Ed Lamb

Great Managers and Traffic Lights

Last weekend I was travelling from Richmond, Virginia to Boston, Mass and pulled off the highway into a small town in Connecticut. I came upon an intersection where the town transportation workers were trying to fix a set of traffic signals that spanned 2 lanes of traffic each way. Nothing out of the ordinary except the lights were flashing in sequences I never saw before: yellow and green, green and red, flashing yellow and static green. And with no police officer to jump in and direct traffic, frankly, it was chaos as cars on both sides of the intersection were trying to figure when and where to go.

As I waited my turn to venture across the intersection, it occurred to me that this scenario is not too different from what we see unfolding in some of our businesses today. Traffic lights, like great managers, need to be reliable and predictable. Both need to provide the correct signals at the correct time. Both need to have some logic associated with their actions that is easy to clearly understand and follow. Both have a place and purpose in the overall process. Traffic lights are at intersections, not 300 ft. before or after the intersection. Managers also need to understand their place in the process: provide direction, define the 'rules for the road', and facilitate progress not hinder or micro-manage it.

I am sure many of us have come upon intersections where the traffic lights are on the 'blink' and what the consequences can be. There are significant risks moving forward when you don't know what the other side of traffic is going to do. Frustrations builds as traffic builds up and the cars in front are hesitant to move forward. People are very unsure of what to do next.

I am betting that many of us have also worked for a manager who also may appear to be on the 'blink': flashing mixed signals, erratic and unpredictable behavior, irrational logic and basically just creating chaos. The result can be confusion on how to proceed, loss of performance due to minimizing risks due to lack of direction and gradual lack of initiative.

Today's managers need to understand their roles more clearly. Their role is to 'clear the path' so that their resources worked at their optimum performance. That means that they need to have an overall view of collateral resources so that the company resources mesh well and do not work at cross purposes. They need to assess priorities, allocate resources and provide feedback to improve performance at the appropriate time. Just like a traffic signal that is programmed to sense a buildup or lack of traffic, the goal is to optimize the 'flow'.

Managers have a responsibility to be approachable and show consistent and predictable behavior at all times, not just when it suits them. How many managers have you worked with that have been unapproachable on Mondays and by Friday they were talking to you like a long lost friend. Managers do not have the luxury of having that kind of volatile or inconsistent persona. If they want to be seen as an approachable resource that their people can turn to when they need, they need to be always approachable.

Managers, like traffic signals sequenced to work in tandem with a network of other traffic signals on the same road, need to be in tune with overall company vision and objectives so that overall company performance and 'flow' is maximized. Their agenda needs to fit in with the overall company strategy.

So, when managers act like errant traffic signals, think about the buildup of frustration your people may be experiencing. Think about the lack of direction that they are facing and the consequential loss of performance and initiative that follows. Make sure that all your managers are operating at a level that assures predictability, reliability and maximizes the 'flow' of your resources performance. Validate that your managers are approachable all and not some of the time and that employees are comfortable seeking clarification and validation. If you do all of those things travelling the 'road to success' will be a lot smoother.

Happy travels!