Good Culture, Bad Culture: One Company, Two Managers

Managers make a difference. They do.

In fact, your immediate manager may be the biggest difference maker in your approach to your daily work and your career. But it’s not just you they impact. If you lead teams, your manager can have a ripple effect on your culture, impacting your teams to either help accelereate learning and achievement, or acting as a brake on engagement, prompting your best team members to look for the exits.

I recently witnessed this impact first-hand while working for two different managers at Barclays. My role was the same, the company was the same. It was the perfect leadership experiment, controlling all variables except for my direct manager.

The experiences working with these two managers could not have been more different.

The true leader of the two was Tom Meadows, someone you could drop into any situation or team and know good things will happen. The other manager I will refer to as “F”. It wouldn’t be accurate to use the term “leader” in connection with F, so I’ll stick with “manager” for now and hopefully this post will draw a distinction between those roles.

My role involved introducing the first customer-facing deployment of OpenStack within Barclays. There was a huge amount of work, and not just for us. Our CIO and COO were fully committed and provided invaluable help in clearing obstacles and getting us the support we needed. There was a great deal of learning to do, much to create, much working with other teams, much “new”. Good fun, actually.

While working for Tom, he spent time sitting with my teams, making the effort to understand what they did and what they faced on a daily basis.

F’s approach? Managing by Tayloristic decree.

What does managing by decree look like? Like this:

“Thou wilt do this.”

“Uh, the company doesn’t support that approach for a number of rational reasons and the authority to make that type of change is beyond our teams’ scope. We’ll be happy to help promote that change, but we can’t go rogue and do it alone.”

“Thou hast failed.”

“Ok, sure.”

The key difference was simple. Tom listened, F didn’t.

Lesson #1: If you can’t listen, you can’t lead. Circumstances will arise and conditions already exist that don’t meet your mental model. If you can’t take the time to listen and understand the contours of your workplace to help your teams succeed, you won’t succeed.

Beyond that point, failing to listen and then creating a mismatch of responsibility and authority is a classic failure. The triad of responsibility, authority, and accountability is not a “pick one” arrangement.

And then there were “optics”. Hint: if your manager makes frequent use of that word, things won’t turn out well.

The optics in question centered on the morning arrival time of team members. We heard a great deal of how early F arrived at the office and that the office wasn’t nearly populated enough early enough each morning.

Daniel Pink’s research on engagement published in Drive uses real data to highlight that this type of emphasis kills engagement. And it did. The internal Employee Opinion Survey reflected that fact.

Here’s the ironic part: Tom never harped on arrival time or even mentioned it during my time working for him. Not once. Yet his teams never had an attendance or productivity issue. Huh.

The difference lies between being in control and being controlling. The below excerpt from The Power of Habit illustrates the impact of this distinction:

Lesson #2: The wrong focus builds bad culture. Have the right focus, and you have a shot at good culture.

But perhaps the most fundamental difference between these managers was the level of respect and appreciation demonstrated by them for their teams.

After we launched our private cloud, the team had a celebratory breakfast at the office. We ate well, relaxed, and looked back at some photos of our long, extended effort. By this time, my teams had already moved from Tom to F. Who made the effort to attend the celebration? Tom did. Not F. Tom made a point to take time from his packed schedule to hear us reflect on our journey. People noticed.

Differences in character between F and Tom were also apparent. At one point, F threatened one of our team leads, stating that he would “take money out of your paycheck” for what he proclaimed was an exorbitant expense report. Never mind that the expense report was based on approved, regularly recurring charges we had been supporting for over a year. Setting that fact aside, how does threatening a valuable employee produce a positive impact? Puzzling.

Another character difference was F’s incapability to apologize or own an error, even a trivial one. I recall one instance where he asked his administrative assistant to set meetings with a few people, myself included. When the day of the meeting arrived, he sent an email to his assistant (copying me), berating her and demanding to know why these meetings were on his calendar. After I replied to his email stating that he asked for the meetings, there was no response. Not even a five-second reply of, “Sorry, my bad. No need to meet, thanks.”

And then there were the ethical issues.

