leader! Your role is to enable those around you to achieve their potential. Your role is to let them figure things out, and then bring them to the table. It’s the best when a sub-committee brings a strong decision to a larger board, and all we have to do is vote to support it or not. There might be some brief discussion, but we’ve chosen the right people to be on that sub-committee… so we intrinsically trust what they bring to us.

I should state that this post assumes that it is a board meeting (or similar) with a group of people who function relatively well and are used to interacting. The opposite end of the spectrum is something like a public meeting… which would require numerous posts to address running from minimizing the opportunities for dysfunction.

Board Meetings are for reviewing and approving things.

When people slip into doing the work at a board meeting (getting into the weeds), it means one of a few things:

  • The subcommittee hadn’t completed their work completely,
    • Oops…
  • They weren’t clear about their reason for coming to the board,
    • Always be clear about what you need!
    • A status report (which really has only need for minimal discussion)
    • A request for approval (if it creates major discussion, it might just need to go back to committee)
  • It’s just the wrong thing at the wrong time.

A (secret?) recipe for a good meeting.

My opinions on the secret of a good meeting?
  • Have a good agenda.
    • This should include times for each item.
    • This is where you enable yourself to manage a meeting. When you get to the allocated time, you interrupt the discussion to state you have reached time. Unless the board decides to extend the time, it should be wrapped up.
  • Have a secret agenda.
    • This sounds bad… but isn’t. The president and executive director should have an agenda that might have extra information on it. At a minimum this should include a model motion (this can also be in the standard agenda) and any cheat notes you might want for easy access.
    • This shouldn’t contain anything you wouldn’t want people to see, but it should contain the items that relate to “leadership” and helping you run the meeting well.
  • Announce your role at the start of every meeting. I like to start with:
    • Hi. My role is to keep this meeting going, and make sure you laugh a little.
    • We will use loose Robert’s Rules for this meeting. If we find ourselves in a more complex discussion, we will use tighter Robert’s Rules and I will act as Parlimentarian to the best of my abilities.
    • I will be a time fascist. My role is to keep our meeting on topic and on time. I do this to be respectful of you and your time.
  • Keep to your agenda
    • Be a time fascist. As said, when you hit your time use it as a point to either validate the importance of the existing discussion by extending the time, wrap it up and find the right conclusion, or save it for another meeting.
  • Maintain the level of Robert’s Rules (or similar) needed for your group.
    • Receive reports and information.
    • Ensure that they are received with a specific intent. Is this informational, or does it have need of a motion?
    • As necessary, have a model motion ready for the group and read it out as a basis for someone to easily say, “So moved.”
    • Get your second, and have discussion.
    • Call the question to get your vote.
      • When I can’t see people (teleconference), I ask for all those who are NOT in favor. This gets to the point faster and generally becomes “motion moved unanimously”. You’ll know when you should start with those in favour, and/or ask for abstentions.
    • When things get complex… make sure you know the process for friendly amendments and unfriendly amendments.
    • YOU have to be the person that knows how to maintain procedural order (or the person who consults your parliamentarian and is willing to enforce it on the group). Without it your meeting will devolve.
  • Keep people laughing and enjoying themselves.
    • Break as necessary.
    • Feel empowered as a humour broker, or empower others to do this within reason.
    • During breaks and after the meeting, touch base with board members to socialize and show them people are listening. Make them feel good about themselves.
    • Always find time to provide positive credit and goodness.
Some of the best feedback I have ever heard in my professional career has been “Thank you! That was the shortest meeting ever!” or “You run a meeting well.” Well… that in addition to, “Wow… you look handsome in a suit!” I stop myself from wondering how I looked before I put the suit on… =(

Trying to Avoid Work (to Benefit Our Clients)

Sometimes we find ourselves doing things for our clients that they don’t actually need, but it’s what they told us they needed. When that happens, it means we didn’t stop for a second to work with them to truly understand their concerns. That’s one of our main reasons for being… figuring out what root cause(s) need to be addressed. Call us landscape whisperers.

