Leading Into Oblivion


Hazel sighed.  While she didn’t expect much else from Sarah, she still had to marvel at how oblivious she was to everyone else, no matter how much she claimed she ‘cared’ for her department.   The latest meeting with Sarah, which was the reason for the elongated sigh, was the perfect example of this.

Sarah had called this meeting with Hazel to tell her about a ‘great’ idea that she had one day while out at lunch.  Now, to be honest, the idea wasn’t bad.  It would not go down in the annals of time as the greatest idea on the face of the earth, but it wasn’t bad.  Now, since it was Sarah’s idea, it was going to be implemented, for though Sarah contended it was ‘safe to say’ a contrasting opinion, Hazel (and everyone else) knew it wasn’t.  So, she just smiled and said yes, it was a good idea.

The ‘great’ idea would be implemented.  That didn’t bother Hazel.  She was used to implementing Sarah’s ideas, good, bad, and otherwise.  What caused the sigh for Hazel was the time frame Sarah insisted be followed for the implementation of this idea.  It had to be implemented by next month.  Seeing that it was already the third week of the current month, this left little if no time for Hazel. She knew, from previous implementations, that she would have to consult with the lawyers, with regulatory, and with vendors, to get this implemented.  If she and her team had nothing else on their plates, this might be a reasonable timeline.  However, due to Sarah’s past ‘great’ ideas, they were slammed with work in the current month and the next month, leaving no time for this to happen.  This was the cause of the sigh.

At no time during the conversation, which was rather one-sided on Sarah’s part, did she ask Hazel what kind of work she had in the next month.  Not one inquiry was made as to whether her team would be able to add this to their current workload.  There was not concern one for the welfare of the team or whether a team already overloaded with work could handle one more thing.  No, as usual, Sarah showed a callous indifference to anyone else’s time or concerns.  It will simply be done or there would be consequences.   Hazel entered her office and began to see how much more overtime she would need to put in to make this latest brainstorm happen.

Where is your perspective as a manager?  Is it solely focused on you, your career, and what others can do for you?  Or, do you look at your team, what challenges they are facing, what their workload is at any given time, and then look at what you can do to make it easier for them?  Does your viewpoint stop at the tip of your nose and go no further?

Your employees are your greatest resource, and the source of your success.  If that is the case, shouldn’t you do everything to help them be their best?  Doesn’t that deserve at least one question as to if they can implement something for you?

If you treat your employees simply as tools to get a job done, those are the results you will get.  Emotionless, utilitarian, and inanimate.  A good manager knows to treat their people as people to get amazing results.  One thing is for sure…there will be a lot less sighing.



“Is it posted yet?!”, was the plaintive cry of Joanne.  She was asking this of John, who had already called in several favors to make sure that the process for reviewing and posting web content was expedited.  This was on top of the favors he had called in to get the form created that was necessary to stay in compliance with the state regulations.  Joanne was so frantic because the company was already out of compliance with the regulation, having missed the deadline for posting by over a week.   Joanne offered any help she could to get this task done, but there really wasn’t anything anyone could do.  Happily, the form was posted, and there were no regulatory fines assessed for not making the deadline.

The saddest thing in all of this was it didn’t have to be this way.  It wasn’t Joanne’s fault, nor was it John’s.  It was actually Valerie’s fault.  Valerie, who received the notice from the state several weeks ago, had let the notice languish on her desk.  When she finally got around to reviewing her mail, she saw her mistake.  Once she had realized the error, she sprang into action…and handed the letter off to Joanne, claiming it was her department’s responsibility, and then happily trotted back to her office where she could ignore more mail. She offered no assistance, no apologies, or took any responsibility for this debacle.  It was now someone else’s issue, and she was happy to have it off her desk.

This was not the first time Valerie had accomplished this particular feat.  When she changed jobs, instead of following company policy that stated she needed to do both jobs until someone new was hired, she took her work off her desk, went to a former subordinate, and informed the subordinate that she was now responsible for this work.  And, you guessed it, walked away.

The most ironic thing about this whole situation? Valerie is the person in the company who is in charge of recommending remedial action for employees when they are deemed not doing their work to their manager’s satisfaction.

Want a sure way of making sure your employees look out only for themselves?  Do it yourself.  Don’t hold yourself accountable for anything more than you have to.  Don’t apologize when you make an error.  Dump work on someone else and make sure the only feeling you have is relief that you don’t have to do it.   You are teaching them the lessons of the workplace.

