Saturday, March 15, 2014

Is there a manager in the house?

We’ve all seen it: So-and-so has a manager title, and the whispered comments begin floating about the office, “What does So-and-so actually DO?”  It’s the classic upper management go-to:  promoting the SME or the technician to a management position, or hiring up a tennis partner, college buddy, or the guy from the last startup who single-handedly “managed” a guerilla implementation of that quick-sell app that got everyone cashing out fast.   

Don't be too hard on your leadership. It's human nature to rely on the people we know or have relied on previously; still, all of these hiring decisions assume one consistent fallacy: that management is innately easy. 

It’s unfortunate that SMEs/individual contributors don’t have a way to move up in title and salary by adhering to what they excel at.  Instead, organizations require that they manage.  The genius who unraveled and re-configured code in a way that leapfrogged two generations in front of what is currently in the market, is also assumed to also have the skills to manage and communicate risk to a project, or mentor employees.

Executives tend to get a bad rap when they hire cronies to run departments.  Back room bar deals and golden parachutes come to mind.  But even the most self-focused business leaders have a laser-sharp focus on generating a successful business that turns a profit.  So it’s safe to say that very few would hire a friend thinking, "There's no way he can do the job, but, oh well."  The same goes for hiring a great executor as a manager.  The most common assumption is:  of course a strong executor can build and manage a team of strong executors.  It ain't necessarily so. 

What business leaders frequently fail to realize is that effective management has its own set of skills that are distinct from other business skills.  To make matters more complex, these tend to be soft skills that are often difficult to identify and hire for: situational leadership abilities, varying approaches to decision-making, project and risk management, the full spectrum of communication skills.   Probably over and above all of these is the discernment to identify the best approach after speed-analyzing data points in an ever-changing problem set. The best managers have analytic skills and a high degree of social intelligence, with a proclivity toward servant leadership. 

And you know what, even when you have a manager like this, the file room conversations might still include the question, “What do they actually DO?”  Why?  Because if things are going right, they aren't generating all the deliverables, nor are they constantly in firefighting mode.  A good manager will have subject matter expertise, but will distribute work to their teams, empowering them to be the best they can be, and making sure the trains are running smoothly.  They are transparently communicating the work their team is doing, the roadmap ahead, and the ROI at all times, up, down and across the food chain.  This is often quiet, behind the scenes hard work. 

To my mind, the best managerial KPI would be something akin tothe plus/minus rating in sports.  The +/- rating tells us: did the team gain or lose points when that player was on the court/field/ice, and if so, how many?  That player may not have had their hands on the ball when the point was scored, but these are the key behind the scenes playmakers, setting up others in the team for success.  

So next time someone asks, “What does Manager X do?,” look carefully.  Maybe nothing.  But maybe that person is exactly the kind of manager you want on your team.