I was on a panel of the New York chapter of the Startup Leadership Program that was discussing Leadership, Management and Culture at a venture. I chose to cover “Management”.
Before I started, I asked the group how many of the 20 or so participants aspired to be great at Leadership, how many to be great at Management and how many to be great at creating Culture. Management came bottom.
Why is that?
By way of background, I am the CEO of iClearpath a venture-backed software start-up focused on streamlining the confusing, costly and paper-based immigration filing process. (Think of us as a TurboTax-like solution for immigration filings.)
I started my career in management consulting, moved to big corporate (where I ran product development groups, strategy, data operations, and global marketing groups). I moved into the start-up world about 5 years ago and am on my 3rd start-up. I have managed teams of 1 person, teams of 2, teams of 10, and teams of 50. And those distinctions are important. They are all different challenges. It’s not like saying I have managed between 1 and 50 people, each team size has different needs. I have managed local resources. I have managed remote resources, even international resources.
For the purposes of this discussion we should be clear that we are talking about the management of people, rather than managing projects. Both are very important, but they can be fairly different challenges. In managing a project you are generally focused on the outcome, a successful completion. In managing people you are ALSO responsible for the development of the people you are managing. Yes, the work needs to be completed successfully, but you also need to ensure the growth of the individual – either formally, for some sort of management metric that you are judged upon, or less formally, in that the more the person learns, the better they do next time, the easier your next project is, the better it goes. Either way, managing and developing the individual is part of your role.
My management epiphany
I don’t know what great management is. But I know what it is not.
Here is the story that made me realize the most important lesson about being a manager. In the late 90s I went into my boss at the end of the year. It was a performance review meeting, but what it really boiled down to was what my bonus would be for the year. As I sat down in his office he turns to me, smiles, and says, “Guess what your bonus is?”
Now, up to that point, I really liked my manager, I thought he was a “good guy,” we had a fun working environment, he was fun to talk with, fun to have lunch with, etc. It was at this point, however, that I realized that he thought he was my friend. He may well have been, but that wasn’t the point. He was my manager. And I needed him to be my manager. This wasn’t a conversation between friends. This was a work setting. I needed him to be my manager. His job was to communicate my compensation, explain how I was doing, what my career prospects were, etc. Instead, he thought we were playing a guessing game.
Ultimately, I’ve learned more about good management from bad managers. I know what I don’t like. What didn’t work. And I’ve tried to avoid that. Being a good manager means being the manager your direct report needs you to be.
But can we be any more specific? Not really. Good management is about a lot of different things but it is definitely about pre-empting issues. Don’t hide from situations. Let people know you recognize them.
I have always had great success when I have let direct reports know that I understand how they must be feeling BEFORE they feel the need to tell me something or show me by their behavior (even by showing me by attempting to hide their feelings from me):
“John, I know I am asking you to do a lot this week (and probably this weekend). I know it’s a pain. I know you’re the only one that can do. It really is appreciated.”
“Hey Sue, I know there is a lot of change going on at the moment. I can only assume it is frustrating and worrying for you. I know we’ve changed direction on some projects. I know that it suggests that we are being reactive and we don’t have a good handle on priorities. I’ll be honest, on one or two aspects that’s true. But we’ve learnt from that. The new direction is intended to avoid that going forward. Hang in there. The next two weeks will really show you the differences.”
Different types of team members
Managing a team means managing lots of different types of individuals. In the words of Monty Python’s Brian, we’re all individuals.
How do you deal with managing young and naïve recent graduates? Are you trying to train them, develop them? How do you use them for the benefit of the company? Are they interns? Will they be gone in 3 months? Are they just there to spread the word about your cool venture when they move on?
What about the young, talented, rising, potential superstars? Sure, you need to mentor and develop them but it’s a different challenge. It’s not just about grooming them for your job. Maybe you’re grooming them to be your boss one day. Or CEO of a competitor. How do you develop them, but also leverage them while you still have them?
