The Exclusive Club

You could hear the pure joy in Sarah’s words in the email.  She was announcing the promotions of three of her managers to higher level manager positions within the organization.   Sarah extolled their virtues, recounted their successes, and gave each one of them her heartiest congratulations, and encouraged the staff to do the same.

If you looked at the numbers, as much of the non-managerial staff did, you began to notice a recurring pattern in the department.  In the past eight years, there had been about twelve promotions of existing managers into higher level managerial positions.  In the same eight years, the number of non-managers in the department who had been promoted into the management ranks?  One.

It wasn’t that the opportunities weren’t there.  In that same time period, there had been five openings for a manager within the department.  All save for one was filled by an outside candidate.  It wasn’t that employees in the department hadn’t applied.  In at least two of those instances, staff from the department applied for the positions.  What were they told?  “We’re not even going to consider you for the job”.  Great recruiting tool, huh?  In the one time when they did hire internally, an extensive search was conducted externally before management was forced to realized that no one had the skills that the person right in front of them had.

What Sarah and her predecessors in the department had done was to make management in the department an exclusive club.  The velvet ropes had been put up and a ‘No Staff Allowed’ sign had been hung on them.  On the other side of the ropes there were promotions and self-congratulations, all in view of those who knew, no matter how hard they strived, how far they advanced in knowledge or skill, they would not get the chance to pass beyond those velvet ropes.  Their colleagues within the company, those colleagues with progressive managers, were moving up the ladder.  Sarah’s people knew they could not even step on the first rung.  The only chance they would have is to move on to another company.  When that day came, Sarah and the group behind the velvet ropes would wonder why they were leaving.

They would not worry long.  They would console themselves with another round of internal promotions.

The Case of the Maniacal Manager

I was finishing up teaching a course recently regarding what employees could do to have better performance evaluation.  I explained to my class that I had developed it because most of the emphasis on performance management was on the manager, not the employee.  This course was to help a staff member work with their manager, as an equal, to have better performance.

After class, one student came up to me and asked if she could meet with me.  I agreed, as long as the door remained open. (a must in these days of lawsuits)  The story she related was an incredible one.

This employee’s manager had recently given her the responsibilities of a higher level position without any increase in pay or rank.  Further, he had informed her she would never rise above where she was, because he didn’t think she deserved the position.  This was in spite of her now doing the duties of the higher level position.

When she went to discuss this with her manager, the manager’s response was pretty much the following:

  • He was thrust into this management position without his consent
  • His boss is something unprintable
  • If he is miserable, then why should anyone else be happy?
  • If she goes to HR with this, he will find out and make her life miserable

I am discussing this with some HR folks to see the right course of action, but advised her to make sure she had her resume ready and be ready to find her next opportunity, as it is always preferable for her to be the one leaving and not the one being dismissed.  Sadly, there is little even HR can do beyond coaching, and if they coach him, he will know he has been talked about and make things even worse.

While it is clear that this person should never have been promoted into management in the first place, hindsight will not help the present situation.  It might help with foresight, though.

When you go to promote someone into management, what qualifications do you look for?  More than a few times, the only requirement is that you need a warm body in the seat.  Other times, there is some thought that the person did well as an individual contributor, so why not promote them to management?  What is usually missing is one crucial component…getting the input of the person being possible promoted.

Now, you can’t say that you are thinking of promoting the person, as that could create an expectation at least and a lawsuit at worst.  Still, you can ask them question about how they would handle a situation and see if it is managerial in nature.  You can counsel them, coach them, and prepare them for the position.  A good manager provides a supportive environment for those coming up the ranks and makes sure that management is the right fit for the person.   If it isn’t, find someone else, hire someone else, or do something that will not make the person feel pressured, ill at ease, and stressed.  Yes, you run the risk of hurting some feelings, which is regrettable, but you also will create a management atmosphere for that person’s subordinates that will allow them to grow and flourish.

If a manager doesn’t do this, as shown in this case study, the results can be disastrous.  This person will not be the first to leave.  The manager will continue his reign of terror. That manager’s manager will offer no support.  Eventually, the situation will crumble in on itself, and all that will be left is the finger pointing.

Throwing that stone into the water causes ripples.  In this case, it is all the people who are suffering under that maniacal manager, one who never wanted the position in the first place, who are suffering from the wrong stone being thrown in the water.

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.

Words Unspoken

I was speaking with an employee of a company that was named one of the best places to work.  She was rather new to the company, but was already bumping heads with her manager.  Matter of fact, she was already written up by the manager for not doing her job properly, only six months into her job.

The employee recounted one of the conversations with her manager where the manager informed her that she could ask any of the managers other direct reports and that they would tell her what high standards the manager had.  In recounting this to me, she laughed and said, “If she (the manager) only knew I had already spoken with every one of her direct reports, and they confirmed what I thought of the manager.”  Yet, the manager believes she is doing wonderfully with her staff because she doesn’t want to hear any bad news, and when she does, she immediately punishes for it.  With that, is it any wonder why the manager is blissfully ignorant of how she is truly regarded?

As a manager, would you be surprised what your people are saying about you?  Would you be completely ignorant of what your employees are saying simply because you refuse to hear the truth?  Do you live in a world of delusion or a world of honesty?  Do you want to live in a world of delusion or in a world of honesty?

