Cracking the Culture Code

with Kim Malone Scott

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What exactly do managers do again?

Kim Malone Scott

CEO Coach, Management Manager, Author

Lessons Learned

Good managers give a damn about their people but not if people like them.

When you hire great people, the people tell you what to do.

Great managers keep up-leveling the caliber of the team.


Lesson: Cruel Empathy with Kim Malone Scott

Step #9 Managers: What exactly do managers do again?

What do managers do? It's very tempting to think they do nothing. When I started Juice I was in this complicated psychological state where part of the reason why I started Juice was that I hated having a boss. So I was in this, “You hate the man, you are the man, you hate the man, you are the man.” Well, the woman in my case.

So what do managers do? I'm going to answer it in two different ways. Part of what they do, at the most abstract but also the most fundamental and most important level, part of what they do is they give a damn about their people, but they don't give a damn about whether their people like them. That's a hard thing to do. So that's sort of the meta-level.

The three things that they do are they give and get feedback in impromptu ways and in formal ways. They don't tell people what to do. Telling people what to do doesn't work, ever. No matter how powerful you are telling people what to do doesn't work. Bill Clinton said of being the President of the United States that it was a lot like being the overseer of a cemetery--a lot of people under you; nobody listening.

You will never be powerful enough for telling people what to do to work. What you have to do is you have to create a process in which direction gets set but everybody participates in that direction. Then you enhance your team. It sounds harsh to say but you upgrade your team. That doesn't mean you fire the bad people and you hire better people, although that's part of it. But you help the team grow and you make sure that one plus one plus one equals 30 and not three.

When I have taught management at a number of different places one of the questions that I ask is, and the first thing of the class is, “Tell me about the best manager you ever had and the worst manager you ever had.” I really encourage people to show don't tell. Tell the story, like what did the manager do that was so awful.

For example one of the worst managers I ever had, and I'm actually very grateful to this person because he made me think a lot about management and he made me care more about management. He made me interested in it. But it was time to do a lay-off and this guy instead of coming and talking to the people himself, basically he sent in one of these paid jerks to do it. I just found that so cowardly that he wouldn't give the message himself that it really made me think.

One of the best managers I ever had was somebody who made me realize that I could do things I never thought I could do. There's a lot of different ways to think about good manager, bad manager. I actually think stories are the best way to answer the question but basically I'll go back to what managers do.

Good managers care about their people but they don't worry about winning the popularity contest with their people. They care about doing the right thing. Bad managers try to get people to think their job is to manage other peoples' moods or something and they wind up creating a political situation whether they mean to or not.

Good managers give frequent and impromptu feedback both on the praise and the criticism. They also ask for frequent impromptu. Bad managers just sort of sit in their office and say nothing. They don't engage in that way.

Good managers pull out of the team what the team wants to do and they provide the constraints. They don't just let chaos reign. They make sure everybody is on the same page. Bad managers come in and just tell people what to do.

The other thing that great managers do it they keep up-leveling the caliber of the team. That means helping people to do great work and then do it even better. It also means bringing in new talent and means helping people who are not a fit or who are not good at the job to leave and find jobs where they are good. Bad managers just let problems fester, let bad employees hang around for a long time, and let their top employees carry their worst employees on their back.

I think that whether you're managing an organization of 20 people, 200 people, 2,000, 20,000, or 200,000 the way that you manage your team is not radically different. As you start to manage larger organizations, as you start to lead larger organizations, you need to figure out how not to just manage your people but also to connect with the people who are under the people who work for you.

So when you're managing managers, and when you're managing managers of managers, you need to do several things that you don't have to do if you're just managing people, individual contributors. One, you need to be very conscious of not creating Dilbertville with layers. You need to work really hard to defy the gravitational pull of organizational mediocrity. That means going deep occasionally into the organization; going deep into a problem that interests you.

I think Steve Jobs was probably the master at this, of focusing on the drywall in a store that just opened, figuring out how to print business cards. I mean the small details he would get involved in were quite remarkable. I think you need to be able to do that.

You also need to meet with people who work for the people who work for you. It sounds very hierarchical but a skip-level meeting or whatever you want to call it without the manager in the room. So you need to figure out a way to identify the bad managers. Because a bad manager is making 10, 20, 30, 40, or 60 peoples' lives horrible.

When you have a skip-level meeting you need to make sure that the people who are in the meeting understand that you're trying to give feedback that's going to help this manager improve. You need to project the notes. I have a lot written on how to have a productive skip-level meeting because they can become very political very quickly.

I think when you're managing managers you need to, it's important always, but especially as organizations get bigger, you need to require joint escalation. Don't let Bob come to you and complain about Sue. When Bob comes to you complaining about Sue you tell Bob, “Go work it out with Sue. If you can't work it out, you both come to me, and I'll help you resolve it.” You don't want to abdicate but you don't want to get in the position of having to arbitrate and referee fights. Because then every time somebody is having a one-on-one with you everybody else will wonder if they're talking smack about them. So you've got to be very careful of the kind of political climate that you're creating or not creating by the things you do.

I think it's very important as the organization gets bigger to walk around and notice the little things that you see and to talk to somebody who you don't know that well and ask them what they're working on just to get the pulse of an organization. As there's more people, there's more demands on your time, it's hard. You have to schedule that walk-around time. Don't wait for a free hour because you will never have one. You have to schedule it. Those are some of the things that I have found to be important as the organizations grow that may not be as important with a smaller organization.

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