Oh, but make sure you register surprise when they act on these lessons.  After all, you can do this, but they must be held accountable.


The Buck Passes Here

Betty was sure that she had been on this conference call for days at this point.  At least it felt like that.  She would have drifted off to do some other work long ago if it wasn’t for one thing.  That one thing was Bill.

Bill was a higher level manager in the company.  Betty didn’t begrudge him this.  However, it was common knowledge among her colleagues how Bill got there.  Rather plainly, Bill would have others do the work he was responsible for and then bask in the credit given to him by his superiors for a job well done.   His greatest skills, it was said, was how fast he could forward something off to someone else to complete and hand back to him.

This had been rather successful for Bill.  Combining that with a pleasant personality, he had risen up the ranks to a position of prominence within the company.  The downside to this was that, now that he was at this higher level, he was being held accountable for work commensurate with this level, and he didn’t know how to do it.  In addition, the longer he passed his work off to others, the more people became aware of his work habits, and the greater push back they gave to him.

This is why Betty made sure she paid attention during the conference call.  Bill was at it again.  This time, he was trying to take a report that he should be doing and trying to hand it to Betty.  Betty was resisting, and a cadre of her colleagues were supporting her.  Bill didn’t know how to compile this report, having never had to do it before.  He had always given it to new employees who didn’t know any better.  Betty was a veteran, and Bill was finding it very difficult to get agreement that Betty should do his work. Thus, the conference call dragged on and on.  Bill was nothing if not tenacious.  He knew the stakes were high.  His superiors were watching for him to deliver work based on his higher level, and if he didn’t, there would be some very difficult questions asked of him.  The conference call would continue until he could once again make sure he didn’t have to do his own work.

Countless surveys about management show that employees are engaged when they see their managers and their leadership working as hard as they are.  That engagement drops when they see the manager or leader doing less work while they, the employees, do more.  That already lower engagement plummets when the employees see that the only thing the manager is adept at is handing off their work.  That can be mitigated a bit if the employee at least receives credit for the work.  When the manager uses it to advance their own career, forgetting about the employee’s effort fully when it comes to claim credit, the employee is not only disengaged, but they become wiser.  Either they will not do the work or do it so poorly as to embarrass the manager.  It is a dangerous game, but it shows what happens when an employee goes from disengaged to actively sabotaging the company.

If your prime reason to becoming a manager is to make sure you hand off all your work to someone else, and then leverage that power to make sure nobody says ‘no’ to you, don’t expect sterling work or much loyalty from your staff.  Also expect to be found out on your way up the ladder, as eventually you will be expected to do work only you can accomplish.  When that moment comes, don’t expect a lot of people backing you up.  Rather, they are probably at the bottom of that ladder setting fire to it.

The Definition of ‘We’

The open house event was over and the members of the department slowly made their way to clean up the decorations and the food.  The event had been a success.  Hundreds of people from the company came to visit and comment on the look of the department.  Feedback was gathered, prizes offered, and there was lots of conversation.  More importantly, the department leadership was pleased.

One member of the leadership made sure she walked around and told people how well they did and how pleased she was with their work.  Another took a slightly different tack.  She was pleased with what had transpired, but said it this way.  “We did a wonderful job.”


To the members of the committee who were tasked with planning this, the only participation they remembered the executive having was to assign it to them and to receive updates.  She would nod assent and then let them go on their way.  There wasn’t much lifting and carrying involved with giving a nod and approving a budget.  She did make sure, however, to be there for the event, happily accepting compliments for doing such a wonderful job.

To members of the department who had seen her meteoric rise up the ranks, her comment was not a surprise.  She had the reputation of incorporating anything good anyone did into her own portfolio.  Nobody would be surprised if she had a throw down with Al Gore over who invented the internet.  To those who had helped her, saw her rise, and saw her leave them unceremoniously behind with more work and no promotion, the behavior was typical.  Was it any wonder that, short of being outright ordered to do something, nobody in the department wanted to give their best effort and just did what they had to in order not to be fired?   They were tired of helping her career when she didn’t reciprocate.

