The curse of front-line management

Life loves to throw complete packages at us. With the good comes the bad, and with the best comes the worst. When we look back fondly at the great beach vacation from last year, we also remember how we fought with our spouse over something silly, and how we managed to spoil what would have been a romantic dinner.

As far as life packages go, being a grandparent is one of the better deals — the role comes with a whole lot of goodness and very little bad stuff. Play with the grandchild to our heart’s content and if she dirties her diaper, just hand her over to her father and watch Sunday Night Football. Give the little guy as many chocolates as he wants and if his mom complains, chuckle and go play a round of golf. Laugh with the kids at the zoo, but avoid taking them to the dentist or sitting in a loud and stinky karate class while trying to listen to a conference call.

The Luxury of One-Step Removed

LinkedIn reflects business relationships — classifying your connections according to how close you are to them. Real life works the same way. In the center, there’s you; then your 1st-degree connections, then 2nd-degree connections, and so on.

Without implying that grandparents are not close to their grandchildren or don’t love them enough, I would like to propose that we imagine a similar circle for personal life.

In this circle, the responsibility to direct, control, guide and manage the kids decreases as the adults get farther away from the center. Grandparents, in the 2nd-degree circle, don’t have nearly the same type of obligations as do the parents in the inner circle.

Now, allow me to take a logical leap — extending this concept from home to work. It provides a good framework for understanding the unique challenges borne by front-line managers.

We Love our Executives but Hate our Managers

In discussions with various field level people throughout my company, it is not uncommon to hear them say, “My manager isn’t good. He doesn’t get me. But I love the executives in the firm. They are always positive, inspirational and visionary.” As an executive in the company, this sort of praise should make me feel good — and it did for a while. But I’ve come to rethink my feelings of righteous pride, wondering, “Am I (and the other executives in the company) really so much better than the rest of the management chain, or is there something else going on?”

A front-line manager probably has the hardest job in a meritocratic company. She has all the responsibility of the first-level (parent) circle, but without even the sympathy that parents receive from others outside the circle who know how difficult the role is.

Like a parent, front-line managers sometimes must encourage their employees to do things against their desires. Executives two levels removed from the first circle may appear to be actively involved with the 1st circle team members, but in reality don’t spend a fraction of the time understanding and correcting their mistakes as do the front-line managers. Execs can afford to pat an employee’s back when he does something good, leaving a permanent impression of positivity in her mind.

This scenario is not unlike a grandparent who lets the grandkid eat all the chocolates she wants and play the video game as much as she desires during her sleepover nights. The grandparent knows that the child is going back tomorrow and her parents will wean her out of her chocolate addiction. Since the executive generally spends very little time interacting with the employee, chances are he is not interested in getting into hard topics during their brief interaction in any case.

No Place to Hide

The front-line manager has direct responsibility not only for hiring the best employees for the firm, but also for managing their productivity, happiness and morale. She is also responsible for their retention. Like a parent, she can never walk away from those responsibilities.

If you are an engineering manager, you need to answer why your team is holding that release back. If you are a sales manager, you need to explain why your team failed to make quota. There isn’t any place to hide.

Whether life or work, we tend to take for granted the people that are closest to us and the people with whom we spend the most time. The reverse proximity bias we develop becomes so thick that their sage advice sounds pedantic and their breakthrough ideas seem pedestrian.

This happens to me all the time. I spend an hour with an external advisor on a regularly scheduled meeting and drive away all jazzed about a point he or she made, only to realize that someone on my team made the exact same point a month ago — yet it never sunk in. There is no irreducible minimum when it comes to the greatness of your manager — the more time you spend with him, the less special he appears to you. Executives, whom you typically only see or hear in small doses from afar, naturally appear larger than life and special.

We are wired to want to be liked and respected. It is our natural inclination to avoid making a decision that may not be liked by an individual. This is not to say that executives don’t make tough decisions — of course, they do. But their decisions are usually high profile than those of front-line managers. And even then, the decisions come with a certain amount of adulation that scratches the itch for being liked.

When a CEO, for example, faces continued losses and need to lay off half the company, it’s a hard and tough decision. But chances are, the investors and surviving employees love and respect her more for making that tough and bold decision for the greater good. In other words, executives tend to have a large group of people who are watching and approving or disapproving their decisions. In a large pool of audience like that, one can always find and focus on confirmation bias and use it as a source of validation and move on.

