Tag Archives: manager

Like Herding Cats

“So, how long could they keep that up?” I repeated. “As long as nothing changed, how long could your team simply repeat what they did the day before?”

“Well, forever,” Nathan exclaimed. “But things do change.”

“Bingo!” I said. “Things do change and that is what management is all about. Customers change, technology changes, raw materials change, processes change, even our people change. Management is all about change. Change is your guarantee of a never-ending employment opportunity as a manager.”

I smiled, but Nathan didn’t appreciate my jovial attitude.

“I think I am tuned in with that. So, why am I having so much trouble with my team. They don’t listen to anything I have to say.” Nathan’s head swirled as if his thoughts were making him dizzy and he was trying to stabilize.

“Here is the problem,” I replied, waiting until Nathan’s eyes were settled. “Everyone talks about managing change, as if it is the prime directive. We manage this and we manage that. Here is the clue. People don’t want to be managed. People want to be led. Oh, there is still plenty to manage, processes, systems and technology. But try to manage people and it will be a bit like herding cats.”

It’s the Job of a Manager

“What kind of questions?” asked Ted.

“Look, in your position, as Manager, you often don’t have the technical details necessary to make a decision. As a Manager, that’s not your job. Your job is to bring value to the thinking and work of your team.” I waited for Ted to catch up.

“By asking questions?”

“Most Managers think their team will see them weak if they have difficulty making a decision, even if the Manager doesn’t have the technical details. So, sometimes Managers make a decision because they think it’s their job.

“If you have two engineers, each with a different method of solving a problem, you may not know which method is technically the best way.”

“So, how do you make the decision?”

“You don’t bring value by telling them what to do. You bring value by asking questions.

  • What were the top three criteria on which you based your recommendation?
  • What impact will your recommendation have on the time frame of the project?
  • What two things could go wrong with your recommendation?

“Your job, as Manager, is not telling people what to do. Your job is to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.”

It’s Just a Start

From the Ask Tom mailbag:


I have completed my MBA and I am now working in an office with a limited territory for our company here in India. I want to know what other things I need to do, like a course, to create better prospects for me to become a manager?


More learning, taking a course is always a plus, but not sufficient.

You need two things. First, you need to speak with your manager and ask for clear feedback on how you can improve in your current position. Whatever you are currently doing, be the best. Your manager is the best coach to give you that feedback.

Second, you need to find a mentor. Your mentor may or may not work inside your company, but should be in a position to speak with you long term about your career. This is usually not your direct manager, but one more level up. Your conversations should not be centered around your day-to-day accountabilities, but on longer one and two year goals.

Be the best where you are today and keep looking forward one to two years in the future. Congratulations on your MBA. You are now at the start of the game, a wonderful game.

The Bigger Context

“But, what if my team has some bone-headed ideas?” Francis pushed back. “There are a couple of people on my team that think I’m an idiot, that they have a better way to do something.”

“Occasionally, we are all idiots,” I replied. “Perhaps, on occasion your team is accurate.”

“But they don’t see the big picture,” Francis described. “They think I delay part of a project because I don’t know what I am doing, when the fact is, we are waiting on parts with a six week lead time.”

“So, it’s context?” I asked. “And, you don’t think they will understand a six week delay in parts?”

“They have trouble just figuring out what materials we need for today’s production, much less a part that won’t be here for six weeks.”

“Francis, this is a struggle for all managers. Your team is working day-to-day or at best, week-to-week, but they are impacted by events that happen month-to-month, or quarter-to-quarter. Don’t sell your team short. They may not be able to manage long lead time issues, but they can certainly understand those issues, particularly if you make them visible. In what way could you communicate project scheduling to your team in a way they would understand?”

Who Controls the Variables?

“What is structure?” Melanie asked. “I draw boxes and circles, with lines and arrows. The question that guides me is – who reports to whom?”

“And, that would be accurate,” I replied, “if you worked in a command-and-control, reporting environment. This misconception about most organized companies leads us astray.”

“But, that’s my central question, my guiding principle when I put the org chart together. Who reports to whom?”

“Indeed, as managers, we sit around the table discussing a new recruit coming into the company tomorrow. And, the question is, who should this person report to? Quite seriously, it’s the wrong question.”

“I’m listening,” Melanie replied.

“It’s not a matter of who this young recruit will report to, but which manager, around the table, will be accountable for the output of this new hire? It’s not a matter of reporting, it’s a matter of accountability, and it’s the manager who is accountable.”

“Seems upside-down,” Melanie observed.

“Does it?” I responded. “Think about it. This new person comes into the organization. Who designed the role for this person to play? Who determined what this person should do? Who determined the quality spec of the output? Who selected this person to play this role? Who trained the person? Who provided the necessary tools, created the work environment? Who controls all the variables around this person?”