The executive in this story once said to her department, “Your development is your own responsibility”.  To a point, I will agree with that statement.  However, you cannot move up without the help of those above you.  They have to be willing to give you that opportunity to rise to the next level, and reward you with that promotion (and raise…I have seen too many so called ‘promotions’ where cheap companies give no raises) based on your performance.   That manager sets up a duality.  They are willing to trumpet their accomplishments, even if they had no part in them whatsoever, but want to keep you out of the spotlight entirely.  When this happens, no amount of work their people do, no amount of effort their people expend, will ever be enough.  The manager needs their people where they are because the manager wants to grab the glory of what their people have done.  Without their worker bees, they are nothing.  Sadly, the bad manage realizes this and has no trouble adjusting their conscience to keeping their down.

Part of what makes a good manager a good manger is the fact that they want to see their people succeed.  They don’t look to share credit when it isn’t due, but rather give credit wholeheartedly to their people.  The good manager knows their reward is that they will be recognized as having a highly motivated team who always delivers their best.  Wise company executives will want this person and their gifts motivating larger and larger teams. The good manager doesn’t have to steal the credit.  They earn it legitimately by enhancing their own people.

The good manager knows that they don’t have to expand or contort the definition of the word ‘we’.  They know that they will be told time and time again, “I couldn’t have done it without you”.

Welcome Aboard! Now, Fire Someone

“Victoria” was looking forward to this new position.  While she had managed others before, in her last job, she was an individual contributor, responsible for a huge project, but not direct reports.  This would get her back to managing others, a practice she enjoyed and seemed to have a knack for, if you believed what her former direct reports had told her.

On her first day, she showed up in a very well-tailored business suit, shook hands with those who had interviewed her, and began getting acclimated to the office, her job, and her direct reports.  That very same day, she was asked into a conference with two of the higher level people in the small organization and told that her first official duty would be to fire one of her direct reports.

Victoria was stunned.  Why would they ask this of her?  Why didn’t they simply fire this person themselves?  They had the experience with her, not Victoria.  They knew the work history.  The only reason she could think of was that this termination would be actionable in court, thus nobody wanted to fire this woman for fear of being sued.  Even if that was not the case, this was not Victoria’s way of operating.  She wanted to see what the issues were, why this person deserved being fired (or didn’t deserve), and work with this person to improve their work.  She politely, but firmly refused to fire the subordinate, saying she wanted to investigate for herself whether this person deserved to be terminated.

Upon hearing this, the two executives in the company grew very cold to Victoria.  Shortly after her refusal, she was terminated from the company for failure to follow directions.  Victoria later filed with a federal agency, which took her case, ruled in her favor, and awarded Victoria several thousand dollars in damages.  The company, in trying to avoid a lawsuit on the executives, found itself on the wrong end of a judgement.

When bringing aboard a new manager, whether it is a new-to- management manager or new-to-this-company manager, smart companies want to make a favorable impression.  While you don’t want to sugar coat the work they have to do, you also want to imbue the new manager with a sense of hope, optimism, and excitement for a new challenge.  While the manager owes you some allegiance for the simple fact that you are now their employer, much more work has to be done to have the manager fully believe in the company’s vision, mission, goals, and ethics.    They are to feel they are part of a team, all working together to meet and exceed the company’s goals.

In the example above, all the company was looking to do was find a scapegoat.  They wanted someone fired and no one in the company had the organizational fortitude to take on the task.  Why?  Maybe they simply didn’t want the drama.  Maybe they knew that the firing of this person would be looked upon unfavorably by the courts due to past interactions.  Whatever the case, they wanted to give the job to the newest person, figuring they would comply because they needed the job.  While this may be true, it is terrible management and a poor reflection of a company’s ethics and values.  A new manager should be nurtured, cultivated, and given time to get to know the company.  They should be a welcome guest, and allowed to see the company at its best.  Do that, and you have a very loyal manager who will be with your company for years.

Several years ago, I was asked by an Employee Relations Manager, “Don’t you think you need to do what your manager tells you to do?”  That very highly charged question presupposes that one should do everything their manager tells them, good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral.  While the answer to that question won’t solely determine a good or bad manager, it goes a long way to demonstrate to a manager’s direct reports whether this person should be trusted and followed.

What is your view of a new manager?  A new and potentially vital part of engaging your workforce, or someone to do the dirty work that no one else wants to do?

The Avoidance Shuffle

Many of us are told that, when we have a concern or a problem, take it to your manager for help and assistance.  Here’s an anecdote about a high level executive who seems to want to dance around an answer instead of answering it directly.