Our expertise is to speak with clients and figure out what they actually need. This can certainly be challenging, as then we need to figure out communication styles and the best tools to enable us to listen effectively. Listening well requires figuring out the right questions to ask. This is also benefited by being equipped with a broad range of facilitation techniques.

Anyways… this post was based on a discussion in the office. We try to empower everyone to say, “Why are we doing this?” because sometimes we need to stop and ask ourselves what the actual reasons are.

I used the following as an example of the way that we humans sometimes act:

  • I need to buy a new house.
    • Why?
  • I hate the house I have.
    • Ok… why?
  • It doesn’t work for me.
    • Why?
  • I love to cook?
    • What doesn’t work about cooking?
  • I hate the kitchen.
    • Why?
  • The counters suck.
    • Oh. Would it be better if we replaced the counters?
  • Yes.
    • Here’s a number for a counter guy. Great conversation!
  • Thanks!

We save effort by listening and working with clients to understand the actual concern, and the correct response it deserves. Maybe that’s a good definition for when someone is a professional in their field? They know the right tool to use at the right time, and how to use it properly.

When someone asks you for a phillips screw, don’t be afraid to ask a few questions and offer that perhaps their problem might better be served by a robertson screw. (a little Canadian content on screws there… if not just an obtuse reference loosely related to this post.)

Managing from Behind: Part 1 – Helping Our Prime Consultants Help Us

Part 1 – Helping Our Prime Consultants Help Us

We’re an independent landscape architecture firm. That means we work with a wide variety of architects, engineers and other consultants. We get to see (and experience) a whole range of project management styles and capabilities. This allows us to not only learn by example (from good and bad), it allows us to learn how to “manage from behind”. During the best of times this means that we get to function at a higher level on the consultant teams that are managed well, during the not as best times… it means we can try to save our teams from potential self-inflicted issues… or at the worst, try to shield ourselves by adapting to make sure we’re doing our work properly within the surrounding mess.

What surprises me is that ten years into Corvus Design, I can say that none of the firms that we work with have ever asked us how they might do better (and I have prodded them). We find that odd since we put effort into trying to do our work better, and reaching out for input. I believe that the reasons for this are a combination of not knowing better, not having the time, being unaware that there are issues and/or being blinded by ego (luckily a rarity). We’ve experienced all of those, and other versions.

We think about these things though! So, we asked ourselves the question: How could our prime consultants make better use of us and their teams?

  • Clarity in deadlines
  • Efficient meetings
  • Timely delivery of what we need (and brokering such delivery from others)
  • Clear project strategy based on reality (i.e. procurement methods)
  • Have humor
  • Manage THEIR time to avoid passing pressure to us
  • Stay calm and carry on
  • Check in using the phone
  • Balance communications: face to face, email, phone
  • Be strict
  • Have processes and strategies
  • Know your contract/fee… and ours too.
  • Set measurable expectations

We value the above, and do our best to “manage from behind” by being proactive about ensuring our relationship with our prime takes the above list into account. We just wish we could eventually stop doing this from behind… and do it together. Then when one of us forgets, the other has our back and remembers.

As a designer turned business person, I also really like the idea that our Primes might be concerned that we make our profit and stay in business. At the beginning of each project, there should be a profit meeting where we all discuss what we need from each other to achieve our scope within or ahead of budget. Do any primes do things like this?

This aspect merited another post on creating a team profit strategy that anticipates project and client complexities… and can adapt successfully to the unknown! A Team Profit Strategy

A Team Profit Strategy

To serve our clients, we need to stay in business. To stay in business, we need to make money. To make money, we need to meet our budgets. To meet our budgets, we need to remain within expected scope. To remain within expected scope, a project needs to follow expectations. To follow expectations, everyone needs to be familiar with them and respect them.

So… to serve our clients, we need to meet and exceed expectations. Not just us, the client too.

