Management is an Attitude

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to be an effective manager for a long time. Between the classes I’m taking at Columbia and the books I’m reading for myself, I’m starting to get some ideas that I’m trying to figure out how to apply in my own life.

A recent realization is that being a manager isn’t something that others can bestow upon me. The way to get others to treat me as a manager is not to wait for mystical authority to be granted to me, like the sword from the stone. It’s to start acting like a manager. This means taking responsibility for other people’s actions, which is a terrifying thing.

I have no problems being responsible for my own actions, because if I screw up, it’s because of factors under my direct control and I’m happy to accept the blame for that. Taking responsibility for others means I have to take responsibility for things that are not under my direct control.

I’ve been teetering on the edge of this realization for a while. I’ve realized that others are better than me at most technical areas, so I’m happy to leave decisions in those areas to them. But what I’ve done until now is to assign them the responsibility along with the decision-making authority. If they made the wrong decision, it was their fault, not mine. And that’s a copout if I want to become a manager.

If the people who are making the decision are making the wrong decisions from my perspective, why is that? If it’s because I have information that they do not, it is my responsibility to get them that information. If it’s because I have a different way of interpreting the information than they do, then we should be having that discussion and try to convince each other of our interpretation.

Part of me has been holding onto the rationalist idea that “The truth shall set you free”. In other words, if I lay out the facts for people, they should make the right decision. If they don’t, it is their deficiency for not being able to properly interpret the data. I had been expressing this idea as “You can’t change somebody who doesn’t want to change” – they’ve pulled the blinders over their own eyes.

But I’m starting to believe that this is lazy on my part. Made to Stick relates many situations where people didn’t even think they had a problem, but were convinced to change their behavior by an effective campaign. If I can’t convince somebody to change, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s my responsibility to continue reframing my ideas until I can convince them. Or to at least bring the issue out into the open so we can discuss it.

Taking responsibility for others means it’s up to me to get them to go in the direction I would like them to go. It means I am responsible for continuous and effective communication so that they can make appropriate decisions. And that responsibility is something I have been fleeing to this point in my career because people are unpredictable and I don’t know to control them or convince them of things. I’ve been waiting for others to grant me the authority necessary to control people. And I’m realizing that isn’t possible, because such authority isn’t granted – it’s earned.

It’s earned by taking responsibility for a project and for others and making the right thing happen. It’s difficult and painful and uncertain to succeed. There’s a very good chance of failure, and that’s been one of the things keeping me from taking that responsibility. But if one succeeds in such an effort, it is generally recognized. I’ve had two friends go from being an engineer to the VP of Engineering at their company in a couple years because they took responsibility. One of them even told me several years ago that “There’s no such thing as authority” when describing his rise, but I’m obviously just now figuring out the implications of that statement.

I’m still not sure I’m ready to act like a manager. I’ve got to get over my fear of failure. But it’s at least getting clearer to me what is entailed in becoming a manager and the steps I will have to take to get there.

5 thoughts on “Management is an Attitude

  1. Wow; I have so much to say on this subject…

    First, you’re right–the essence of being a *good* manager is taking responsibility for everything that happens during your watch. My staff made a mistake? Take it up with me. I’ll apologize to you and deal with the issue internally. I’ve made this very clear to my boss and to our managing partner (unfortunately, I had to do so after two mistakes in a row–the only two overt mistakes made in the past few years…). A bad manager points fingers to his own staff, and I hate the blame game.

    Second, about the fear of failure thing, I have it as well. But I’ve failed before. I’ve had crappy implementations and procedures that cause more harm than good. So you back up and do it again. You admit to what you could have done better, have a few drinks, and move on. There was definitely a failure in my department with the aforementioned mistake, but all you can really hope to do is give people the tools to make the right decisions and keep your fingers crossed.

    This has gotten far too long–sorry!

  2. > And I’m realizing that isn’t possible, because such authority isn’t
    > granted – it’s earned.

    In my experience, much of this post is spot on, but I want to comment a bit more on this point in particular. ‘It’s Earned’ has the subtest that ‘if only you act in this right way, other people will reward you with goodies for doing so.’ Let me propose an alternative meta-construction. ‘Authority doesn’t actually exist. People ask for and follow direction because they see that it is the way to reach their objectives.’ As you report, taking responsibility for Getting Things Done (what in the venture world gets called GSD) is a necessary precursor to other people purposefully handing you responsibilities, but the other half of what you need to learn and practice is to communicate how someone else helping you achieve your objectives will help them achieve theirs. When Leaders tell people ‘go do this,’ what people hear is ‘if you go do this, that will help you achieve your goals.’ That requires paying enough attention that you can determine whether or not what you want them to do actually helps them achieve their goals, and further that you pay enough attention that you know what those goals are, so that you can communicate to them in *their* context how achieving your goals will help them achieve theirs.

    ‘Sure, but I pay their salary, isn’t that helpful enough?’ I hear you cry. No, usually, it isn’t – it will generally motivate someone to show up in the morning, but it won’t motivate them (much) to care about getting done whatever it is that you want done. Where if they believe that whatever it is that you want done is just a part of accomplishing the things that they want done, they will not only perform whatever task it is that you need performed, they’ll keep looking to make sure that they’ve solved the entire problem, and so on.

    And then the responsibility fairies come down and wave their magic wands.

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