Climbing the Management Mountain

Six months into the job, I was encouraged to lead my team more effectively. This criticism ignited a now three-week mission to become a better manager. I’ve been listening to many podcasts and conversations about encouraging people, time management, and planning, and getting team “buy-in”. From these last few weeks of trying harder and smarter, I’ve learned the most since the job started. That said, when you only look at a mountain from a distance (the mountain of Sierra Team Management) you imagine you can climb it quickly, the way child me imagined he could actually beat up his karate instructor. When you start the climb you realize how high it is.

Just to illustrate, I told my team we are having Monday stand-up meetings and they rejected it. I boiled down their feedback to our meetings are long and objectiveless. At first, I was upset that they were stubborn, but I acknowledged that I don’t run effective meetings yet. So for lack of any mentoring, I turned to YouTube for advice. All the Western-minded management coaching gurus online had good tips, but their advice doesn’t apply well in Vietnam or in this case. So I cherry-picked the acceptable advice and began to run an objective-focused meeting – or I planned to.

At these stand-up meetings, I had been trying to ask those sort of agile questions like, “What are you working on?”, “What is going well?”, “Where do you need help?”. My teammates feedback was that those questions are “nonsense”. They reacted like I was intruding in their personal business, asking them for unnecessary status updates, and wasting their time. I felt they didn’t communicate what they were doing, they lacked a team spirit, and they were rather disengaged from our work.

All Vietnamese organizations, write their Annual Action Plans in January. I’m surprised that despite having decades of experience they don’t seem to want to be involved in writing the plan. I wonder if it is out of spite that they leave inexperienced me to write the plan? Or they are so discouraged they have little interest in whatever comes next.

If a team is going to write an Annual Action Plan, I imagine that the team would come together around a table brainstorm their ideas, jot down notes, crumple up paper into a ball, toss bad ideas into a trash can, chew the end of their pencils, and contend to dominate a whiteboard with their own doodles. Trying to inspire this sort of collaboration from them isn’t happening.

I boiled down their feedback to, “Why do we need to talk about the Action Plan? You’re the manager you just write it and we will give feedback”. This attitude frustrates me, because silently they are saying, “I’m not going to lend my decades of experience in this field to our plan”. Without their insights, I alone would make a faulty Action Plan without understanding the market, Vietnamese customers, and partner businesses, or even how my own organization runs events, schedules, or budgets.

I know why they are discouraged. Why they’ve let the business slide from helping 70 students a year to about 15 per year. The director rarely encourages them. The “you are never enough” style of encouragement discourages people. Having experienced it for decades would make anyone discouraged.

The challenge of making my team more enthusiastic is achieve-able in tiny steps. However, given how entrenched this discouraged attitude is, I’m not going to stick around long enough to untangle decades of frustration.

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