Managers Under Attack!

We're under attack! In just one week I read at least three accounts of people telling me that my job (as a manager) is on the line. Paul Graham wrote that people aren't meant to have a boss. Max Pool, of Codesqueeze, observed that managers are like clumsy storm troopers. And the Dutch paper Intermediair this week reported that managers are disappearing rapidly.

What's happening? Have I become superfluous? Can I finally clean my desk and leave our employees to organize themselves out of their problems? That would be a dream come true! But before flying off to Aruba to become a full-time blog writer, sipping Virgin Coladas on a beach, let's see which activities I would have to cancel this week…

  • There's our weekly planning meetings, where we decide how to match our customers' projects with our available resources and recruitment efforts. We started doing that only a few months ago. Until recently our employees simply had to "self-organize" their schedules, and this often resulted in complete and utter chaos. Traffic in Mumbai at a free Bollywood superstar premiere is more organized than the project schedules our people were delivering. They were drowning in their work, and were incapable of managing it, so we assisted with stricter controls on all planning activities. When employees cry out for help, you must help them.
  • There's the quality improvement program I will be presenting this week. Our employees know that quality improvement is a never-ending activity. But many wouldn't know when or where to start. They are all too busy delivering projects to read up on the latest methods and best practices. It's like my imaginary hamster George being too busy running in his wheel to stop and take a breath. So what do our people do? They turn to their managers and ask them for help. And so we help, by trying to find them time and resources to learn and improve.
  • And there's the daily and weekly team meetings that I join to check how the teams are doing. I usually trust that people can handle their own work. But some are taking up too many tasks, and they accept ill prepared hand-me-downs from collegues. Why do people do that? It appears that some just never learned to say 'No' (except when being asked to clean up the bar after lunch). I do my best to help them say 'No' sometimes.

I am sometimes accused of having too much trust in people's self-organizing capabilities. And that's true. When asked about my "management style", I tell people that I'm a gardener. I take care of good soil, but I don't do the growing. I simply like to watch things grow by themselves. Unfortunately, sometimes I need to intervene to weed out the stuff that adds no value or causes trouble. That's when gardening becomes hard work. And believe me, some organizations need a lot of weeding.

John C. Maxwell, in 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, put it like this:

Leaders define and change direction
Managers maintain direction
Leaders invite people to follow them through influence
Managers make people do things through power

I like being a leader and I dislike having to be a manager. When I'm being a manager it means that people aren't handling their jobs as well as they could. The less I am a manager the better! I prefer to keep myself busy with other more interesting stuff, like the direction we should take as an organization. I present goals and I expect people to be able to figure out how to get there, solving any problems along the way. And many people do! And when someone asks for help, I help.

The problem is, some people just don't realize they have problems. And worse, some people don't realize they are creating problems! That's when I intervene. And yes, that's when I am a manager. Are people not meant to have a boss? Sure, but they also aren't meant to demoralize their co-workers. Are managers like clumsy storm troopers? Of course, but some of the non-managers are like incomprehensible wookiees. Are managers disappearing? That would be great! Because it would mean that everyone was able to solve their own problems, instead of making new ones. But given the state of affairs today, I'm afraid my plane to Aruba will have to wait a while.

  • The Slightly Above-Average Programmer
  • Change is the Only Constant
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