Then you have some mid-level resources. They are highly effective in their role but their trajectories are flat. They are not able to, or driven to, go further. They are doing what they were born to do, and to do it just great. How do you let them be themselves? (As a side point, these type of people are the ones that make me discount the current movement around Top Grading. I don’t think an effective organization needs to have only “A” players who always moving up. Like any great sports team, you have some players who play their positions well and allow others on the team to show the flair and excellence to drive the team forward.
Similarly, you might have some low level, but again, highly effective junior or temporary resources, e.g. data ops folks. How do you leverage them?
Finally, you may have low performing team members. You’re indifferent to whether they stay or go. How do you get value from them?
What is the manager’s job?
I don’t have all the answers here (by any means) but what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Here are some of those ideas:
- A manager’s job is to “manage the message”. Notwithstanding the fact that “communication” is a good thing, well … sometimes it isn’t. You need to manage the message. Sometimes it is actually better not to share something that has just come up. No need to freak out investors, or panic employees, without fully understanding if the issue is real, or meaningful, or whether there is a plan to address it. There are no prizes for creating unnecessary panic by over-sharing when something turns into nothing. I think of it this way: If you pass along everything you know or hear with no interpretation or context until more is learnt, then what exactly is your purpose as a manager? You’re just a sheet of glass. Things pass through you uninterrupted and unslowed. Messages need to be crafted for different audiences. You need to be a “prism” rather than a “sheet of glass”. You need to take in the message and do something with it or to it.
- You need to manage up and manage down. (Even a CEO has to manage up – to a board, to an investor, to a shareholder.) You need to protect and defend your team. But you also need to protect and defend your shareholders and their investment. You need to find that balance.
- IMHO, a great manager is someone who is employed to make a few wise decisions. It is not about working harder or longer hours. Making a few wise decisions, pointing a person or a team in the right direction can make all the difference. (Unfortunately, how to be “wise” is another imponderable question. Wisdom is not the same as intelligence. Indeed, it is more about experience than intelligence.)
- A manager’s job is to make people feel part of the team. Make them feel motivated and focused. I manage an unusually diverse team. We have five team members in 3 states. The 3 team members in the same state all work from home. This is not the way you’d design the optimal organization, but sometimes it is what you get when you need to get the right people for the roles you need filled. It’s a manager’s job to bring everyone together. Thankfully, Google Hangouts bring a lot more fun and cohesion to video conferencing.
- Recruiting is incredibly important – both for filling skill gaps, but also for managing team balance. It’s not just about bringing together a team that has the skills to do the task at hand, but also it’s about the balance of the team. In financial investment terms, it’s not just owning the right stocks, it’s about putting the correct portfolio together. Maximize returns (effectiveness) while eliminating any unnecessary risk.
- Finally, give people the opportunity to do the job they were hired to do. Your job is to manage them, not to do their work.
Interestingly enough, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between great management and poor management. A while back I was managing a global marketing group. I had resources in NY, Denver, London, Paris and Hong Kong. In trying to manage such a dispersed team, my time and attention were split across all these team members. At the end of the first year, my team lead in Denver gave me great feedback that she loved having me as a boss as I really trusted her and empowered her to do a great job. To myself (rather than to her) I had to admit that I actually felt that I had dropped the ball on not giving her enough time and attention. Sometimes you get away with things. Sometimes you actually benefit from it.
My biggest frustration with perceptions of management
There is a current movement that thinks that all people should learn to code – even if just to be able to operate and converse in a tech start-up. There is no similar movement that all people should be learning to manage.
Management is often viewed as an “external issue” (exogenous, in Economic terms). So many people tell me that “I could have gotten that done … except for [some people-related issue]. Over the years, I have interviewed many people and asked about prior experiences and achievements. I can’t tell you the number of times the story has been about how great something was but that, ultimately, it failed, because this person didn’t buy in, or some priority changed, or another group was understaffed.
Solving the “people” challenge is just as much part of the internal business problem as anything else. Any 100%-correct/rational solution for a business problem that is never implemented is not a success. Success is about implementing solutions that address emotional, political and organizational issues – even if it is only the 80%-correct/rational solution.
All in all, not enough attention is given to the challenge of management, nor recognition to people who manage well.
Be the manager you want someone to be to you.
Contributed by Alan Samuels, CEO at iClearpath