Category Archives: Leadership

Best Position for Mentoring

“I am still having difficulty with this,” Brendon pushed back. “It’s all up-front, the manager knows the MOR is having career-ladder discussions with individual team members, but why is the manager-once-removed (MOR) the best person to have these discussions?”

“I know you still think the manager, being closest to the team member, would be the most likely person to have these discussions,” I replied, “but the manager is largely focused on productivity, workplace safety and output. It is the manager-once-removed who has accountability for creating and maintaining an effective talent pool.

“It is the manager-once-removed whose scope covers more than the immediate team, who sees opportunity in other areas of the organization. Simultaneously, the MOR has an accurate judgement from the immediate manager on each team member’s current capability and potential capability gleaned from 1-1 meetings with the team’s immediate manager.

“It is the MOR who is the perfect position to conduct these mentoring conversations.”

Who Has the Larger Picture?

“I think we may have a problem with James,” Brendon started. “Turnover in his department.”

“And?” I asked.

“And, he says team members are quitting the company because of pay. We’ve had a competitive pay program that has worked for several years, with reasonable increases, but some of the numbers James is claiming don’t seem reasonable for the people he is losing.”

“So, you think the problem is with James?”

“It’s his department,” Brendon shrugged.

“Does James have the authority to offer pay increases beyond the thresholds in your comp program?”

“Well, no. But, whenever I hear it’s about the money, money is only part of it. I think it’s that some of our project managers just don’t see the longer term picture here that they are promised somewhere else. Pay may be part of it, but it’s their longer term career path.”

“And, you think James should be talking to his team about their longer term career path?” I prodded.

“Look, I know James has a lot on his plate. He’s in charge of all of our projects, they’re complicated with lots of moving parts, but he also has to pay attention to his team,” Brendon shook his head.

“So, James is in charge of complicated projects, coaching his team for faster throughput, maintaining quality standards, AND you want him to be a mentor?” I smiled. “What if you went to James’ team members, occasionally, and you talked to them about their career, challenge in the work, and what their professional life might look like in the future? With James’ full knowledge about that conversation?”

“Isn’t that James’ job?” Brendon questioned.

“Sounds like James has plenty on his plate dealing with what’s going on today, this week and this month. Besides you have a better perspective on the larger picture of the company, the larger picture of role opportunities, where lateral moves make sense, where promotion makes sense. On these longer timespan issues, I think you are in a better position to have that discussion. In a very real sense, as James’ manager, for James’ team, you are the manager-once-removed.”

Project Work

“Who is Marie? And why is she managing only one person?” I asked.

Esmerelda was silent, then spoke. “Marie has been selected to be a manager, but needs some experience, so we gave her a person to manage.”

“And, the impact on your organization is that you added an unnecessary managerial layer. Did you give her a raise as well, did you give her the corner office?”

“Yes, we gave her a raise, and she didn’t get the corner office, but, she did get an office.”

“Like eating an hors d’oeuvre rack of soft cheese, then drinking a glass of ice water. Not good for the digestion,” I said.

“But Marie needs to learn how to be a manager,” Esmerelda protested.

“If she needs to learn, send her to training. Give her project work.”

“Like what?” Esmerelda pushed back.

“Like making a schedule, leading a small project. Give her something of short duration. If your promotion fails, what do you have on your hands, imagine chocolate dripping through my fingers. But, if you give her a project and she fails, you only have a failed project, and you, as her manager, can manage the risk in the project.”

Accountability for Wrong Decisions

“You have talked about managerial systems and organizational structure,” I started. “Those are well-worn labels, but the devil is always in the details.”

Pablo nodded. “Yes, the detail of structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. The success of any organizational structure rests on its effectiveness to define two things – in this working relationship, what is the accountability and what is the authority?”

“But, isn’t it second-nature, that especially in a hierarchy, the manager has the authority and the team member is accountable to carry out the decisions of the manager?”

“Not so fast,” Pablo said slowly. “Each has the authority to make decisions within an appropriate span of discretion. And it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“But, if the team member, within an appropriate span of discretion, makes the wrong decision, how can you hold the manager accountable?” I asked.

“Because the manager selected the team member, trained the team member, assessed the team member and then delegated the decision to the team member. If the team member makes the wrong decision, that outcome is the accountability of the manager.” Pablo stopped to let that sink in.

“When we are clear about accountability, behavior follows,” Pablo continued. “When we accurately define the accountability, people know what to expect and they behave accordingly. If the team member is held to account for a wrong decision or underperformance, there begins a mistrust about whether the manager was clear in their instruction, whether the training was adequate, the right tools available, the circumstance not anticipated. If the manager is held to account for the team member’s wrong decision or underperformance, there begins a supportive relationship to ensure the training was adequate, the working conditions conducive, the selected project appropriate, within the team member’s capability.

“You see,” Pablo said, “the manager cannot allow the team member to fail. In a punitive context, that is why the manager often snatches back the authority for the decision and simply assigns the task. In a trusting context, the manager has to make sure all the variables around the team member are adequate and conducive to success. And, that includes the manager’s selection of that team member in the first place. The success of the organization starts with being clear about managerial accountability.”

The Delegation Paradox

“But, it seems to me, that accountability is already fixed,” I replied. “The manager makes the decisions and the team member carries it out. Isn’t that the pervasive understanding for everyone?”

“You might think that, but you would be mistaken,” Pablo ventured. “For a company to grow, it cannot be so. If the manager makes all the decisions, eventually, what happens to the speed of decision making?”

