I worked in the federal government for a long time. Thirty years, to be exact. And during that time, I developed a few simple rules for being an effective manager.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I’m not a good manager. Never was. Never liked it. Never did it well. At my peak of success, I managed only a handful of people in assorted capacities. My greatest skill was driving people out of the public service.
Nevertheless, I have worked for and with a lot of managers at all levels and have seen a variety of different management techniques and styles and can make some generalizations about what works and what doesn’t. Mostly I was not a good manager because I didn’t want to spend my time managing people, not because I didn’t know how.
So, for what it’s worth, here is a distillation of what I leaned about being a manager:
First Rule: Exploit people’s strengths.
It’s amazes me how often managers do exactly the opposite. Everyone has things that they do well and things that they do poorly. Most managers concentrate on their subordinates’ weaknesses and harangue, bully , and belittle them for their failings. The manager tells himself that that he’s trying to improve the employee by helping him overcome his weaknesses.
Nonsense. The manager is bolstering his own ego by proving, over and over, that there’s something that he can do that his subordinate cannot.
This happens at every level. A true story. A man was a vice-president of a major bank. He left the business world to become the dean of a business school. After a year, it became clear that he was not suited to the job. He was not well-organized. He did not relate to professors with prickly personalities. He lacked clear vision. Distraught by his failings, the business school got rid of him by convincing him to take a job as dean of another business school far away. The second business school quickly discovered the man’s failings. But they were better managers. Instead of trying to fix him or get rid of him, they looked at his great strength. The man was a brilliant networker. He knew how to rub elbows with the rich and powerful. The second business school re-designed the job of dean. They gave all the management duties to the vice dean and effectively reduced the man’s job to a figurehead. Then they sent him out to talk to potential donors. The man was happy meeting with people and convincing them to give money to the university. He was good at it. He raised a fortune for the department and the department loved him for it.
That’s brilliant management.
Second rule: Hire people who are better than you.
It seems so obvious that you should hire the best people possible. You’re going to be judged by the quality of the work that your group does. Good people will do better work, so you should hire good people.
But it’s difficult and dangerous to hire the best so most managers don’t.
How is it difficult? Because you have to hire people who have skills that you lack. People who are different than you. If you are good at organizing events, you will be tempted to hire someone else who is also good at organizing events. Then you and he will have a great time together, organizing the best events ever. But if you hire someone who is great at statistical analysis, you’ll never be able to talk to him over coffee. You won’t understand what he’s saying and you’ll feel bad.
How is it dangerous? Because a subordinate who’s better than you might make you look bad and might even take your job. Your senior management is going to reorganize before long. That’s what senior managers do. They’re addicted to reorganization because that’s the easiest way to give an illusion of change and progress.
When you are reorganized, you may well find your best subordinate promoted to a parallell position where you’ll now be competing against him for resources, or worse, a senior position where you’ll be reporting to him.
It’s a risk, but it’s a risk worth taking because the alternative is having only staff who are inferior and who will, before long, make you look bad because of their failings. And no manager who looks bad fares well in the next reorganization.
Managers’ natural tendency to hire only people who are like them, but not quite as good, makes organizations rot from the top down. In the first round, a CEO hires vice presidents who are just like him, but not as good. He’s comfortable with them and is not threatened. They look up to him, agree with whatever he says, and boost his ego. But, in the second round, the vice presidents do the same thing. They hire middle managers who are not as good as them because that makes them feel safe and comfortable. Within a few years, you have the Challenger Space Shuttle diaster. NASA had installed so many senior and middle managers with so little expertise that they couldn’t understand the significance of an engineer’s report that the O-rings that sealed the fuel connections to the booster rockets would fail in cold weather.
Bad management kills.
Rule Three: Take your subordinates’ advice.
This is a rough one. You’ve hired people who are better than you. Now they’re trying to tell you what to do. You’re the boss, not them, and you’re going to prove it. You’re the decider and saying, “Yes,” doesn’t sound like deciding; it sounds like giving in. You have the power to say, “No,” so you do. A lot. MBO means Management by Obstruction in your group.
Don’t give in to this temptation or you’ll soon be known as the manager of the group that never does anything, never accomplishes anything, has no vision.
Rule Four: Don’t resent your subordinates.
Your subordinates are geniuses because you hired geniuses. They’re telling you what to do because they have better ideas than you do. You can’t help resenting that. Every day, they’re crushing your ego. So you want to crush them back.
The only solution is to get yourself under control. Remember two things. First, remember that they’re not perfect. Their strengths loom large because you’re exploiting them. Just remember that they have weaknesses, too.
Second, remember that they’re making you look good. Your manager is looking at what your group accomplishes under your leadership. He doesn’t pay nearly as close attention to who’s doing what in your group as you do. Managers’ attention is attracted to trouble spots. If your group is functioning well, your manager is not going to look too closely at the reason. He’s got to spend his time trying to figure out why some other group never manages to get their job done.
Each of these rules is obvious but they are all difficult for the same reason. Every one of these rules is hard on your ego. If you can concentrate on the mission of the organization instead of yourself, you should do well. Dwelling on your own importance is going to bring you down before long.
That’s a lesson that we’ve been trying to learn since the ancient Greeks coined the word, huberis.