Monday, September 7, 2015

Just Managing

Somewhere, headed into the 21st century, we lost our understanding of how to manage people. To compound this, as the last of the great managers vanish, there are fewer and fewer role models to show us how to lead.

Good management is not just talking. Walking around and chatting about any and every thing does not help to get stuff done. Throwing out a stream of highly creative ideas doesn't help either. Managing people is all about getting them to get their work completed, it isn't about spewing out blue sky ideas in the off-chance that they might be useful.

Management isn't about screaming at people. People really don't like that, and as a consequence they aren't going to respond well to screaming. A good manager is 'firm', but they are also 'fair'. Their directions are consistent and applied equally. They listen well and can provide enough guidance to help the people below get their jobs done.

Management isn't about placing blame. Rather it is about protecting the employees, particularly when the problems are a fairly routine consequence of people being all too human. On occasion individuals do need to be corrected, but that shouldn't be a public display of shaming; that's only going to make the issues worse.

Management isn't about hiding away when the shit hits the fan. In fact, it is quite opposite. Managers need to lead by example. They need to step into a position of authority and act quickly to get everything resolved. If they can't lead, how can people follow?

Management isn't about endlessly mulling over a lack of information while procrastinating on making decisions. Things must get done. Sometimes the available information leads to the wrong conclusions, but a good manager accepts this, admits it, and adapts to the changing circumstances. Not doing anything is far less productive than having to make a few alterations on-the-fly.

Management isn't about shutting off your brain. The idea that getting promoted to a higher level means not having to work as hard anymore is both backwards and inherently self-destructive. What makes a great manager is that they understand the work that their people are doing, and that they can help them jump through the obstacles to get it done efficiently. You can't manage people if you have no idea what it is that they are supposed to be doing. Pretending to understand is not a rational way to make decisions.

Management is not an independent skill. You can't take a manager from one domain and just toss them into another. You can't just teach 'generic' management and expect that it applies to any type of work. Management at all levels means understanding, in great detail, how things need to be done, so that you can make sure that they actually get done.

The skill of managing is different from any specific work skill. Good workers aren't intrinsically good managers. To make that leap, an employee needs to learn a whole new set of people and communication skills as well as get some serious mentoring from an existing, good manager. It's an upper level perspective, but still tied to people.

Management is sometimes baby-sitting. Not to be demeaning to some employees, but people under stress can be quite volatile, so they often need a bit of hand-holding to keep them stable. That requires patience and it requires empathy. It also requires a sense that sharp turns in steering can upturn a lot of baggage. People are the key resource and they need to be handled individually, and with dignity. Robots are mindless replaceable cogs, employees are not.

Management means disappointment. You might specify very clearly a few of the degrees of freedom for an important piece of work, but you have to accept that for the other degrees, what was left unsaid could be interpreted very differently. The final results may not match the expectations. If it was a bad choice, it's the manager's fault not the employee's. A good manager knows what needs to be specified, precisely sometimes, and what can float. They also learn to whom they have to provide more details, greater clarifications. They can't just blindly hope that things will get done correctly.

A good manager is not a dictator. Nor are they a control freak or a bully. They have to ensure the work gets done, but they also have to not burn through resources such as employees. They lead -- intelligently -- but they can also step in and assist when necessary. People want to work for good managers, they will follow them to new organizations. That loyalty is sometimes a strong indicator of ability.

Management is a lost art. We should try to find it again.