Some Observations on Management

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m coming up on my first year anniversary of being a manager. I’m figuratively still dipping my toes into the management waters. I’ve made more than a few stumbles, but I think I am at least beginning to understand a few things about what it really means to be a manager.

In many ways it is a very different sort of job. It is true that someone else manages every employee, even me. The president of the United States is still accountable to the people. Even the self-employed have to manage themselves (and their customers) or they starve. What’s really different being in the management role is that as a manager you set direction.

Maybe this is not all that surprising to you. I can just tell you that as a manager it feels surprising. Being a manager is in many ways like being a driver of a car. The car would just sit there inert if the driver did not start the ignition. While it may seem trivial that is the essence of management, but it is also its most crucial aspect: you get to turn the key. The system does not work at all if someone doesn’t turn the key.

But it’s not always a great thing to be someone who has to make decisions. If you are indecisive by nature then management is not for you. But if you are comfortable making decisions and (just as importantly) comfortable dealing with the consequences of your decisions then you may be management material.

I must confess the “turning the key” part of management is something I like. I’ve directed people in their work for many years. But they were always multitasked. They were not directly accountable to me. When push came to shove my projects often got short shrift. Someone else, usually a manager, had more clout than I did. Now at least some of the people who work for me are accountable to me and no one else. I provide direction on what needs to be done. But just as a driver does not tell the engine how to do its work I rarely tell my staff how things should be done. I assume they are competent in their field.

Just as it behooves a driver to check the oil and the tire pressure before taking off on a long drive, it behooves me as a manager to monitor my employees’ work. The key though is to monitor, not micromanage. If you notice your engine kicking up you don’t necessarily take it immediately to the mechanic. Maybe it will smooth itself out, or maybe you need to add a quart of oil. The same is true with management. You learn to respond cautiously to perceived problems. I have to figure out when the situation requires me to initiate some maintenance. And this becomes a judgment call. Often a can of oil solves the problem but if it doesn’t then it’s time to call the mechanic.

It would be pointless to suggest that no work would get done if management were not there. Prior to my hire work continued for a couple of years anyhow. My staff rotated through the management position as temporary details. The engine kept running because a lot of inertia was in place. What was missing though was vision. My team excelled on handling the tactical problems of the day. But they couldn’t implement a long-term strategy. Instead they operated like an airplane in a holding pattern.

I often wonder just what the heck I do all day. How do I add value? I do not modify a line of code. If the system goes down I can’t fix it. On the surface my days look pretty trivial. I read a lot of email, much of which is way too micro for me to read all the way through. I prepare briefings for management. I listen to employees and pass relevant information up the chain of command. I schmooze with customers and suppliers. I listen to employees who come in my door and want to rant. It doesn’t seem like these things should justify my inflated salary.

But I have come to understand that I am not there to punch a clock. My job is not to turn out so many widgets per day. My job is to make sure the team is oriented and moving in the direction that I largely set. So in some sense it really doesn’t matter whether I work four or twenty hours a day. There is not necessarily a correlation between effort and effectiveness. The driver does not always have his attention completely on driving either. Part of his mind is listening to the radio, or thinking about other problems, or wanting to boink the cute chick in the car next to him. It is important that he drives well and is mindful of other cars and obstacles around him. On a more complex level this is what a manager does. He tries to be very aware of the environment around him and move his team through the various obstacle courses called reality so that the work gets done.

And this, alas, is where I need more schooling. Being decisive and confident in my driving doesn’t necessarily mean that I have earned the trust of the drivers around me. In fact I bump into them regularly and they are not happy about it. But slowly I am leaving my trainee status behind and feeling like I have earned my operator’s license. I understand I can’t treat my customers quite the same way I treat other drivers. They are not peers. They are my customers. I spend more and more of my time listening to their concerns and figuring out ways to make them happy. I have to do this while keeping my team happy.

And that’s the biggest challenge of management. It often feels like being between a rock and a hard place. Customers always have more demands than can be fulfilled. They always want something bigger, better and faster and they want it yesterday. Employees want to do a good job and feel valued, but they also want to have a life. And work has to be done efficiently. Processes cannot always stop to satisfy the special request of the day. So a lot of management is learning to say no in ways that sound like you are actually saying yes, and smoothing out feelings among employees so that they system works with the maximum efficiency.

In some ways it sounds like a virtual job and not a real job. At its essence management is a people job. And it is a necessary job because whether we like to admit it or not we need management. (Or more precise, we need effective management.) A team runs for a while without leadership but eventually it peters out and stalls.

The effective driver is usually not just concerned with what is immediately in front of the car, but is also thinking about what is around the bend and miles down the road. To make that sharp curve he must have all the car’s components tuned just right. When he does the car slides around the curve smoothly. When he doesn’t the car runs off the road. It’s not so much the effort required to turn the steering wheel that makes an effective driver, but knowing how much to turn it, when to turn it and how carefully to apply the brakes.

For a manager though it’s like being driving with a hazy bandana in front of your eyes. So if you think about it making that curve is quite a feat. When done smoothly and professionally you have a very effective manager. I hope I will get there someday.

One thought on “Some Observations on Management

  1. Great attitude Mark! My experience of being a manager (after 5+ years) is that the first two years, you bring a lot of energy and direction to the role. Maintaining those qualities over the longer term is definately another challenge! Good luck with your second year!

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