Having recently evolved from a new graduate to the manager of a small team, I have discovered an ability that separates outstanding young professionals from the rest. The ability that, if mastered, can help you accelerate your career the fastest, especially in large organizations.
I call it the ability to Make Thing Happen (MTH).
So what is MTH?
For most knowledge workers, “work” increasingly involves a lot more cross-team collaboration. When different teams work together, there needs to be an “owner” of things. Note that the “owner” may not be the “leader” (the one with the highest title). Anyone can be an “owner”, and this can often turn into the best chance for young professionals to stand out among their peers. The owner is the one that makes things happen.
An “owner” is also different from a “project manager”. Even though both involves “making sure people complete tasks on time”, I would argue that the latter is a subset of the former.
A project manager completes projects. An owner creates projects.
A project manager asks people to do things. An owner inspires people to do things.
Too often, we host meetings that end up with a list of to-dos. Or someone talks about a grand plan that sounds fantastic. And then, weeks pass and nothing happens.
MTH is about turning the talking into the doing.
More specifically, it’s about getting other people to do things.
So how do you get people to do things, especially when those people are much more senior and experienced than you? Here are four tips.
First, know who does what.
Have an encyclopedic knowledge of the people in your organization and what they do. Note that this is different from reading the org chart. It’s about knowing who actually does what, which often is very different from what their title says.
Often, when people fail to get things done, it’s not because they are not capable; it’s because they didn’t find the right person. Sometimes, simply finding the right person can save you days of fruitless work.
For example, you need to write a customer story, so naturally you find the salesperson responsible for this customer. But you realize that the salesperson only knows why the customer bought the product, but doesn’t really know how the customer is using it. You become very frustrated because you don’t have enough materials to write a good customer story.
This is not because you’re incapable of writing a good customer story. It is because you didn’t find the right person. In this case, the person you should talk to is the customer success manager, because they are actually the ones serving the customer post-sales, and would be the most familiar with the customer’s actual use cases.
How do you know who does what? You need to be extremely proactive. Make a list of all the people that you might work with/those in your adjacent teams, ask to grab coffees and meals one by one. Ask about what they do, their goals and aspirations, and explore how your scope of work might have synergy with theirs.
As a new graduate, you have a great asset that many people overlook: A good reason to talk to anyone in the organization. The reason is this: You just want to learn. This is when you’re at your most harmless, and nobody will fault you for wanting to learn from them. In fact, they are often flattered.
And after talking with one person, ask them “Who else do you suggest that I talk to?” Or during the conversation, if they mention someone who’s particularly good at a certain field, jot that name down and grab a coffee/meal with that person as well. Overtime, the snowball gets bigger and you will have created a significant personal network within the organization.
So that the next time you need to work with someone from another team, you’re no longer staring blankly at a strange name that you can’t link to a face – you smile confidently to yourself: I just talked to so-and-so last week; she’s great and I really look forward to working with her.
Second, know when to escalate.
In plain words, “escalating” means that rather than finding someone, you find their boss.
Why is this useful? Because bosses usually have a different perspective from their team members. They can see the bigger picture, the higher goal. Frankly, employees sometimes just think that “this is creating extra work for me.” This is where talking to the boss becomes very helpful. It changes the source of the task from you to the boss, and turns a “favor” into an “assignment”.
There are two cases when escalating might be useful.
First, when you sense that someone might be reluctant to help you because this task is likely to create significant amount of extra work for them, go straight to their boss to ask for support and resources. Start from the top.
Second, when you have appeared to garnered the support of a team member, but the work they’ve delivered is significantly sub-par or delayed, you might also need to consider alerting their boss.
Many young professionals are afraid of talking directly to senior leaders. What if I’m wasting their time? What if I say something too naive?
Don’t. Leaders just want to get things done (at least the good ones). And you’ll learn so much faster by working with those more experienced than you.
Third, know what’s in it for them.
A lot of times, it appears that different teams have different goals and incentives, and sometimes they even collide. But after all, we all work for the same company, the same boss (the CEO).
What’s the common purpose that ties everyone together? The process of figuring this out is what we call “aligning”.
Before working with someone in another team, read their OKRs. Know what they care about. Understand their perspectives. Stand in their shoes. And then think about how your goals align.
To get aligned, you have to get talking. No OKRs will align themselves; people align them by talking things out with each other.
When you have difficulty aligning, talk some more.
If this still doesn’t work, see Tip Two: Ask your leader to align with the other person’s leader.
Fourth, communicate and get everyone on the same page.
I often sit in big meetings with lots of participants from different teams. And you can tell that most people are thinking to themselves: “Why am I in this meeting?” The meeting ends without any concrete action plan, and everyone has wasted an hour of valuable work time.
This is a failure on the part of the meeting organizer. He/she has failed to fully communicate the context of the meeting to the participants beforehand.
An ineffective meeting is a microcosm of an ineffective project. When you pull different people together for a project, you must make a conscious effort to communicate to everyone: why they are in the project, what roles they are supposed to play, and what specific results they are expected to deliver.
Write a north-star document that outlines the above clearly, and circulate it to everyone involved beforehand. And make sure everyone can find the document easily throughout the project, and that the content always stays up-to-date. Tip: It’s important that you have one single document instead of multiple ones. When you have numerous documents scattered around, people get confused and lose the bigger picture. You need to literally get people on the same page.
Over-communicate the context. Anticipate questions in advance, instead of answering them reactively.
By the way, another tip for new graduates is to hone your ability to host productive meetings. If you gain a reputation as someone whose meetings are not actually a waste of time (in other words, someone who can Make Things Happen), people will entrust you with more important projects.
If you can master the four things outlined above, you would have gained some practical skills, the “how-to” of MTH. But what’s more fundamental is the “why”. Why are we doing this? What is the higher purpose? What is our mission and vision as an organization/team?
The most important ingredient to make things happen is simply the desire to make things happen.
You must care. A lot.
Only when you care about the purpose, can you then make others around you care as much as you do.
How do you become a leader? You become an “owner” first, by making things happen.
And over time, ownership will grow into leadership.