On Management

A little bit about myself. This fall, I will begin the great American two year networking opportunity known as business school.

I’m going for a variety of reasons, mostly due to wanting to jump start my career, but partially because I think that I am, perhaps slowly, developing my leadership potential, and want to continue to develop it.

With that in mind, here is what I believe right now about leadership, totally just my opinion and it’s not even up to the normally lax standards of a regular A Gallant Chrome Tiger post.

If I were to define leadership in a single, corny phrase, it would be this: Management is when your subordinates are responsible to you. Leadership is when you’re responsible to them. In order to get people to follow you, which is what you really want to have happen, it is imperative that they trust you. And to get them to trust you they have to believe basically the following things:
1: That you know at least kind of what you’re doing.
2: That you have, if not their best interests at heart, that you have some measure of concern for them.
3: That you’re worthy of being followed.

Item one is to know what you’re doing. Most of the time, when we wish to impress upon people that we know what we’re doing, we use an age old, time tested tactic which got us to where we are today. We lie. We say, “yes, I know what I’m doing; I know how to do this” or we act like we’re the experts on something. When working for a supervisor, this works wonders. We say we know how to solve something before we know how to, then figure it out and pretend like we knew all along. It’s kind of a necessary tactic (hell, I’m doing it right now! I’ve never actually managed anyone and yet here I am spewing my thoughts on management!), and it works in a lot of cases.

But it fails miserably when managing somebody. Nobody ever sounds as dumb to me as when they’re lecturing me on something that I know I know more about than they do. And when you’re managing people, they are going to very quickly become experts at their job. When you start acting like you have all the answers to a situation that they understand better than you do, they’re going to resent you. Furthermore, if the goal is to get somebody to think you know what you’re doing, then you’ve just shot yourself in the foot, because now they don’t think you know what you’re doing.

Instead, the better option is to listen to your subordinates, to understand that they know what they’re talking about, and, when you have disagreements, to let them win. Obviously, you have to use your own judgement, and there are times when people really are wrong about something and you simply can’t let it proceed. But overall the best way to go about doing something is, even if a subordinate’s decision really isn’t as good as the one you would make, to let it stand; the good will you engender (and the learning experience for the subordinate) can more than make up for any temporary loss on something.

And after you have a reputation for deferring judgement, you’re actions against type will be all the more powerful. When you do pull rank and override a decision that a subordinate makes, he or she can be more convinced that you are doing so not because of your own ego but because of your own judgement, they are much more likely to believe you.

A curious corollary to this is something that I’ve noticed, that micromanagement doesn’t always happen because a manager understands the subject very well, but paradoxically because they don’t. A manager who doesn’t understand what is really important will want to control every aspect of a situation, they don’t understand what needs to have 3 sets of eyes on and what doesn’t. As a result, they control everything but without understanding everything, no manager, no matter how good, can do the work of three or four full time employees, you just can’t do 120 hours of work a week (OK, i suppose there are those crazy people at investment banks who work 120 hours a week, but its really a very small subset of people and my point still stands).  Instead, somebody who really understands a situation can differentiate between not doing something in a certain way because it is the wrong way to do it, and not doing something in a certain way because its not one’s style.  While this doesn’t cover all micromanaging (some of it is just expertise), knowing the difference between things that are correct and things that are preferences is the sign of a mature leader.

Of course, this doesn’t absolve you of actually learning as much as you can, when somebody asks you for advice it’s better if you can give some useful advice. But this should help, not hinder the point I made above, knowing more about something helps you learn what you don’t know, and in so doing you’re can gain the trust of your subordinates.

As important as getting your subordinates to believe that you know what you’re doing, (and maybe I should have listed it at number one), is getting your subordinates to believe that you are looking out for them. I can’t really think of a great single item to talk about in this, only to say that the little things matter. If you repeatedly cancel meetings (at my work, my manager cancelled a year end review with somebody multiple times before finally conducting it), if you devote more time to your higher ups than to your subordinates, if you haven’t learned peoples names, all that stuff gets noticed.

Of course, while I can’t, at this point, give good advice about what to do, I can say what not to do. And that is be overly friendly. Or superficially friendly. If you’re really willing to take a bullet for a subordinate, well then go at it. But if you tell them that you really care about them, you’re going to have to really care about them. If you say that they can take as much time as they need to do X, (deal with a death in the family, for instance) than you have to give them as much time as they need. The worst example of this is doing somebody an unsolicited favor and then holding it against them. Say you let somebody go home early one day, either with or without a request from that employee. The next day, you say something like “well, since you left early yesterday, I’m sure you’ll have no problem staying late today.” This is horrible for many reasons, and the average employee will take it much worse than if you simlpy demanded they stay late without compensation. The worse part is that, after you do this, you’ve suddenly destroyed your ability to actually do favors, every time you do the employee will start to wonder what the catch is.

The ideal way is to handle this situation is to ask them beforehand. “Hey, would it be OK for you if you were to leave early today, and stay late the next day? That would help us out.” But be careful, if you’re asking a question, you should be in the position of allowing the employee to say no. And if you respond to the no with, “well, too bad, you have to” then why did you ask in the first place? You could have said, “hey, we’re going to need you to stay late tomorrow, if you want, you can leave early today as compensation.” Even if you’re not being nice, or even fair, you’re being honest, and that will get more respect over time. People may dislike jerks, but they will hate hypocrites.

Finally, we come to the last part, which is being worthy of being followed. This is pretty much the culmination of the two above ideas, so you might say that its even redundant. However, there is at least a little that I want to say about it.

The most important part of this is that its better to be respected than to be liked. If people like you, that’s nice to have, but if people like you but don’t respect you, they might want to go drinking with you or to a sports event, but they won’t follow you. So how do you get this respect?  Generally, by being decent, by respecting your subordinates and your coworkers.  A specific suggestion though, make it a point that the goals of the organization are important; you’re working towards something and let it be known that that something is important. In short, don’t be “cool boss” and let the actual work slide, let it be known that work takes a precedence over other considerations (I realize that I’ve contradicted myself here, as you have to let people know that you have their best interests at heart. So yes, somebody’s sick child takes precedence over work, but work takes precedence over getting home in time to watch the game or something.) Basically, what I’m trying to say is that by respecting the work, respecting the goals of the organization, and truly doing it, you’re not just setting an example for your subordinates but you’re communicating something about your character and how you view your relationship to your work.

So that’s what I think now, it will be fun to compare it to what I think after school.