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on management

m. werneburg, 2021.06.28

Much has been learned and written on management but everywhere I go I see that not a lot of that wisdom is getting through. Poor management is our most wasteful mistake. It's a terrible problem that's devastating our businesses, wasting our working lives, breaking our societies apart, and letting us fuck up the planet. Good management matters.

what do I know

I started mentoring staff when I'd only been working for three years. By the next year, in 1997, I built and ran my first team. I've managed teams of more than 40 personnel. I've taken over under-performing teams, and I've built a new business line with all new staff. I've even tried my hand at my own startup (kaboom!).

In four of the past five jobs I've had over the past fourteen years I've had one or more staff tell me I was the best manager they'd ever had. One said I was the best they'd ever seen. Another sent me a "world's best boss" mug—after I fired him.

Oh, can a good manager fire people? They must. I once fired a contractor over the phone a month into his contract. He'd lied to us about his availability. They're not usually this easy! I've had to have someone fired that I'd known for over ten years.

what matters

Management consists of three obligations:

Sound familiar? I stole that from Drucker. But how to do these three things that are so easy to say? If I had to boil it all down to a few simple-sounding but meaningful themes, it is the following.

The first two are traits, the second rest are skills.

honesty

You must always tell your people what's going on. If you're in a senior position with managers reporting to you, tell them everything that won't harm the company or put them in legal jeopardy. I mean everything. What or who are causing certain problems, what is or is not being done right in the organization, whatever projections the President confided, whatever lunacy is coming from Regional/Group/whoever. Everything they need to do their job. It must come from you in a timely fashion. Surprises weaken morale and cause problems. A manager who withholds information will be distrusted and cannot lead.

Tell people when they're screwing up. Do it now, do it well (you can find good books on the subject) but do it now. The annual review is one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever to come out of Human Resources*. Work with your under-performing people now and get on with it.

bravery

The typical manager today is a coward trying only to preserve his position. That's it. Most of them don't even known that there's anything else. I'll give some examples.

Injustice is a regular occurrence in the workplace. It should never stand on your watch. If you're not regularly sticking your neck out for your staff you might want to have a look at your motivations. Are you hanging onto your position at the expense of your staff? See the link at the bottom of this page about ducklings. I urge you to decide to stand up or quit your position—get out of the way**.

How brave am I talking about here? Think of all the times someone rolled over on you, and in all the ways they did it. Do the opposite of that. Fight for your people like a wolverine when it comes to injustice. What will happen is this: things will get tense, and then they'll break. Mostly they'll break by the villains scattering to avoid any culpability for the injustice. Sometimes they break with your and/or your staffer getting sacked. And that sucks** but here's why it's a mandatory risk.

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
― Studs Terkel

There is no meaning to work without bravery.

Taking risk is something that must always be encouraged. Always. Get your staff to try that new way. Get your organization to cast off the status quo and do things that are going to bring about real change. I'm not saying act without reason. But there are no organizations on Earth that are operating in a sphere of stability—everything is in flux in this third decade of the third millennium, and if we're not leading the change we'll be led by it and that ain't good.

When a risk taken doesn't work out, that's not failure. Failure is not doing something about a problem. Bravery means understanding that the risk is necessary, and acting. Encourage this culture by encouraging and commending your staff even when something blows up.

planning

People like to misquote Eisenhower saying something like "plans are worthless". Here's what he actually said: "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of "emergency" is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning." The man was talking about emergency planning and not planning in the normal business sense.

By showing your personnel that you're interested in planning the activities that the team faces, you're signalling two important things: that you care about making their jobs livable; and that there is some purpose. These are different matters. In the first means that they're jobs won't stay in a rut like they are today, dealing with crises and stumbling from month to endless month. The second means that they've had an input in planning and prioritization process and have a sense of ownership. Extrapolating from what Eisenhower said, the plans could be worthless but the sense of ownership and the realization that the team has a stake in their changing is invaluable.

*HR knows this, it was recognized years ago. But they're addicted to the profiles and numbers in boxes and the appearance that they're doing something. Never mind that the process can't show progress or change behaviors or do anything but piss people off. Human Resources as practiced today is a mockery. If you, as a manager, find that HR is energetic and reasonable congratulations—I have only seen that once or twice and that puts it in the 5-10% range of the companies I've worked for or with.

**We all need our income but if we're in a position where we can't watch out for people it's us that's in the wrong job and we're not making the type of impact that we owe our people. Besides, I find that quality employers tend to take a good view of people with a solid story to tell regarding a dismissal. Yes, I've been unemployed several times and have the lack of funds to show for it.

decisions

Decision making is inherently hard for us because we can't see the future. So we put ourselves through crazy hoops trying to make decisions based on models or "consensus" or voting on random ideas. But decisions are another area that's well understood; the field is called ,i>decision science.

change

Managing change is a skill unto itself. There are simple rhythms to it, and it's all of management condensed into a single concept. In order to change, we have to go through a well-understood cycle. We have to recognize that in the status quo there is a problem, we have to unwire the situation as it currently is, and we have to then build something new.

There is a model that breaks this down well. It's from Virginia Satir and is called the "Satir change management model" (I have a link below). It comes from the world of family counseling—like corporate change management but with the emotions and insecurities dialed up to ten at all times. It goes like this:

If this reads like a psychological process, it's because it is.

what next

I strongly recommend these books.

change management

decision making

leadership

Management

power and influence

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rand()m quote

A child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to finally feel its warmth.

—African proverb