In previous posts I talked about the history of corporations and the contributors mindset. In this post I will discuss the mindset and challenges of being a manager in a corporate environment.
The manager, whether that is project, product, program or resource manager, is continually faced with the prospect of knowing the directions the team or teams is to go, but must turn that vision into a strategic plan as to how to get there. This is primarily done with either too few or barely enough resources to get the job done. During this execution the manager must fend off the pushes and pulls of peers and higher ups, which always want more, if it’s going to have an adverse effect on the teams immediate goals.
When looking at the manager’s perspective it is important to also note that they still have most, if not all, the scarcity aspects of the contributors. On top of that they must also face the challenge of productivity management, resource allocation, aligning and prioritizing varying objectives, positioning and communicating their teams value and finally being a knowledgeable and effective leader.
Productivity management is assembling, cultivating and maintaining a team to achieve a specific role in an organization. The more productive a team is, the better it, and its management, look. The limiting factor here is that the team size is limited to often being just enough to get the job done. This creates a scarcity environment where individuals are held to a standard mold of expectation of productivity. An individual’s value therefore is based primarily on how well they match the mold, with a secondary basis on their talent.
One place I worked at was a highly political environment, where perception of success was more highly regarded than actual success. In this environment those whom were adept at political maneuvers, even at the contributor level, were regarded as the most successful. At another company, the definition of success was based on how well you worked with others. A third company I worked at based success on how much you produced as an individual. These are just examples of how varied the mold’s expectations can be.
Having a team understaffed or improperly staffed leads to failure of projects and future assignments going elsewhere, or existing direct reports feeling overworked and leaving. As a manager you are expected to hire the right individuals for your team, which often means a specific skill set, a compatible mindset to your team and organization, the right amount of relevant experience and willing to work for the amount the company is willing to give. This makes finding the right people in a timely manner that much more important. This often limits the talent pool making the job that much harder. Add to this that the manager usually has to use an interview system which gives only a fraction of the information needed to make the “right” decision, and a vision as to the perfect fit can become a crapshoot. Many interviewing strategies have been developed, but there are still huge risk factors which can include: how well the candidate interviews, the type of stresses the candidate is under external to the interview, and what preconceived notions you and the other interviewers have. This tends to result in an interview system which results in a period of uncertainty for the company’s productivity, and the individual being hired. In the worst scenarios, the company sinks a lot of money into the individual, with very little productivity and fires the individual, resulting in financial troubles for the individual as well.
As a manager it is not enough to just hire and fire, you are expected to cultivate the team’s talent as well. Lack of talent growth by the team members tend to cause them to look elsewhere to gain those talents, and ultimately can cause them to leave the team. Another consequence a manager faces here is that they are only given a limited headcount, which is one of their largest scarcity aspects, which must be capable and talented enough to handle their role in the company. Growing talent is one way to fill in the skills needed without requiring more hiring. Managers challenge and grow the individuals on the team, aligning skills needed with people they already have.
The difficulty here is that the number of “challenging” projects are often seen as desirable by the entire team, but tend to be outside the team’s primary responsibilities. This creates an aspect of scarcity as you much choose how to grow individuals without creating discontentment with the rest of the team. In rare cases you may run across a scenario where the a team member feels entitled to one of these projects, but doesn’t have the skillsets required, or isn’t chosen. This results in the same discontentment even if they have other opportunities.
Another aspect of cultivation is performance reviews. Depending on the company you work for, performance reviews hold a lot of sway as to the employees’ compensation and future. The problem with reviews at most companies is that artificial limitations are placed on teams and organizations as to how many people can be evaluated as excelling or failing. These limitations once in the organization then get divvied out based off of team perception and politics. This ultimately can lead to a scenario where individuals don’t feel adequately compensated for their contributions, and if the philosophy is made public, an environment where someone’s success hurts others come review time.
One company I worked for had a review come around, and a limitation that worked out to only one individual being given an exceeds expectation grade. The past year I had saved a project, got a multi million dollar deal, and played the key point person for a large international customer, while not being paid for most of these responsibilities. Due to the project, which previously had been seen as a failure, with a customer super cautious about who it worked with, created a scenario where another’s achievement were seen as more desirable than my own. Ultimately the project I turned around became the primary project of the company, but by then it was too late for me. This scenario happens a lot, both from the reviewee and the reviewer side. As a reviewer you must make decisions as to whom you’re going to reward and who you’re not. Often times these decisions are made based off of fear of losing resources, rather than purely a review of the individual.
Over time discontentment turns into turnover, which a manager is expected to limit. A failure to limit higher than normal turnover can cause the manager’s manager to question their ability to lead a team.
Maintaining a team can be challenging. This is probably one of the few aspects which is not scarcity related. Working with people to get better cooperation, help with personal and interpersonal issues can be very rewarding. The difficult part comes in when its time for someone to move on. While this isn’t necessarily scarcity based, it does have aspects of loss aversion. This can create scenarios where someone is under performing or out of alignment is retained longer than they should be. If not let go, the team loses morale and respect for leadership, if let go then a contributing resource is lost or possibly other consequences based off of social circle fallout as well.
Resource allocation & prioritizing objectives
One aspect of a manager is to allocate people’s time according to new projects, initiatives and maintenance. Due to the nature of business there is never enough collective time to do everything. This creates a scarcity aspect around resource skillsets and time. New projects tend to gain more visibility and political points, but increase the required maintenance in order to stay afloat. Initiatives, either peer or directed, help with longer term organizational goals. Maintenance comes with little visibility and political points, but lack of it will lead to epic failure given enough time.
Managers must then balance all of these, communicating what is necessary, and understanding when it’s more prudent to use a pocket veto (not opposing, but taking no action to fulfill). As a manager this is where a lot of time is spent, navigating the various expectations and agendas.
Positioning & communicating team value
In business, perception is reality. While in an ideal world, there’s never enough time for directors and above to fully understand all the details. Rather they rely on the manager to communicate those aspects they need to know. If a team meets objectives, but is never heard about, then evaluation, promotions, bonuses and increases in salary will be distributed eslewhere. Part of being a manager is evangelizing the problem space your team is in, the value they produce and the individuals who excel.
Being a knowledgeable, effective leader
One of the biggest misnomers which contributors expect from a manager is that the manager is an expert in all aspects the contributor is expected to work in. While this may be true in some cases its often artificially created by the manager’s hiring choices, choosing people who aren’t beyond their own comprehension in aspects they’re less knowledgeable about themselves. The other way managers manage those more skilled than them is limiting the comments and involvement in those areas. By not commenting or interacting, the reports assume they’re in agreement and therefore don’t lose respect.
Another aspect which contributes to effectiveness is the ability to lead appropriately. This means understanding how to lead different people differently. Distance of power is used to describe how people expect to be managed, on a sliding scale with extremes being low distance of power and high distance of power.
People expecting a high distance of power want to be told what to do, and in some cases how to do it. They perceive that their manager is an expert in what they do, and any suggestion they have to make is a failure of their manager’s ability to lead. Often times these people respond better to being told their suggestion is wrong, even if the outcome is not as optimal.
People expecting low distance of power perceive their manager as an equal, with a different set of responsibilities. They tend to self manage more, and expect that their suggestions are a contribution to their environment, and not a failure of their manager. If a good suggestion is ignored then the individual starts questioning their ability to lead.