Ask yourself a few questions, and don’t be afraid of the answers:

  • Do you say you wish honesty from your employees, but then find yourself arguing against everything your employees says?
  • Do you feel an employee is being disloyal to you or to ‘the cause’ if they aren’t complimenting you?
  • Do you consciously or unconsciously penalize an employee for any comments they make that are anything but flattering?  In this, I am not talking about outright insubordination, but rather commentary that might hurt your feelings?
  • Can you accept criticism, talk it over, discuss it rationally, and digest it, using it to improve yourself?  Or do you just dismiss it as an employee who just won’t share your vision?

Think of it this way.  The more you encourage your employees to say in front of you, the less they will say behind your back.

HR – the Department of Managers Defense?

I recently read a reprinted post first seen in the Evil HR Lady’s blog regarding How to Fire Your Boss.  While it was a good blog with good advice on what to do (document everything, evaluate if you need to find a new job, go to HR, etc.), it was the comments I found interesting.  As I said, this was republished by an aggregator from the Evil HR Lady’s blog, and comments were invited.  Last time I looked, the article generated about 2,300 comments.  I could not read all 2,300, but from what I did read, the majority of the non-spam entries were vitriolic about HR and how well they treat management and how badly they treat others.

Now, let’s be generous about this and say that 50% of the posts were from employees who were exaggerating their situation and deserved to have some disciplinary action taken.  Let’s also say that 10% of the posts were superfluous, supporting HR, or spam.  That would leave about 1,000 posts from employees that have had legitimate grievances against their management, went to HR, and came out the worse for it.

I tend to believe this because of my observations of HR organizations I have either worked in or worked with.  While the adage of  ‘if you are too incompetent to work anywhere else, try HR’ isn’t true anymore, it is true that many HR organizations are out to protect

  • The company
  • The management of the company

in that order.  It is the feeling of many in HR leadership that the company does not function without management so management must be protected.  So, a blanket protection is given to all management, competent and incompetent.  You can always get new workers, but not new managers, right?

Wrong.  Bad managers don’t deserve the protection of anyone.  They jeopardize the company by reducing productivity, morale, and the reputation of the company.  HR is doing a disservice to the company it is sworn to protect when it adopts a ‘management first, last, and always’ policy when it is proven that a manager is acting unprofessionally, improperly, or in violation of company or regulatory policies.  It also is doing a disservice to the company when they automatically side with management against employees who may be making more significant contributions to the company than the manager.  Is it any wonder why there are yawns when HR is outsourced?  If all their worth to an employee is that they are there to provide benefits, which can be done by anyone, anywhere, there is not a strong argument to keep the function in-house.  Like any department, they have to prove their worth as a department that provides a service to everyone that the company can’t live without.  If they are protecting 20% of a company against the other 80%, why should the 80% care?  Matter of fact, the good managers also won’t care as much because they see their incompetent colleagues continue to flourish.

It is called Human Resources, and not Management Resources, for a reason.  For years HR professionals have been trying to have themselves be seen as just that, professionals in their field.  They do themselves no favors when they act so unprofessionally.

Here’s Your Hat and Coat…

My mother always had a saying about someone she didn’t really want to stay in her house any longer than necessary.  “Here’s your hat and coat, what’s your hurry?”  I believe there is a professional equivalent of that.

Recently I heard not one, but two executives say pretty much the same thing to the groups they were addressing.  Simply put, they said, if you don’t like the department you are in, then leave.   While I understand the fundamental principle of that attitude, it still strikes me as a lazy way to run your team.

I can’t argue with the assumption that, if you hate your job, if it is a struggle for you to get up for work each and every day because you simply despise something about your job, then you are better served finding a job that you want to go to each day.  As a very genteel southern lady, who happened to be a high level executive in an insurance firm said, “Life is too short to be miserable, and if this is making you miserable, let’s find something that makes you happier”.   Those three executives are correct.  Life is too short for anyone to go into work miserable day in and day out.  It doesn’t help the company, doesn’t help the team, and doesn’t help the person.  Surviving until Friday isn’t a good goal when you are spending over one-third of your life in the workplace.  Find that new job, that new opportunity, that new path in life.  Go, be happy.  Mazeltov.

There is an undercurrent in that philosophy that rubs me the wrong way, however.  That undercurrent is that it is fully the employee’s responsibility if they are not happy.  What if a broad section of employees in that group, department, or company are unhappy?  Are they supposed to quit en masse?   That makes for a good movie script, but not very practical in real life.  If some indicator shows that a large percentage of a group, no matter the size, is unhappy, then it falls upon the manager to find out the cause of the issue and change the situation to help the group be happier.  A manager or leader absolving themselves of all responsibility and saying, “You need to be happier” or “If you don’t like it, leave” when a good percentage of people who report to him express dissatisfaction is lazy at best.  In sports, if the team isn’t performing, the manager is fired, not the players.

In one situation, a new leader engaged in a indoctrination session.  This leader brought in a consultant to hear out the group on a variety of topics.  The leader then came back in and the consultant would read off the responses to the topics.  In this particular session, when it came to group satisfaction and the comment went, “Many people are preparing their resumes”, the leader’s response was, “Oh, well, too bad”, and moved on to the next topic.  That leader lost credibility immediately with that comment.  Instead, the leader could have said something like, “Well, that’s why we are here, to find out the issues and try to solve them.  Join me in moving forward.”  Instant credibility boost.  Instead, it was an opportunity lost.

No manager or leader has a magic wand.  There is no magical incantation that will instantly make an individual happy.  There are simply people who don’t wish to be happy in their job.  However, for a leader to say, in effect, “Here’s your hat and coat, what’s your hurry”, especially when the dissatisfaction is rife in their group, shows a lack of commitment to trying to improve the situation.  In that case, maybe it is the manager who needs to grab their hat and coat.