During a presentation about a new onboarding project to the company’s senior level management, a manager who had shepherded the new process to fruition was talking about some job aids she was going to have with this program.  One of them was an area where new hires could write down their initial passwords.  This was in response to continued staff complaints that there were so many passwords to remember that it was maddening.  While not unique to this company, it was a problem that needed to be addressed and a solution that would drive down phone calls to the company’s various departments asking for password resets.

The company’s head of IT stopped the manager cold, stating that, “You should never encourage anyone to write down their passwords.  You should never write down your passwords at all.  It is a security risk.”

At that point, one of the IT Executive’s peers stated, “Well, what are we supposed to do then?  We have so many passwords that I have to write them down to keep track of them!”  There was a general chuckle from the room, but silence from the IT Executive, both in the laughter and in answering his peer.

The manager brought back the question to her staff, with one of them suggesting she write to the IT Executive and ask what recommendations he would have for keeping passwords secure.  In short order, she received an answer.  The answer?   “Passwords should never be written down.  Check with our ‘password expert’ on this.”  The manager again asked her staff if the knew who the ‘password expert’ was.  No one knew. It was suspected that the IT Executive was so out of touch with his staff that he didn’t even know people’s names.

No one expects a manager, or an executive, to know everything.  Sometimes the best answer is, “I’ll get back to you.”  In this situation, the IT Executive made himself out to be an expert, but when asked twice about his knowledge, did a tap dance worthy of Fred Astaire.   This type of behavior undermines any confidence a staff has in its manager, no matter what level that person is.  How can a manager be expected to be considered a leader when they have plenty of platitudes, but no substantive answers?

A good manager has answers for the questions, or at least referrals to who might have the answer.  If that manager initiates a conversation where he or she indicates that they have a knowledge of the subject, they have a duty to follow up on any questions asked.  If they have only a surface knowledge of the subject, they should indicate that this and find ways to get more in-depth knowledge.  In this situation, the only depth was ‘out of his’.

While it seems paradoxical, sometimes saying “I don’t know” will gain you more respect than saying, “Here’s the answer, but don’t ask me any more questions.”  That kind of answer will be translated in your staff’s minds as, “Wow, can you say ‘figurehead’?  I wonder who else here is in the same boat?”  Is that what you want your staff to think?  Is that what you want your peers to think?  Is that any way to gain respect?

Delegation or Laziness?

Author’s note:  The next few entries will be part of a series on hypocritical behavior exhibited by managers and how it can affect their employees.  While there have been previous entries written on this subject, several incidents have come to me recently to justify this ‘series’.  I hope you enjoy and invite you to contribute your own stories in comments.

An employee recently wrote to the Employee Relations Manager about a serious concern she had.  She received an out of office message indicating that the ER Manager was, naturally, out of the office that week.  Sounds rather typical, doesn’t it?  There’s only one problem.  The ER Manager wasn’t out of the office.

Technically, she was.  She was visiting another office location for a few days. However, she had her laptop and the hotel had a wireless connection.  The company has VPN, so she can log into her mail.  Even if that didn’t work, the company has a way to get your mail from any computer, and she has a Blackberry.  Her manager, who she was traveling with, had a standing policy that work needed to be done even if out visiting other offices.

I thought maybe I had misinterpreted the out of office message, so asked the employee if she ever heard back from the ER Manager during the time she was out of the office, or one of the ER Manager’s subordinates.  The employee reported that neither happened.

Why was I so loath to give this manager the benefit of the doubt?  Her track record.  For instance:

  • One of her former direct reports let me know of a time when she gave her a contract to work on, rather than work on it herself.  The direct report had to pretty much negotiate this contract, though it was well above her level or her expertise.  The ER Manager would also express frustration with the direct report whenever she asked questions on it.
  • Another direct report indicated that, when she expressed to the manager that she didn’t have the bandwidth to handle an assignment, the only response the manager gave was, “I’m sorry you don’t wish to be a team player”.
  • The ER Manager became the ER Manager in a reorganization where she lost her direct reports.  The instructions to her were that she was to finish the work from her former job and then transition to the ER Manager role.  This manager’s idea of transition?  Pick up the pile of work, bring it to one of her now former direct reports, dump it on her desk, and say, “This is now yours to handle”.  In none of these instances, was she counseled by her superiors about how to properly delegate.