You can’t, of course, compare the decision to save a company with the choice a front-line manager makes to give an employee a bad performance review. But in the front-line manager’s case, only the employee and his family know, or care, about the decision. Chances are the family hates the manager for it. There is little to no love or approval to be had as a front-line manager in that small pool of audience. That manager has to have that conversation in a tiny room and continue to find ways to turn the employee around away from any approving eyes.

The higher up in an organization you go, the bigger the blast radius of your decisions. While that poses a different set of challenges, one just can’t underestimate the difficulties involved in making the everyday hard decisions and tough conversations by front-line managers. These decisions may seem ordinary, but only because the blast radius is smaller, not because they are easy to make or because their impact on the affected party is less. Front-line managers make tough decisions more frequently than executives, and they do it with a lot less attention, approval and adulation.

A Lack of Perspective

Executives often compound the challenges of front-line managers by second-guessing their decisions. Imagine a situation where you, as a front-line manager, worked for days, considered hundreds of dependencies and made a tough, but unpopular, decision impacting your employees. Now imagine that those employees have escalated their unhappiness to your executive with whom you are sitting in a one-hour meeting to discuss the situation.

An hour doesn’t even give you the time to fully explain the context of the resolution let alone the multitude of individual decision points you made on the way to your ultimate conclusion. Yet execs, not uncommonly, will swan dive into the topic without the benefit of your deep perspective, and blow up your carefully crafted decision. They leave you hanging.

Yes, I’ve done this as an exec and regretted it later. I know I leave a demotivated manager and poor outcomes in my wake as I exit the meeting. It’s not easy for me to accept that sometimes I may not be the best expert on a certain topic. I have to remind myself that I didn’t hire the people on my team just because I lacked the time to fulfill their roles myself, but rather for their own expertise.

People Management

In meritocratic organizations, successful individual contributors are frequently promoted to people manager roles. Great engineers are made team leads and good sellers are promoted to regional managers.

While there is no rule that great individual performers can’t also be great people leaders, there is also no guarantee. On the contrary, I often find that a person who has excelled in an individual role struggles with management because she thinks she can turn her team members into replicas of herself in her former role.

Successful leaders give up on the idea that people are all same. They try to make their team members the best they can be, capitalizing on their strengths and compensating for their weaknesses. These leaders know that their role is not to be a hero, but rather a hero-creator. It’s not a job in the stage spotlight, but down in the pit shining the light up at the stage.

There are two things executives can do to prepare stellar individual contributors for leadership roles:

1) Provide mentorship, shadowing opportunities and classroom training on people management. I’m talking about training on contextualized communication, recognizing and cultivating empathy and managing insecurities. I don’t think it’s possible for a person to be good manager until she has found ways to recognize and master her own insecurities.

2) Recognize that some employees are just not going to be good people managers. It’s a fact, and we have to face it realistically. This means either not promoting an otherwise promising candidate to a front-line manager position, or taking away the management responsibility when the person demonstrates a lack of people management skills.

Most employees in most organizations want to learn and grow, but very few companies chart a course for an individual contributor enabling upward mobility without requiring people management responsibilities. Some large organizations, such as IBM, figured this out and provide employees with growth paths not only in people management roles but alternatively as individual contributors or as IBM Fellows. Both roles receive the recognition and rewards accompanying an executive position in the organization. I have come to believe that this type of thinking is a necessity even in organizations nowhere nearly as large as IBM.

Circular Logic

Front-line managers in our industry get a bad rap. It’s not uncommon for them to face the wrath of their team while also facing the music from executives when employee morale or productivity suffers. Tech industry executives then compound front-line manager challenges by underestimating the tools and training necessary to properly hire a group of eager, aggressive and highly motivated individuals — and then to guide them in achieving a common goal. This requires an ability to navigate the landmines of difficult personalities and egos.

We would never consider hiring a person to build software who doesn’t know how to write code. Yet, somehow, we assume that it’s ok to promote people with no experience, tools, aptitude or training in people management to lead a group of the most complicated and complex machines ever conceived in the universe — the human mind.

Grandparents paid their due, they worked hard and raised their kids the right way. They get to watch Football and play golf. They can, of course, decide how much or how little they want to be involved in the lives of their grandkids for they earned that right. Executives don’t have the luxury of this excuse, they need to take the position of being two levels removed from the front-lines more mindfully and provide the space and tools necessary for the managers to be successful and happy in their roles.

As always, great thanks to @ROIDude for proof-reading and make it all so much better!

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