Defending Weak People

I had lunch last week with a senior executive at a major software vendor.  I asked him how one of my former (non-MarkLogic) colleagues was doing.  His reply:

“Not so well.  Expectations were set very high because of his past experience and in the end he didn’t hire strong direct reports and build a strong organization.  Worse yet, when he was challenged on the quality of those people, instead of accepting that there may have been problems, he defended them.  And defending weak people is the beginning of the death cycle.”

The last sentence caught my attention because it’s a key decision that every manager must make.  When your management comes to you and says “your people are weak,” I think you are faced with two choices.

  1. Say “no they are not” and defend them.
  2. Say “perhaps they are” and upgrade them.

You must be aware that by simply having this conversation that you are, de facto, in deep pucky because a key part of your job is to build a strong organization.  Thus this is one of those conversations that you’re never supposed to have, much like one with your spouse on “what we’re going to do about your dalliance.”

As a contrarian and as someone who thinks he sets high people standards, my natural response is to pick the first option.  But that is de facto perilous because if your management is telling you that your people are weak, then they have presumably already put some thought to it and made up their mind.

It’s basically paradoxical because defending your people opens you to the “worse yet” argument (as in, “and worse yet, poor Joe can’t even see the problem.”)  But not defending people is to admit that they are weak and thus that you have failed to do your job in building a strong organization.  See prior comment about this being a conversation you don’t want to have.

But, as a manager, you’re probably going to have it one day and the higher you are in your organization, the more likely this conversation is to arise.  Why?  Because the higher up you the more everything below you becomes an abstraction.  Much of the abstraction rolls nicely into numbers such as sales, gross margin, and sales/head or profit/head.  But the one thing that doesn’t is your direct reports.

So, given that this is a “have you stopped beating your wife” conversation, I’d argue the best thing you can do is to avoid it.  How?  Through a number of means:

  • Figure out what strong people or, dare I say, world-class people look like to your management.
  • Attempt to refashion that a bit given your specific situation.  Be very sensitive to see if it’s working — are they nodding their heads when they’re supposed to, or do they really believe your modified image.
  • Avoid swimming up-stream on every hire.  That is, try to get a mix of people on the team that blends two attributes:  those you want to hire and those who fit the mold from above.  (To the extent they’re identical, you have no problem.  To the extent they’re very different, you need to be careful.)
  • Be open to the possibility that while you are accountable for delivering results that the boss’s image of what’s needed might actually be right.  And ask them to be similarly open in reverse.
  • Proactively sell your people (and have they sell themselves) in terms of both their strengths and results, but also in terms of where they do map to the boss’s ideal.
  • Finally, consider making a tally sheet.  Most bosses will hate this, but consider saying:  I start with 3 credits.  Every time I do something directly against what you want, I burn one.  However, every time that works out in the end, I get two back.  Deal?

6 responses to “Defending Weak People

  1. That is some of the most sensible middle-management advice I’ve ever seen and I’ve read reams of that (a long story). Very helpful tactics for coping with this kind of mistake, which probably has some truth and some misunderstanding by both the manager and their superiors.

  2. As a consultant, I often get an interesting perspective of an organization and it’s talent – after all, most organizations hire consultants when the project has gone side-wise and managers are willing to pay a premium for someone to come in and “make it better”.

    When the “conversation” situation crops up, the manager in question is usually guilty of one of three things – playing favorites, not taking the time to assess the scope of the project (and thus failing to understand the technology and the required skill set) and whether the fit is there in the employee, or not bothering to actually manage the people in question to assure that there the employee is competent. In other words, the manager has not been doing his or her job.

    There’s a rare forth category – a weak manager ends up with the malcontents from other parts in the organization – but in most such cases the malcontents either adapt in the new settings (and often do better in that role as they are dealing with other “edge” people) or leave. Thus, when “the conversation” comes up, it’s almost invariably a polite way for more senior management to let the manager know that it’s time to polish the resume.

    That’s one of the reasons why one of the first actions of a good manager would be to identify (or hire) a good XO – someone who reports to the manager, who may be senior to but not necessarily in the reporting chain of the other employees of that manager, and who can, if necessary, step into the manager’s shoes in the event of a bus mishap. Such a person would play the role of devil’s advocate, helping to spot problem areas with employees or provide an alternative viewpoint about a potential hire. Not only does this XO provide a reality check for the manager, but it also proves to senior management that the manager has a good eye for identifying management talent and grooming them.

    I can think of very few places I’ve consulted where such a mentoring relationship didn’t help dramatically in keeping down the weak manager syndrome.

    BTW, congrats on the release of 4.2 – I’m tearing into it tonight.

  3. Great insights, Kurt. Thanks for sharing.

  4. There’s always the possibility that what is perceived to be “weakness reporting” from middle management, may in fact be a way of hiding deeper issues that lie within the organization. There’s always water in the bilges and the inhabitants there do bite each other from time to time. A trip south is sometimes in order for even the captain of the best looking ship. Only then can one really say what’s the truth and what’s just stories that make you feel good before bedtime.

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