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.
- Say “no they are not” and defend them.
- 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?