Friday, September 30, 2016

Bosses are humans too - thoughts on humanistic leadership

Recently I've been interested in this idea of humanistic leadership. There are many schools of thought on leadership, and some of them may already cover what I currently have in mind.

Nevertheless, this post is aimed at that frustrated subordinate and the fresh-faced executive, about our managers.

I've always sought to find a good mentor and manager as my number 2 priority after job-scope/exposure. The reason being is that we probably see our managers for longer hours than our spouses or family. It felt only logical. Monetary issues aside, if one can afford it, seek a job to grow and learn first and foremost.

However, not all managers are leaders. Many times we are frustrated by the decisions they make, or do not make. They also chastise us for things that might not be entirely our fault, or may seem unreasonable in terms of deadlines. No one likes OT (unless you like escaping from home), and certainly no one likes uncertainty or negative energy around the office.

So we immediately turn to the manager who gave us that instruction, or directive. Why B now when it was A earlier? We question, interrogate and some managers stonewall us and ask you to "just do it". So we bitch and moan over lunches with our colleagues, and then complain to our loved ones that my manager has been unreasonable. Crazy even, especially when emotions were involved and things felt a bit personal, words were heartedly exchanged.

Ultimately, everyone goes back with their relationship just a bit sour. Bits of you promise that you'll never help your boss anymore. S/he has betrayed you.

There are a ton of articles out there that suggest what you should do if you have a lousy boss. How to "survive" a lousy manager. It is all about coping and tolerating the Mean Manager. This is where I beg to differ.

Coping and tolerating is a stop-gap measure, it suggests that both parties dance around the bush and ignore the white elephant in the room. Truce comes with developing understanding, and some empathy, as well as crystal clear communication.

1. Understanding, maybe you misunderstood the messenger for the message.

Managers have meetings, they have closed-door discussions. They have responsibilities and emails that you are not privy to, they text their own bosses, they have greater responsibilities beyond the organisation.

Sometimes we see the blood but not the battle, and we blame the soldier who fought in the trenches than the politicians that instigated the war. Messages flow from the top, and managers are sometimes confronted with the difficult position of being the messenger - to fire, to discipline, to U turn - because of whatever reasons. They could have spoke up for you, but their decisions were overrode by other people and considerations. Ultimately, we need to ask the right questions before we jump to conclusions. Managers have bosses to please too. How they handled the situation reflects well/badly on them. So while we can feel that the message could be phrased in a better way, we need to be objective and seek clarity on where and how this decision came to be.

2. Empathy, because managers have families too.

So she was snappy at you - it must be PMS or she is has issues with your slides last night. He was distant- maybe he has unvoiced disappointment and the hammer's gonna drop any minute.

Maybe you don't care at all.

However we see it, our bosses can equally be met with frustrations from home, they are not our managers when they are home but husbands, wives, children, friends. They can very well have had their heartbroken that affected their day. It's not always about you.

Junior-entry executives don't always realise how sheltered they are. Personal performance is easy and while there are some relationships to manage, the goals are often very clear and directive. However the higher up the corporate ladder, the view is less clear, the relationships less obvious and suddenly the phrase, "with great power, comes great responsibility" start to really sink in.

It is always easier to be responsible for yourself, than to be responsible for others. That's why I'm quite resistant to the idea of the careerist individual, because more often than not, I see managers burn out and run ineffective and toxic teams that surrounds a person's ego. Without the support of family and friends, it is easier to be bitter, jaded and simply apathetic about other's predicaments.

3. You can never over-communicate.

A lot of misunderstanding comes from the lack of will and ability to simply tell others what the hell you are working on right now.

Sometimes when things are extremely overwhelming, boss forget to communicate, and because shit flows from the top, the landslide eventually lands on our 6pm shoulders.

Soldier on.

Shake it off like water off a duck's back and fucking grow a pair. It is not okay for any boss to tell you  to do something that was due 2 hours ago, communicate how this can be improved, mutually apologise and move on.

Of course with authority, no manager is going to tell you sorry for making you miss your movie with your partner, or worse still, the finals of EPL.

Yet, taking the first step to confront the issue achieves 2 objectives. First it tells you what kind of leader you have, and secondly, it opens a dimension of understanding that goes beyond passive-aggressiveness.

Nothing gets achieved if communications are reduced to passive aggressiveness, and people who are PA need to understand that this propagates and complicates the issue. If you feel you are not listened to, or are not appreciated for your opinions, just voice it out and see where the paint spray settles. If the organisation doesn't appreciate your skills and views, then leave. If you can't leave, then just press on. If you get brow beaten all the time, at least you did your conscience proud. Congratulations, welcome into maturity.

Bosses who are themselves PA, need to get a grip of their actions, and I fucking make no excuses for managers who are detrimental to their team due to ineffective (PA) communications. But all of us can do our part to improve things.