“Well, it begins to slow down,” I observed.

“Or stops, when the manager becomes overwhelmed with all the decisions. As the organization grows, there are too many decisions to be made by one person.”

“And?” I prompted.

“For the organization to grow, the manager has to delegate,” Pablo flatly stated.

“But, every manager already knows they have to delegate, happens all the time,” I said.

“No, every manager knows they have to delegate, and they think, what they have to delegate are task assignments. In the delegation of a task, the manager also has to delegate appropriate decision making along with the task.”

“But, shouldn’t the manager reserve the authority for the decisions to be made?” I wanted to know.

“Only, if the manager wants to slow things down, or bring things to a crashing halt,” Pablo chuckled. “Appropriate decision making has to be delegated along with the task assignment. Most managers, at the end of a delegation meeting, ask ‘Do you understand what to do?’ A more relevant question would be ‘As you work through this task, what decisions do you have to make?’ Every level of work has appropriate decision making.”

“Well, that should get some things off the manager’s plate,” I said.

“Not exactly,” Pablo had a hint of a smirk on his face. “You see, the manager is still accountable for the output of the team member. If the team member underperforms or fails, it is the manager who is accountable. And that changes everything.”

Fix Accountability

“All well and good,” I said. “If we want to build managerial systems based on something other than greed, status and power, where do we start?”

“All at once, and all over,” Pablo chuckled. “Look, the first place we start is by clearly defining the working relationships people have with each other. There are two types, vertical managerial relationships and horizontal cross-functional relationships. When we look at those two types of working relationships, we most often fail to define the accurate placement of accountability and exact scope of authority.”

“Accountability?” I prompted.

“All too often, we fix accountability one level of work too low in the organization, and it plays into the blame game,” Pablo explained. “Between the team member and the manager, it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“How so?”

“Simple,” Pablo said. “The manager selected the team member, trained the team member, provided the tools for the team member, selected the project for the team member, created the working environment for the team member. The manager controls all the variables around the team member, it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“But if the team member underperforms, doesn’t that point the finger at the team member?” I countered.

“See, you fell right into the blame game,” Pablo smiled. “The team member does have an accountability, and that is to show up to work each and every day, to bring their full potential, to exercise their best judgement, in short, to do their best. It is the manager accountable for the team member’s output. The first place to start is to fix clear accountability.”

Sense of Accomplishment

“If you want to change the behavior, change the context,” Pablo repeated. “How do I want my team members to show up for work? As the CEO, I have to create the environment that encourages the behavior I want.”

“For example?” I asked.

“Personal accomplishment,” Pablo said. “Let’s just take that one.”

“Okay, are you suggesting we walk around and hand out attaboys so people get a sense of personal accomplishment?”

“Sure, people need acknowledgement, but hollow acknowledgement does nothing for the human psyche. If you want people to have a sense of personal accomplishment, give them something that challenges their capability, challenges their skill set, gets them out of their comfort zone. And, I am not talking about some contrived exercise. If you want people to feel a sense of personal accomplishment, give them a real problem to solve.”

Change the Context

“And, to promote the social good for the team employed by my company,” Pablo said, “I have to believe in the good inside each person. I have to create managerial systems that support that belief.”

“What you say is counter to many managerial practices,” I said. “In my travels, I see compensation systems, bonus and incentive programs that rely on greed and competition over compensation. I see team members with a narrow focus only on the next promotion, hidden agendas, backdoor politics, even backstabbing. I see a general mistrust of authority inside the company.”

“Yes, often that is what you see,” Pablo replied. “And, it is through no fault of employees. They engage in behavior to survive inside the system in which they live. If we create a system that relies on greed, we will get greedy behavior. If the only way we acknowledge contribution is by status, if the only thing that feeds a person’s self concept is a promotion, then you will get politics based on power. If you want to change the behavior, change the context in which they live.”

The Obligation

“Look, it didn’t take long after I started my company,” Pablo continued, “that there were three things up to me. No one else in the company has the obligations that I have –

  • First, I have the obligation to provide for the success of the company. It is my baby. I created it, no one else has the passion for it that I have.
  • Soon after, as headcount increased, I realized that the success of the company rested on the social good of the team members employed by the company. Without them, the enterprise would stall, and eventually die.
  • I also had to look at the larger context. I have an obligation to support and strengthen free enterprise. It is the capitalist political system that creates individual economic independence against the seduction of a centralized controlling government.

Pablo looked me square in the eye. “I come from a foreign country,” he said. “I have seen the other side.”

The Accountability of the CEO

“You survived,” I said. “I mean, your company survived.”

“We did okay,” Pablo replied. “We were essential, so we never had to shut down. Had to change a few things in the physical layout, and we had some outbreaks. We did okay.”

“Most important lesson, for you, as the CEO?” I asked.

“The most important lesson is the security the company provided to everyone who works here,” he said.

“Security? This was hardly a time of security.”

“I think it is important to understand how deeply our company affects the lives of people who work here. It impacts not only their economic lives, but their social lives. It impacts their self-esteem, and what they achieve in life.

“I remember, a year ago, when COVID was least understood,” Pablo continued. “I announced in an all-company meeting, that every one of their jobs was secure. I was out on a bit of a limb, because, by a whim of government, we were essential. You see, I know every team member goes home each and every day with either a feeling of frustration, or a feeling of satisfaction, depending on how the day went. They either feel secure or insecure, as a result of the managerial systems we have in place. We either build trust and security or mistrust and insecurity. That’s my job.”