Devolution of Management?

Tonight has to be the night to write this. On the taxi ride to work, feeling a bit under the weather so not riding the bike, the driver asks me “So, what do you do?”

I gave him the 10-minute “I’m a computer engineer that looks after a little corner of the internet, but that’s boring - now I care more about the people” pitch. Those who know me, you know what I often get like when I get passionate about something!

Very recently, my friend had given me the idea to write and then others had probably lent me enough rope to hang myself with in that regard; but in that conversation tonight, I’d convinced myself that now is the time, this is it. Let’s go!

Is this about management or leadership?

Both. In a ratio I couldn’t begin to guess, but definitely both!

Whilst it is very true that these are different, I think there is a massive overlap between the two; if leadership is the art of guiding people and management is the art of controlling ‘things’ and getting results, surely it follows that running a team where someone guides the people to achieve results is going to need a blend of both skill sets? It does to me!

It is also true that everyone has their own preferred style of running their team, I know I have mine. In fact, I’ve had mine and had been sure it’s the best since before I really knew what any of this leadership stuff meant!

How can that be? What does that mean?

Well I don’t want to spoil where this blog goes, but my leadership style is a reflection of who I am and who I want to be as a leader. A constantly evolving me with ideas that come and go as I discover more about leadership.

Ultimately, that means I’ve got it wrong. In so many ways, so many times and I know I’ll be getting it wrong again. I often find it much easier to get leadership hopelessly wrong than get it right. But I’ve learned along the way, that is for sure!

I first learned to manage people in what I affectionately refer to it as my “burger farm”; a fast-food restaurant where I’d started a part time job after leaving high school and stuck at it, climbing the ranks until I was a shift manager.

Recently back from their in-depth, well-delivered and educational multi-day management course, I knew about all the policies and practices of being the manager. With my science and engineering background, it was easy to memorise all the cooking times and temperatures.

I was surely set up for success, it was easy, even for an 18-year-old… Ha!

Reality strikes!

The bit you don’t find out in class is that people don’t work the same way in real life as they did in the classroom scenarios. You don’t speak those magic manager words and suddenly your team does the job perfectly and it is home again in time for tea and crumpets.

Hmmmmm, people were going to be a sticking point but, as good as I was, I could never work the whole shift alone! If only the people did what I wanted them to and when I wanted them to do it, eh?

The environment could be seen as challenging; I was a new manager working mostly without a second manager under me, managing a crew of friends and people roughly my age, that I didn’t hire and they would come and go as the rota chose. I got whomever I got and it was for me to make the most of it on the evening, my efforts to be reset overnight ready for the next day.

Neither did I have any authority to change the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the operations. Sure, their management course was great and taught me a lot, but it wasn’t everything I needed to know.

Looking back at me then, even when I was finishing there aged 22 with a few years of management experience, I didn’t know why the things that worked, did so; or why there were those ideas that just didn’t no matter how hard I tried to succeed.

I simply tried to do more of what seemed to cause me the least grief and won me the most battles.
At times, it was more survival than skilful management.

Fast-forward over a decade from me leaving there and the environments have been very different. I’ve been a manager of technical teams, led training and development, been in the classrooms and been on the data floor. I’ve interviewed people — once for 3 hours in a single sitting, I’ve coached people at their weakest and teared up with pride at seeing them achieve incredible results when at their strongest.

The exchange of ideas

So much of what I have read about management says “choose the right people” and “build your team”, “build your brand” and “get your processes sorted”. It’s all geared up to be for the people at the top, those with the power to do anything.

But what happens if you’ve just landed that first managerial post? What happens if you can’t change the people, the processes or the big plan? I couldn’t. All I could change was myself and I wished I’d known that sooner.

I simply do not have answers to all the questions on being a leader, nor claim that I know the secret recipe of awesome management. But I know a lot of areas where I have got it wrong along the way and perhaps a few where things went a little better. I take every day as it comes and try to improve my performance over the previous effort.

Maybe many years later, I read and hear from wiser souls why things might have been the case, cue the light bulb and “ah ha” sounds. If you want to read these things I will publish a reading list of sorts, along with examples of where, how and why their ideas make so much sense to me now.

From me being dragged out of an office by another manager (yes, literally) to a mad idea where I held a meeting with a team of three brand new recruits and telling them it’s the last meeting I’m going to run (I hadn’t quite lost my mind), I found out many things out along the way. Things about myself, about leadership and about managing.

I guess what I really have is stories.

Stories that form a narrative, a narrative that describes not only what I did, but why I do what I do today. Tonight I think this finally came together in my mind.

I’d like to share some of these stories, lessons and other musings in a hope that if only one person out there hears a calling to try to be a leader or to change and become a different kind of leader, it will be worth it.

I suppose I should start the blogs where I started?

Yep, right back at the burger farm and that first time I learned a hard lesson in management. “Don’t forget where the business is!” — a tale of finding out what results really are and why fixating on them isn’t right.