Thursday, February 28, 2008

Management understanding staff concerns

Joel Spolsky, a childhood friend of mine, writes a rather well read blog. ("Well read" in the same way that, say Bill Gates is moderately well off.) He's recently started a column in Inc magazine; his March column of how executive management can become detached from their staff reminded me of one of the best managers I've ever encountered.

Like Joel in his Army days, I was working on grueling project (although no live fire ammunition!) at a site in Florida, preparing to give a major demo to a government customer. Everyone had been working around the clock for weeks, and was tired. One of the VPs showed up one day, for what we expected would be a "pep talk" similar to the general's talk in Joel's story. But it was the opposite - she didn't ask what she could do to help technically, because that wasn't her skill. Instead, she went out to get food for everyone and offered to do laundry (which no one accepted, of course).

I've wondered since then whether such an approach would have worked with a male VP, but regardless of that, it struck me that she understood the role of management is to enable the workers to get their job done effectively and efficiently. The president of Ford or AT&T doesn't do anything that serves the customers, but the people on the manufacturing line or sales floor do. So the best thing the president can do is bring lunch to the person who's sweating to make that deadline.

I've tried to incorporate that lesson into my management philosophy, sometimes succesefully. My goal as a manager is to do whatever is needed to make my team successful - whether that's bringing them lunch, getting the equipment they need, or running interference with whatever part of the organization is in their way. These are the things that all managers do to some extent - but I try to remember that they're the main reason for my being there.


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