Back to the Office, Mediocre Work, Finding a Mentor, and Career Ladders
June 10, 2021
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In this Issue
Which articles should I read about the return to the office: there’s suddenly a rash of advice on whether you should return to the office or not. We look at how you can filter out the noise and work out what’s best for your team.
Avoiding mediocre work: sounds obvious, but it can be easy to let average work simmer away in your team. We dig into why that’s a bad idea, and what you can do about it.
How to find a mentor: having someone to talk to about your growth as a manager can be invaluable, but mentors are hard to find. We highlight one way to go about it.
In praise of career ladders: we’re not ashamed of our love for a good career ladder, but now you don’t just have to take our word for it, we’ve found someone else who shares our opinion.
Which Articles should I read on the Return to the Office?
Do we really need all this?
To which the answer is, of course not.
But recently it seems like these articles are everywhere. Now, call us cynical but we don’t believe all these pieces are sincerely trying to solve the problem of optimising your team’s operations.
The return to the office is the perfect topic for the business press. It affects lots of people, and there are no easy answers. Cue endless advice columns, which just leave decision-makers even more anxious...because there are no easy answers! Cue more advice columns, and the cycle continues.
Anyone who’s ever tried to read up on the cyber security risks to their company will recognise the dynamic.
It didn’t take one enterprising editor long to realise where the real jackpot was.
The dirty secret of lots of these pieces is that most decision-makers would be far better served spending their time talking to their own workforces than reading the blog post about ‘The CEO who’s solved Hybrid Work’. The CEO in question almost certainly hasn’t. And even if they had, it would be in the context of their own company, culture and working practices.
So if you’re a manager who’s trying to grapple with these issues, try to see through the noise, focus on your own context, talk to your team, and look at answering the fundamental questions.
We know that flexible work is desirable for the vast majority of employees. We know that the main challenges are building work/life boundaries, nurturing company culture, creating equal professional development opportunities, and maximising collaboration. We also know that the way forward lies in experimenting with different solutions, monitoring progress, and getting feedback on what works, rather than forcing large numbers of people into permanent arrangements. The solutions to dealing with all this will lie within your company, not in the pages of The Economist.
For that reason, we won’t cover the blow-by-blow debate about the return to the office. But from time to time we will highlight commentary which we think could help you solve those challenges, and navigate the practicalities of this transition as a manager. Here’s one example.
‘Finally, I don’t believe remote management is harder than IRL management, but I do think that it’s more obvious and detrimental in a remote context when management isn’t being done well. If overall the quality of management in your organisation is poor, you can either opt to boost everyone by (total guess) ~20% by giving them the structure of an office, or set about addressing the root issue. One of those seems much easier than the other – at least in the short term.’
We’ll keep you updated.
Avoiding Mediocre Work
Well thanks Captain Obvious, really adding value there with that insight.
On the one hand, it’s true, doing average work seems a pretty obvious thing to avoid. On the other hand, teams and managers slip into it all the time. We’ve been guilty of it too.
That long-running project on a deeply dull topic for an inattentive customer that’s just drifting along. That stuttering product development initiative that no-one has the courage to kill because everyone’s too burnt out to add another awkward conversation to their to-do list. That piece of code/marketing copy/business analysis that’s just easier to fix at senior level each time rather than digging into the reasons why more junior staff are producing work below the required standard.
These dynamics persist because day-to-day it’s understandable for managers to tolerate mediocre work to focus on more pressing issues. But over time, the impact of doing mediocre work on your team can be disastrous.
John Cutler is the Head of Product Education at Amplitude and in a recent piece on The Mediocrity Trap, he outlined some of the ways mediocrity damages your team, and what you can do about it (we’ve paraphrased and simplified).
It drains motivation and morale: excelling at work you can be proud of with other brilliant colleagues is thrilling and motivating. Mediocre work is the opposite. It leads to drudgery and those who care about doing good work (i.e. your high-performers) leaving.
It’s costly: mediocre work takes away time from much better work in an insidious way. Because it’s not awful, it’s only average, it can be hard to justify stopping, in the hope that it may elevate to beyond mediocre. So it creeps along, having negligible impact and sucking resources away from the more deserving projects.
It can grow exponentially: you may try and fix the mediocre work, but chances are it's too late. Doubling down on mediocre work often doesn’t make it better, it just leads to more mediocre work.
You don’t learn anything: mediocre work is different from trying something hard and failing. In the latter instance, there’s always something to learn. For mediocre work, you already know it’s not great and that you’re falling short. You’re not learning anything new by persisting with it.
So what can you do to stamp it out?
Define awesome: make sure everyone on your team knows what great work looks like, so they can easily spot when a project doesn’t meet the standard you’re looking for.
Celebrate success: strengthen your definition of awesome by publicly celebrating great work, and making sure everyone understands what made it a success.
Normalise misses: when a project doesn’t meet your standards, explain to your team why that was the case and what actions were taken in response. It should encourage a culture where mediocre work isn’t tolerated but actively rooted out.
How to Find a Mentor
When we speak to first-time managers about how they’re coping with the role, those who are finding their feet faster all have one thing in common.
They have someone they can learn from.
If you can find someone whose management style you admire and who is open to mentoring you, it can make a dramatic difference. They have already seen what you’re about to see, made the mistakes you might make, dealt with the situations you’ll face, and can offer invaluable advice.
But finding the right one can be very difficult. Articles with titles like ‘5 Things you can do to be a better Manager’ will tell you to ‘Find a Mentor’ as if you can swipe right on Mentr and you’ll magically be matched with the perfect coach who’ll help fulfill all your career dreams. It doesn’t work like that.
She takes you through the process, from how to ask someone, to handling that first meeting, and nurturing and maintaining the relationship. The article even contains various email templates you can use as you work through these steps.
If you’re new to trying to find a management mentor, it’s a good place to start.
In Praise of Career Ladders
We’ve spoken before about how effective the humble career ladder can be in guiding your team’s progress and helping them develop.
So just in case you don’t believe us, it was great to hear it recently from someone else.
‘I think first was, all the companies I was at really invested in their people. They had the luxury of having big HR departments where there were levels for every single function, career ladders, competency frameworks, really formal feedback cycles. And I was fortunate enough to have managers who really invested in that. And so I always felt like I knew what I was strong at, what I needed to work on, and what my growth paths were. And for me, that was particularly motivating.’
As she says, the power of career ladders, if done well, is that they provide great clarity to your team members about where they can focus their attention to progress.
This won’t be necessary for smaller companies where the priorities are clearer and the communication gaps between senior leaders and frontline employees are smaller. But as your company grows, career ladders can make sure your employees are developing the right skills for both them and their team’s development.