Our fees aren’t a random number. We generate them based on expected scope. We try to establish what we will need to do, and how much effort it will take to do it. This then becomes our contracted agreement with our client. We have done our job correctly if we set quantifiable expectations. When the reality of a project drifts from these expectations, we assess what impact it will have on our budget… and as needed, we discuss modifying scope and fee with our client. We’re crafty with developing our fees, and the reality is that if something new is needed, it typically balances with something that might have gone away. We very rarely pursue additional services where we validate that scope is truly different enough to affect our fee.

We have also developed excellent coping strategies. We have internal processes in place where we have become incredibly efficient at certain project tasks (like drafting), and this provides some buffer for us when other tasks take more time (like more team meetings than expected). We have taken control over the things over which we can take control.

Then… there are the things we have no control over… like our prime and client.

We have all submitted scope/fees where our prime and/or client have asked us to reduce our fee. The typical way to do this is to modify/reduce scope (remember that scope equals fee). Then, during the project the client asks for the scope that they negotiated out of your contract… without the commensurate increase in fee. We’ll be kind and say they forgot…

What do you do?

Well… one approach we have is to shift our strategies and internal processes. This means that we might pull in our best CAD person who can speed through things faster than the staff we might have had on the project. BUT… we’re providing scope that the client/prime told us they wouldn’t need. Aw man… not fair! Oh well… we’ll be kind and say they forgot, and they reaaaallly need it. Maybe they have pressures to deliver and are between a rock and a hard place. We often see that our prime’s negotiated their team down in good faith with the client… and then the client puts pressure on them to deliver more than expected. It can be super hard to be in that situation. We never want to alienate our prime/client. The issue is that they often don’t contemplate the reality that they are alienating their design team. I think they’re just not fully aware of what they’re doing. They don’t realize that they might be compromising our ability to stay in business and serve them well in the future.

So… we all need to be open and honest, and have a great discussion about how we can minimize the pain for everyone. The client just squeezed the team, so the architect initiates a meeting with everyone to establish what we can do better. How can we be more efficient? Minimize changes… or at least lump them together so they can all be done at once. Have efficient meetings, or better yet reduce them. There are all of these strategies that could make the best of a poor situation. Heck… the benefit is that the prime might wind up minimizing their own fee loss by improving their team! And we all learn skills that allow us to be more efficient in the future. That means we can offer better fees, or that we can be more profitable.

The summary of all of this: Profit isn’t a dirty word. If I can help my prime be more profitable, sweet!! They’ll hopefully recognize that and see me as a valuable partner. Maybe they’ll also turn around and ask me how they can help our company be profitable. That hasn’t happened yet… but I’m looking forward to the first client/prime who prioritizes this discussion enough to make it a reality.

Pretend You’re the Person You’d Like to Be

I came into landscape architecture from an environmental science degree (ecology minor). When I started, I had a great interest in ecological restoration. I read papers, went to conferences, presented a few times, and otherwise tried to visualize what I wanted. Some of my friends teased me because I had landscape architecture AND restoration ecologist on my business card. I wasn’t really a fully practicing restoration ecologist, but it’s what I certainly wanted to do. The disconnect was that I was doing some of that work, but the firm I was working with didn’t really have the work that aligned with that part of what I wanted to do.

The point of this is that I tried to be who I wanted to be, and gained great information and knowledge within an area of passion. Situations never really developed fully for me to become that person, but it’s a part of who I am… and I carry that knowledge with me to apply when needed.

Restoration ecologist faded from my cards, and I sometimes feel goofy for having had it on my card before I reached it… but I wouldn’t change it. I wish that more people started with who they wanted to be and where they wanted to go. When you do that, if you have the right people around you, then they know more about you… and might just help you get to where you would like to be. If you don’t announce it, how will you get there? Alone is a lonely battle.

My card now just states who I am… principal landscape architect. That’s appropriate to my existence, and owning my own firm allows me to do what I want to do anyways. But, what would I add to describe more of who I am? Entrepreneur? Woodworker? Silversmith? Excellent reader of trashy adventure novels?

A friend had the best cards for introductions. They had his name… and “personage extraordinaire”. He had it right.