Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why all managers need to know how to throw a great party

One of the things we (should) all learn pretty quickly as teenagers, is that having a successful party is not about the venue, the drinks, the theme or the occasion. It’s about whether people show up and get involved. Teenagers intrinsically get it, but not all of them get how to make this happen, which is really a shame, because it’s an important life skill!

Getting a people to show up and getting involved is about building some hype around the party. Teens who do this well do it by talking about it to a lot of people, asking people for their ideas or help, and talking about it constantly. The successful teen party host asks things like “are you coming?”, “are you excited?” and “what sort of music should we play?” to a lot of people - and acting in an inclusive way.

This same skill is important for every manager to use regularly, and not just for positive messages. So often senior manager or leaders of a work group or project insist that nothing is communicated until the project is “off the ground and running”, insisting that everything must be totally confidential until then (ie. excluding people). These managers, more often than not, do a great job of sabotaging their own project or task.

A project can’t get “off the ground and running” unless it gathers momentum and support. Getting momentum happens through the same means a teen uses to drum up support for a party, by talking about it a lot - to a lot of people, and by getting the input of others and allowing them to shape the project. Paranoia about confidentiality and getting it right usually has more to do with that manager’s need for control that the success of the project.

What this says about human nature is that we all need some time to warm up to new ideas or change, a chance to process it, and a need to be involved. This is why the same party planning skills are important for delivering bad news.

Read on for a bad news example….

A few years ago, I had to carry out redundancies for around 150 people in a rural area. I was shocked to discover that the inexperienced site managers planned to sack people without notice, at the end of a shift, because the workforce had previously been aggressive and used physical tactics on site. They were afraid of what would happen if they put out an early warning. I managed to convince them that:
(a) Keeping something like mass redundancies a secret will never happen. There is always a leak which only goes to prove to the workforce that management are dishonest and deserve what they get; and
(b) There was sure to be unpredictable aggression and possible violence if they acted suddenly, without warning.

We managed to put together a plan which involved warming the workforce up to the unhappy reality that they were going to lose their jobs.
Week 1: There is a problem, we have lost a major client;
Week 2: We are looking at options to stabilize the business;
Week 3: One of the options may be redundancies but we will give you notice if it is going to happen;
Week 4: it is going to happen within a few weeks, tell us how we can make it easier for you.

What was most important about the plan was how it was communicated – often, to a lot of people (through site walks) and involving them in the solution.

They told us that we could help by coming up with a list of projects around Australia looking to hire people in their trade – we did and pinned it to notice boards with contact and the accommodation options in those towns. We encouraged people to move into job finding mode. Before long people were talking to us about when they would be finishing up, advising that they had somewhere else they were going to next. We contacted the union and asked for their assistance in ensuring that apprentices were able to continue on with another employer. They were stunned that we had contacted them at all and complied with very little fuss.

When D-Day came there were a few who were really angry and it was certainly tense that day. Those who did protest received a response from others “you knew it was happening, you’ve had time to plan, there’s nothing we can do about it” and having it come from their workmates (rather than managers) helped diffuse things quickly.

One of my aims was to keep things out of the media. I can’t lie - my strategy certainly felt scary at times! But I’m pleased to say that not one story made it into even the local news. Talking about it to all our people regularly meant that it was not news any more. We had controlled the message and managed to show people that we would share information and listen.