Franek insisted that all employees in his organization receive an artificially lowered performance review score in their mid-year review. Yes, we were told to follow the normal review process to arrive at a grade for the employee, then reduce it by a full grade, and deliver that grade to the employee.

The rationale was that this was “motivation”. That’s not motivation. That’s dishonesty.

Even delivering a performance review showed a lack of preparation and respect. I remember arriving at Franek’s desk for my mid-year review, only to follow him from room to room in hopes of finding an unoccupied conference room. That fundamental lack of preparation was then reinforced by receiving novel news in the performance review. Two basic tenets of preparing for and delivering a review we teach rookie managers are: reserve a private, controlled setting and never deliver surprises in the review. Franek failed on both counts.

I experienced a sharp contrast under Tom’s leadership. All of his managers gathered for consistency checks during the review process, a series of healthy and necessary meetings to insure managers of disparate teams were using the same approach and thinking when arriving at a given performance review grade. When those meetings completed, we set aside ample time to have full, honest, and productive discussions with our team members.

Lesson #3: Character flaws translate to leadership deficits.

A few weeks later, I was checking my email on the weekend and noticed another team facing some hurdles with a separate, large project. I sent an email volunteering to help and asked for some additional details to get started.

The next response came from F: “Get on the bridge or go to the office.” Not, “Thanks for jumping in on your own time, we could really use the help! If you could dial in to the bridge, we’ll get you the info.” Close, but not quite.

Lesson #4 is from Andy Grove. He gave this verdict in High Output Management regarding managers who fail to recognize the work of their team members: “If he [the employee] feels his efforts have gone unrecognized, you have not done your job and have failed as a manager.”

F failed. Tom succeeded.

This wasn’t a case where Tom only delivered good news and was therefore viewed favorably. I had more than one “tough conversation” with Tom, but always left the room with a clear understanding of what needed to change, why, and who had responsibility for what. F’s “tough conversations” simply produced vague, ambiguous, unfounded proclamations of failure.

Each of these managerial differences built to a staggering difference in culture, which translates to business results. Studies published in Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman found that the culture produced by management accounted for 20–30% of business results.

One culture celebrates success and promotes autonomy, matched with the right mix of responsibility, authority, and accountability. The other culture promotes a do-as-you’re-told mentality and leads to a precipitous drop in engagement.

Why is engagement important? Gallup data explains:

This Gallup data, published in First, Break All the Rules, also points to five key questions leaders can use to help insure optimum employee engagement. Employees should be able to answer “yes” to:

  1. In the last week, have I received recognition or praise for good work?
  2. Does my supervisor seem to care about me as a person?
  3. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  4. At work, do my opinions count?
  5. In the last six months, have I talked with someone about my progress?
  6. Have I had opportunities to learn and grow?

Under Tom’s leadership, the answers were definitely “yes”. Franek had “no” across the board.

Did we accomplish things while less engaged? Certainly. But not being fully engaged results in leaving potential achievements on the table. In today’s hyper-competitive business environment, your company can’t afford to leave those achievements as only potential.

As Adrian Cockroft recently stated, Beware of a culture of mediocrity. Don’t hold people down, let them be their best. Tom would always remind his direct reports of his philosophy: hire great people and get out of their way. F couldn’t stop getting in the way. With that said, he had strengths in being organized and disciplined. Perhaps he would have been an excellent manager in the top-down world of how I imagine 1940’s America may have been. Or maybe he is a better fit for a non-managerial role, certainly one without leadership responsibilities that include growing and developing people.

I recently ran across this nugget of advice from the recent #TWParadigmShift conference: “Learn to allow people to be autonomous. If you don’t provide that environment, another company will.”

And that’s exactly what happened. I found a company that will.

Update, 2/5/16: Although I’ve moved on, I continue to hear from ex-colleagues about F’s toxic behavior. His direct reports, peers, and employees at large all continue to tell a common story. If you lead teams, I sincerely hope you emulate Tom. Your people deserve a leader.

Update, 1/25/17: F is no longer with Barclays, with his exit occurring immediately after the most recent CIO joined. I sincerely hope F has learned and grown from his experience at Barclays and will emualte Tom Meadows in the future.

Updated, 3/9/17: Below are the slides from a talk I presented at the Philadelphia CTO School meetup based on this article.