Thursday, August 22, 2013

You too can be the best bad manager in the world!

In the past week there have been a couple of articles/essays on LinkedIn that I have commented on. One is titled "You Can Do Anything You Set Your Mind to Do." The other is "Top 10 Tell-Tale Signs Of A Bad Boss."

First I want to address the notion that a person can do anything they set their mind to do. It's easy to poke holes in this; no matter how hard I flap my arms, I will not fly. That is a great oversimplification of the problem, of course. But I feel it is very bad for our society that we simplify the process of becoming a good human being. Comedian Denis Leary had a bit where he came home and told his dad that in school he learned that anyone could be President, and asked if he (Denis) could be President; his father laughed and said no. The truth is, we all have abilities and skills, and the purpose of a parent (or manager or coworker) is to help others maximize their abilities. I don't tell my son, for example, that he can become a Navy pilot, because unless the regulations change his severe food allergies will prevent him from even becoming a Navy deck swabber. And kids are smart enough to know this. So if we tell them "you can be anything you want" we are building them up for something they cannot achieve. Also, I personally cannot have the job I want, which is to manage a corporation's Japanese operations; my family is firmly rooted here in Nashville, and my industry (healthcare software) has very few opportunities in that area. I am very good at what I do, and I keep edging towards those few companies that are global. Yet even if such an opportunity came up, I couldn't move my family; I would have to go alone, and I'm a very devoted family man. So no, you cannot do whatever you set your mind to; you can try, you can work towards a goal, but I know very few people who can attest to the reality of that sentiment.

Now, about the tell-tale signs of a bad boss. Most people know if they have a bad boss. What is most important, and largely overlooked in the literature, is for an upper-manager to know when they've hired a bad boss. My last director, for example, was abysmal. She has no cheerleaders in the company, except for the CIO, and meets the criteria of most "bad boss" lists that I've seen. Yet she not only continues to be a boss, she was promoted despite plenty of evidence of inferior leadership skills (and, honestly, bad performance as well). She isn't the only one I have seen in that situation; over the years I've witnessed many bad managers succeed when, had they been a cubicle-dweller, they might have been fired. I'm not in management and not privy to the goings-on above the glass ceiling, but sometimes it seems that the "too big to fail" mentality applies to people we've hired, trusted, put money into, and then continued to support. So managers, particularly the execs, determine what is most important: leadership or management. Ideally you want both in one person, but that is hard to come by. Whenever you hire a manager, or when you evaluate their performance, ask yourself this: would you work for that person?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

War games

My favorite time killer at the moment is to play Total War's "Shogun 2" game on my computer. In the game, you take the role as head of one of Japan's clans and then try to take over the entire nation. Technically I've already lost the game; but I am bull-headed and want to control every province of the game. There is probably a very good psychology paper waiting to be written about this.

It is a mixed-genre game. Turn based, it also offers real-time combat simulation. In the transition between these two formats, the screen pops up all of these quotes by military leaders. Mostly they are Japanese, but sometimes there are quotes from Bismark or Sun Tzu. Some are samurai death poems, and are thus quite profound. Others are more direct. When I read these, it makes me think about parallels in non-military life.One in particular stands out, by Kato Kiyomasa.

"It is said that the inferior seek to emulate the superior. Thus, if a general slackens only a little, those beneath him will be greatly negligent."

Aside from my problems with the words "inferior" and "superior" (I take this as a translation problem; I prefer "subordinate" and "superior"), this is true, of course. A soldier heading into battle will follow behind the captain who leads the charge with sabre held high, screaming bloody murder. But I also wonder if it cannot be used as a way to measure a subordinate's leadership potential. Meaning, let's say you are a third party looking at a team and see a lax leader; you should look at the team and see who isn't emulating their superior.

I also think this quote is a good insight into the Japanese mindset, where hard work is perhaps valued more than output. Not that output isn't important; not at all. Quality is very, very highly valued in Japan. Yet how many people stay in their offices until late simply because that is what's expected of them? There is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to the amount of work put into a project and the quality that comes out. A worker can only be so good, and no amount of polishing the turd will make him better. Writer C.J. Cherryh explored this concept in Cyteen.

Back to the quote. A second point. Leaders should certainly always keep the pedal down. But on their own work. Lead by example. Hammering others to produce is all well and good, but people will follow a leader who shows a willingness to do the work themselves. Another Japanese samurai said that a good leader does most of the work and takes little of the credit. While I'm not sure that hits the mark, it's close. I personally do not like working for someone who cannot understand my job. Not simply that, but cannot conceive that they don't understand what I do, and insist on their way forward even when that path is based on vapor and leads to trouble.

Finally, and I've harped on this before, leading is different from managing. There have been many great military leaders who fell apart once the war ended. Organizing a cavalry charge is not the same as organizing a team of people who all work independently on a series of project to implement an application for clinics embedded inside a factory, each with different dependencies, and, oh yeah, two of those people need off for Fall Break because they've been planning trips with their kids for months, and a third got sick and might need surgery... you get the idea. A lot of the failed managers I've seen don't understand this. They cannot delineate between leading and managing.

Not that I would have wanted to work for a samurai. I've seen enough movies to know how that ends.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Measurement of Success

Today's topic comes from Dilbert:
For those that don't want to read the strip, in it bad survey scores indicate a distrust of management; so management cancels employee surveys. This might sound far fetched, but I have seen something very similar happen. I have also seen surveys changed so that there are really no negative answers.

Let me digress for a moment and talk about education. In Nashville high schools, you can now no longer get a grade lower than a 50. No grade of 0 will be given for even the crappiest work. As we talked about this at dinner last night, I complained that it isn't how life works.

But maybe I was wrong. The Dilbert cartoon made me realize this. You see, we spend a great deal of time trying to not fail. That is fundamentally different from spending time succeeding. We are married to test scores, so much so that it is impossible to separate the different realities that govern our lives. What I mean is this: a bad score doesn't mean you're a failure, yet that's what we see. So instead of teaching kids that a 0 is an opportunity, a window into their weaknesses and a chance to improve, we've decided to not give them a grade of 0. Us working stiffs are all too familiar with the emphasis put on survey scores, which is the working-world's interpretation of the "no 0 grade" policy. For example, I've seen situations where a company expects that scores be impossibly high. If the scale goes to 5, they want the average to be 4.6. Common sense tells us that just can't happen without fudging the numbers. Which people do. In one company, we found surveys going to personal emails of the employees so that they could get the numbers up.

I guess what I'm driving at is this: perhaps what we need isn't a new way to measure success/failure (quantitative analysis), but a new way to interpret it (qualitative). There is nothing wrong with expecting us humps to achieve perfection; I strive for that personally. But I recognize that I will never reach it, that perfection will always be just out of reach. Companies need to accommodate this, need to find a way to measure "good enough."

And the company that asked for those impossibly high survey scores did, in fact, achieve that, in a way. They either found ways to artificially inflate the numbers by omitting some surveys, or gave bonuses for being close. Which begs the question: why have a goal at all if you're not going to honestly adhere to it?