My point of this article, is that you don't need to have a shiny brass plate engraved with your name and title to exhibit leadership. In this day and age of rank-seeking individuals, we forget the software of what makes managers important. They are the muscles that hold the joints together, the nervous system that run effective communications, though while sometimes painful, helps the rest of the corpus understand that they have been burnt and back away.

It is not always about you, neither do people "have issues with your performance". Very rarely, people think about you if at all, and managers, those who are truly focused on the good work, have spare RAM to give a shit about your petty thoughts and drama. So grow a pair of bravery + transparency, and mature. This world is really not your polly-pocket universe.

Humanistic leadership is about understanding the individual and where they are coming from. Thereafter, to lead with transparency and empathy, to communicate clearly with people around you so as to develop healthy relationships. You may do it in any style, but you don't have to be a manager to lead - you can start with yourself.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Lifelong learning

I was searching my family document library 2 days ago, trying to get papers in order for an appeal application for my mother's step-down care subsidy. And my mum being the extremely orderly person she is, has kept everything in place and is a system we still use 7 years later despite her stroke.
Having said, I paused to flip through the numerous certificates, courses and accreditation that my mum has had throughout her career right up till her stroke. At first, it was O levels, and then a diploma in IT back when computers barely made it to the scene. My mother was a brilliant typist, scoring an impressive word/minute to qualify a shiny badge for it. She attended even more courses about logistics, learning advanced excel and so on. This was before systems like SAP and Oracle made it to our shores to help companies monitor complex logistics.

It was easy to pass these off as my mum's poor O Level grades didn't qualify her entry into a tertiary institution due to her poor English marks (she was Chinese educated). It is but of course, that she kept on learning so that she could continue to be relevant. It is a discourse we are familiar with and, with SkillsFuture, institutionalised.

However, being a university graduate, a person of middle-class privilege, it is easy to be comfortable in our worldly knowledge. To pass off my mum's pursuits as simply a necessity because she didn't have access to university. It is equally tempting to assume we know it all - and stop learning. A great deal of humility came when I entered the digital media world - where no such course is offered in Singapore, where the playing field is equal, that you feel that your entire educational hardwork seems less useful than when it first felt. My mum must have felt the same when she picked up IT as her profession of choice.

I find myself on the same journey as my mother now, learning and developing new skills, taking courses and getting certified for platforms I never knew existed or were possible.

Yet, a constant worry plagues me.

My mother had to also banked on a particular set of skills - and it was IT. Very soon after the 2000s, a vast majority of consolidation exercises and downsizing caused many to lose their jobs. My mother included - she had to de-skill and work in another field that demanded a strict paycut. The last few years leading to her stroke were the most stressful. Being older now, I am starting to understand her frustrations. Back in 1970s, the government promised developments in the IT manufacturing sector. However that strategy quickly changed when China because cheaper and opened its doors in mid 1990s. We lost our comparative advantage in a heartbeat. Many industries today still grapple with this change.

It must have been infuriating to invest so much into one's learning, and not have it pay off in the future you aspire to. I am somehow doubly pained for my mother, who have always shielded me from these worries and allowed me to pursue my passion and strengths. Perhaps if she were healthy now, she would shared more with me.

There are two kinds of learning - often dichotomised as incompatible. On one end of the ring, we have the academic approach of meta-knowledge. The abstraction of common phenomenon into concepts that can be adapted to analyse anything - a way of thinking if you will. On the other side presents a realm of practical knowledge that get things done. How to fix a generator on a bulldozer, how to create pivot tables, how to run a training session.

The former comes at too high a cost, often econimically and scholastically out of reach from many. The latter is too specialised and can, in my mother's case, be obsolete if the wind changes directions.
So what then? While one can certainly, theoretically, keep getting skilled - some boundaries are harder to cross than others. A salesperson selling books can hardly transit into a role that sells medical equipment. This structural unemployment is not simply distilled to just the lack of learning. The person may very be learning all this time, just within their own vertical that no longer exists.
It is this insecurity that makes me question the viability of some of the strategies posited by armchair economists, often relegating the structural unemployment as a problem of the lack of self-improvement.

But what is clear is that we cannot stop learning, and be closed to the idea that being in a lab analysing cell division is a farfetched idea when you were a geography major. No doubt it comes at a very high cost. However my point is that if we are no longer hungry to learn, we stand no chance at all.

This post addresses many parallel and intersecting issues - but the tldr; version is simply this. Just keep swimming, even if it was the wrong direction, we can always turn back, but never stop moving.
By the way, my mum wanted to enroll into university to pursue her dreams of getting a degree after I "grew up". She never went on to fulfil that personal aspiration. It doesn't matter because he carries enough knowledge already that universities will be learning more from her experience than what they can offer.  Her dream lives on with me, and I will carry that torch of learning forever in my heart.