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Letters to a Young Manager

We're Going to Be Great Writers, #2
LTYM > Managing People -- How to Begin

Dear Adam,
Sounds like that all-hands meeting with your new team went very well. Talking about how things were going to change is important. It means that the status quo will no longer be accepted. Now the question to ask is whether your team feels they can change, that they can succeed. Let me tell you a story that may strike you as odd for a technology manager, but bear with me and withhold judgment under the end. (Good practice for any manager!)

Eighth grade was the start of my creative writing career. I didn't know it at the time, but looking back on Mrs. Fagan's English class forty years later, I can say that's when I caught the bug for writing--not just any writing, but poetry no less. Why would this make for the start of a generation of management stories? Two reasons. The first is something David Whyte wrote, that we can "rediscover the soul in corporate America" through poetry. This is an odd coupling, although here in Connecticut we are more tolerant of such pronouncements. After all, the Hartford insurance executive Wallace Stevens, was a renowned poet. But I think David is on to something that relates well to telling stories, that at the heart of business is the daily struggle, joys, disappointments and triumphs that are celebrated in poetry. So I want to remind both of us that as we work through these hundred stories, there is a human face to every management principle or idea. It's hard to lose that when you tell a story. So we will tell the stories as the very human stories that they are.

The second reason for a poetry story is what Mrs. Fagan said to us that day in the fall of 1965. Eighth grade was a tough year. Do you remember? I didn't even like Mrs. Fagan. She was tough and demanding, and seemed to lack any soft side. But she told us we were going to write poetry, not try it, not maybe, but were going to write it. I was horrified. She remained positively confident. So we wrote. Some of it was the "roses are red" type of drivel. Some of it was very real and tapped into the jumble of teenage emotion with a capital "E." I remember one day a line had formed at the front of the class. We each held our latest poem. She would read to herself, smack her lips and say things like, "oh this is very deep," or "this is really good!" You can imagine what this did to the fragile egos of the average junior high student. I was elated. I lived for those comments. And I wrote more. A lot more. And that's the point.

What I learned in eighth grade English class is the power of positive expectations. There are a number of examples of this from management books and the self-help section in the local bookstore. But Mrs. Fagan made this real for me before I ever turned a management page, or even worked for a boss. She stated the outcome--not just the goal--dared to believe we could do it, and lavished us with delight when we achieved it. That's the essence of management. Imagine if more of us did this?

What do you think? Are you ready to state a positive outcome for your team? Will you celebrate even the small successes along the way? Expect big things from your team; they will surprise you with their success.



Positive expectations are powerful

Discussion Questions:

1) Does your manager believe you can succeed at whatever you do? Do you?
2) Name a person who had impact on your life; what did they believe about you? What did they expect of you?
3) What do you think about the "Pygmalion Effect"? (see

For Further Reading:

See "You Can be Anything You Want to Be", Letter #4

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