I bring this up under the umbrella of hypocrisy because this manager’s job is to coach managers on proper delegation of work and determine proper workloads.  Her department has offered her services internally to the department on how to handle workloads, but nobody has taken her up on the offer.  No one wonders why.

While a manager’s duties include the proper delegation of work, a good manager sees times when there is just too much to do and takes on part of the burden themselves.  They also take some of the dirty work, whether that be an unpleasant task or something that they are unfamiliar with, to illustrate to their subordinates that they understand their pressures and timelines.  They will also give the challenging tasks to their subordinates as a growth opportunity.   However, there is a significant difference between delegating and dumping.  A good manager delegates for the benefit of their employees, knowing when they have to take on some of the tasks themselves.  They do not delegate simply because they don’t wish to add to their own burden or are simply lazy and can hand something off.  That type of management shows the manager is thinking of themselves only, and could care less about their employees.  This is the type of manager who should be a manager in name only, without direct reports.

As has been said before, a good manager doesn’t have to be a complete altruist.  They don’t have to be a martyr, taking everything on themselves.  They should not do the opposite, either.  A good manager understands workloads and works cooperatively with their people to make sure no one is set up to fail.  This more than anything builds respect and mutual trust.

For a manager who is supposed to be the model of Employee Relations to act in a selfish way while counseling others on the proper way to deal with staff to not walk the talk shows what a company’s values and culture is all about.  It is a company that should not expect great respect either of Employee Relations or of the company in general.

Are You a Chester?

Do you remember the Warner Brothers cartoon that had the two dogs in them?  One was a big bulldog, and the other was a smaller, lighter dog.  The smaller dog, Chester, was always hanging around the bigger dog, Spike, always looking for his favor, giving him compliments, and acting tough when he had Spike to back him up.  I thought of these two recently because I saw the business world equivalent of this duo.

‘Spike’ manages an area.  ‘Chester’ reports to Spike.  ‘Chester’ is also a manager, though right now just in name only, though he has managed before, and actually had staff taken away from him for various reasons.  Knowing Chester, I can see why that was…he isn’t a very good manager of people, and most everyone under him suffers.  This Chester acts very much like the cartoon Chester, that is hanging around his boss, deluging him with compliments, fawning over him…to use a colloquialism…kissing up.  Unlike the cartoon Spike, the business Spike eats this up, as he likes to have his ego fed.

Spike has found an interesting role for Chester…that of hatchet man.  Whenever there is an employee that the bigger boss wants to get rid of, he will assign Chester to manage either formally or informally.  Chester then goes about acting big and tough…and unprofessional, with the knowledge that he has Spike’s backing to the hilt.  It seems that Spike knows Chester is a bad manager, but allows this because it suits Spike’s purpose.  It also gives Spike plausible  deniability– it wasn’t he who fired someone, it was Chester.

Let’s deal with Chester first.  A good manager would manage with professionalism, tact, skill, and diplomacy no matter what situation they were facing.  To deliberately railroad someone or take advantage of your position simply because you can is inexcusable.  Chester could have taken these opportunities to improve his management skill, address past wrongs, or prove that he was a capable and competent manager.  Instead, he takes the easy way out and ruins the life of someone in order to gain favor for himself.  Chester should not be let anywhere near a direct report or a matrix report.

Now, with Spike.  I see two big issues here:

First, if you are laying the groundwork to have someone fail and be fired by letting Chester take the reins on an employee shows you have abrogated your responsibility as a manager.  As a manager, you are supposed to uplift, mentor, coach, and work with that employee to make them great.  By throwing up your hands and assigning them to someone who is obviously does damage when they manage is poor management at its peak.  If you can’t handle the hard cases, I suggest you get out of the way and let someone who can.

Second, if part of your strategy is to hand someone off so they are no longer ‘your problem’, then I again suggest you look very carefully at why you are in management in the first place.  Management isn’t for wimps.  It is tough.  If all you want are the easy employees, the Chesters, then you don’t deserve to be in management.  You take the bad with the good and you work to make the bad better.  Anything else is sheer laziness that can ruin someone’s life.  However, if you are this lazy as a manager, you probably don’t care too much about that.

Spike and Chester have to content with cartoon violence…the next scene comes and they are healed.  The business world Spike and Chester cause far more damage, and it doesn’t heal all that quickly.  Someone find an anvil, please.