“Where are the computers?”
“We can’t afford computers.”
“How can we write software without computers?”
“You’ll figure out a way.”
It’s hard to imagine a conversation like this happening in any company. The truth is, it’s hard to imagine because it basically doesn’t happen. No manager is crazy enough to tell his team to write software without computers. So let’s posit a slightly different scenario:
“Hey, the computers aren’t working.”
“I can’t get the lights to turn on.”
“It’s getting hot in here. What’s going on?”
“Oh, we decided to save money by not paying the electric bill.”
Sorry, that’s still pretty ludicrous. Let’s try another scenario.
I was recently at MIT giving a talk on organizational development. In response to a question about maximizing team performance, I explained that the secret is to have a manager whose job is to be a coach: just like on a top sports team, the manager’s job is to encourage the players, brainstorm with them, push them to achieve more than they thought possible, and make sure they don’t forget to stop and take breaks. It is, after all, the manager’s enthusiasm and sincerity that sets the example for the team, and transforms a team of experts into an expert team.
The immediate response from one member of the audience was, “We can’t afford to have someone just sitting around and watching.”
Now, if they’d left it at that, I would have let it go. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, since it led to this article, they didn’t. They went on to say that the manager needs to do the work of the employees: sales managers should be selling, engineering managers should be doing engineering, and so forth. Resisting the urge to point out that they clearly hadn’t heard a word I’d said to that point, I observed that a manager sits around and watches in the same way that a coach sits and watches. This needs further explanation.
As any Olympic coach can tell you, building a team and keeping it operating at peak performance is a full-time occupation. No one ever says, “These are professional athletes! They shouldn’t need a coach!” If the team wants to compete at a serious level, it needs a coach. If all you care about is playing in the D leagues, well, then perhaps you can get away without the coach. Of course, if that’s what you think of your business, why are you bothering?
When the manager is doing the work of a team member, you have a conflict. Salesmen try to outsell one another; sales success is their currency of respect. Engineers will argue over the best approach to solving a problem; being right is their currency of respect. When the manager is also doing the sales or the engineering or what have you, that shuts down the team. How can the members of the team compete with the manager? While it is a comforting thought to argue that professionals will compete with one another in a respectful manner, and a manager will respect the employee who out-competes him, it just doesn’t work. Comfort thoughts, like comfort foods, may feel good but can easily lead to fattening of the brain.
Athletes trust their coaches in large part because the coach’s job is to make the team successful: the coach is measured by how well he builds the individual athletes and the team. If the coach were being measured on how well he did as an individual competitor, few indeed are the athletes who would trust his advice.
Thus, when a company hires a “manager” who is nothing more than a glorified individual contributor who also signs time sheets, the results are often disappointing. At Soak Systems, it led to constant conflict and eventually to the loss of half the engineering team. If nothing else, the team will never achieve the level of performance that it could reach with a skilled manager.
Further guaranteeing that this problem will occur, most companies hire managers based on their technical, sales, marketing, and so on, skills. They do not hire, or promote, based on their coaching skills. They don’t provide them the training or coaching they need to succeed. Putting someone with no management training into a management role will, at best, produce someone who sits around and watches. More likely, it’ll produce someone who is actively harmful to the team. No wonder companies want “managers” who are also individual contributors: at least they are getting some work out of them and keeping them from causing trouble! Such “managers” really do look like an unnecessary expense. Since most people have never experienced really competent management, they also don’t realize just how much opportunity they are missing.
It’s quite true that you can’t afford to have an untrained manager sitting around and watching. There is also no point in buying computers if you won’t use them or paying for electricity if you don’t have anyone in the office. But if you want to write software you can’t afford to not buy computers. If you have people coming into the office, you can’t afford to not pay for the electricity. If you want to achieve top performance, you can’t afford to not train someone to sit around and watch.
“Author Stephen Balzac has written a terrific book that gets into the realpolitik of organizational psychology – the underlying patterns of behavior that create the all important company culture. He doesn’t stop at the surface level, explaining things we already know like ‘culture beats strategy’ – he gets into the deeper drivers and ties everything back to specific, actionable stories. For example he describes different approaches to apparent “insubordination” by a manager; rather then judging them, he shows how each management response is interpreted, and how it then drives response. Balzac preaches real engagement with one’s own company and a mindful state of operation, especially by executives – who must remember that culture “just happens” unless and until they learn to recognize that their behaviors play a huge part in creating and cementing it. It covers the full spectrum of corporate life, from challenging bad decisions to hiring, training, motivating teams – and the secrets of keeping people engaged and learning – and/or avoiding actions which do the opposite. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to participate in creating and steering company culture.”
Chief Technology Officer
Attivio – Active Intelligence