Chatting About Management

I am sharing some of my thoughts on management, the kind of issues that I encounter quite often, and where my views are different than what you may read in a management book. This post is by no means an exhaustive list, just what you would hear when chatting with me.

Experience is overrated

We all want the people that help us to be experienced – a proxy for being good at it, to “know your stuff”. Everybody wants to go into brain surgery, if needed, knowing that the surgeon is good and experienced. But this common sense attitude is not always working when technology is involved.

In my first year working as a young electronics engineer, I was sent to fix a big CNC – together with an experienced technician. When we got to the plant floor, everybody in that corner of the hall was waiting for us to fix the machine so that the manufacturing process could start again. My middle age experienced colleague went straight to a fuse and replaced it while telling me “it’s always this fuse.” But it wasn’t. It took the rookie electronics engineer (me) two hours with the schematics to find the defective component, replace it, and bring everything back to working order. I had no experience, but I was educated and well trained.

One of the relatively recent fads is for young people to drop from college and start a company – didn’t Bill Gates and Steve Jobs show that this is the path to success? I could not disagree more – only learning can transform the inexperienced into someone who can do something useful. All successful people, college dropouts or not, never stopped learning. Today we have Coursera if we do not have the time, age, or money to go to college full time. And some excellent management podcasts to learn about management. Learning is crucial to success. As Stephen Covey said, “keep sharpening the saw.”

Management jobs are temporary

I have moved between “managing others” and “doing it myself” several times in my career. It was, each time, a humbling experience. After three years of not writing code, I could not believe that the coding wizard that I was just a short while ago, was now having the productivity of a recent grad. It took three months and 90 hour weeks to get back in shape.  Six months later we got VC money, and pretty soon I was back to orchestrating 100 people, a.k.a. “management.” Two lessons from this experience.

First, be secure in your profession, and find continuous employment by being able to be both a practitioner and a manager in your field. I know it’s hard work, but it’s worth it long term. I am not talking about switching back and forth on purpose, but about staying informed about latest developments beyond buzzwords, and taking the occasional but regular class for “individual contributors.”

Second, treat everybody that you manage as peers – they may be your manager in 10 years. Jokes aside, my experience is that you get much better results when you treat your team with respect and show trust in them. You can achieve a lot by letting smart, skilled people do their job – no micromanaging required. Which brings me to the next topic:

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

I am, sometimes, a micromanager – when I make up my mind about the long term prospects of a team member – i.e. “should I fire that individual?” But most of the time I let talented people make their own mistakes.

There is a certain degree of CYA behavior in many managers, coming mostly from the inability to “go back” to being an individual contributor – and the perceived lower salary that comes with that. This coasting, risk-averse behavior is, in my view, the greatest obstacle to success for managers. One of the most important roles of a manager is to “absorb risk,” i.e. make decisions with imprecise information and strict time constraints. My former teams have heard me repeatedly say that if they cannot make a decision I will make it for them – not to force “any decision,” but to assume and own the decision and the risk. One of my preferred phrase is “if things seem under control, you are not driving fast enough” – and the fear of making a mistake holds down both managers and the companies that employ them.

One of the almost daily instance when this behavior is displayed is in hiring and firing. Too many businesses and managers use incredibly elaborate hiring protocols (see the absurdly complicated Google interviewing process), and forget that the real test is results delivered after a person is hired. Same goes for firing –  the common phrase that I have heard from colleagues in management is “I should have fired that person much sooner.”  In the end, the job of the manager is to help the company, and swift hiring and firing decisions are a must for a chance to succeed.

Be fanatic about structure

The one thing that I have learned not to ignore is to always implement structure at work. May seem obvious, but almost each time I started a new management job most of the elements of structure were missing. Things like the list of all the people working in the department, the org chart, everybody’s role, what are they working on, the timelines, the objectives, the dreaded KPIs. And of course weekly management team meetings and weekly written status reports. Recently I’ve started using wiki-like tools for status reports, a log of what has been achieved last week and what is being planned for next week. Too many management processes and too much structure, and you have bureaucracy, delays, low productivity, and the overall sense of a dreadful workplace that people leave in droves. But no processes and no structure lead to chaos, and no one wants to work for a failed organization either. The challenge for the manager is to define what is “just enough” — and my preferred list is above.

They all fit together. Management structure helps with making fewer mistakes when managing people and projects, and constant professional development helps with being a better manager while reducing personal risk. And never rely solely on experience when working in a field like computer technology where change has speed AND acceleration.

** *** ***** ******* *********** *************

I’m speaking in Las Vegas on October 24 at the Money 2020 Conference — “Digital Banking: Perspectives on the Disruptors, the Incumbents & the State of the Art”

money2020_moven_blog_pre_mircea