Melanie paused, the answer so obvious. “The manager, of course.”

“Then, why should the manager not be held accountable for the output of this new hire?”

Maximum Number of Team Members

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I read with interest your response on the number of levels in an organization. It sounds good, but as the organization grows, we need more and more managers. It is difficult for a single manager to handle more than 6-7 people on the team. With more managers, don’t we end up needing more layers.

I would first challenge your assumption on the maximum number of team members for whom a manager is accountable. Your number of 6-7 has no basis in theory or fact. Elliott was often asked this question, let me whisper his number, 70. It is likely that a single manager will begin to struggle when the number of team members reaches 70.

I know the blood just drained out of your face, so as your brain is restoring its circulation, let me explain. The maximum number of team members a manager can effectively be accountable for depends, not on an arbitrary number like 6 or 7, but, rather on the variability in the work.

Large call centers may easily have 70 people on the floor at any one time, with a single supervisor. How can a single supervisor be accountable for the output of 70 people? Look at what those people do. Most of the time, those call center team members do the same work day after day, there is little variability.

How many people on a Navy Seal Team? I would guess six. Why such a small team? The variability of the work is high. The number of people a single manager can be accountable for depends on the work.

Without a frame of reference, organizations do get bloated. I once worked with a company with 12 layers, but only needed 5. Levels of work creates the frame within which we can determine not only who should be whose manager, but how many managers are at the same level. The objective measurement of timespan takes out the guesswork and bias that inevitably creeps in. About once a year, you should round up your managers for a calibration meeting to make sure the bloat is not settling in.

A Matter of Judgement

“You said the manager-once-removed is in the best position to engage the team member as a mentor,” Brendon asked. “You said the MOR has a realistic assessment of the team member’s performance. I know the MOR has access to the KPIs for the team member, but so do a lot of other people. Why the MOR?”

“KPIs are actually a lousy indicator of performance,” I replied. “The direct manager and the MOR, in their monthly 1-1 coaching discussion should do a 60-second team member review. If there are ten people on the team, that’s 10 minutes.”

“But, how could you review individual KPIs in 60 seconds?” Brendon wanted to know.

“I wouldn’t use KPIs. KPIs are important, to examine throughput of a system, but results, overall, are not in the control of a team member, or an indication of an individual’s performance. I know you subscribe to results-based-performance, but any factors you choose to follow cannot be relied upon in any sustained fashion. At best they will only be a clue, at worst, those factors may mislead.”

“But, we use objective numbers,” Brendon protested. “We manage by measurement.”

“Just because you use a number, does not make it objective. What if you are measuring the wrong thing? You cannot translate a living system into separate discrete factors. You have to account for the whole system, assessment is still a judgement. It is a judgement made by both the direct manager and the MOR.”

“Then how do we make that assessment?” Brendon was curious.

“A series of very simple questions,” I said.

  • Is the team member operating satisfactorily within the level of work?
  • Is the team member operating in the top half or the bottom half of the level?
  • And, in that half, top, middle or bottom?

It is a simple way to state effectiveness. Every manager can answer those questions.

“And if the response is not satisfactory, the diagnosis follows one of these four absolutes –

  • Is it a matter of capability?
  • Is it a matter of skill (that could be improved by training, education or experience?)
  • Is it a matter of interest or passion for the work, does the team member place a high value on the work?
  • Is it a matter of required behavior? Is there a violation of contracted behavior? Is there a habit that does not support a required behavior? Is there a violation of our accepted culture (required behaviors)?

“Make the assessment, then diagnose. At best, KPIs are only a clue. Personal effectiveness is a managerial judgement.”

The Mentoring Conversation

“So, what does the mentoring session sound like?” Brendon wanted to know. “If it is different from the direct manager coaching session, what does the manager-once-removed talk about with the team member?”

“First, this is NOT a coaching session, so the mentoring session does not happen as often, perhaps once every three months,” I replied. “This is a longer timespan discussion, so more reflective than action oriented. They talk about the role, the role’s contribution to company, where that fits. They talk about the decisions the team member makes, the problems the team member solves and their capacity to do so. The purpose of this conversation is to create a clearer picture of the team member’s current contribution and their potential contribution. When the team member has a clearer picture of their potential contribution, their current contribution improves.

“In this conversation, the MOR also asks about the aspirations of the team member. Some team members have no idea of their own aspirations, never thought about it. The MOR is looking for intersection between the team member’s aspirations and the company’s aspirations.

“Most of all, this is not a psychotherapy session. The focus is on the work, challenge in the work, learning opportunities, advancement opportunities, to create a vivid picture of where the team member stands and steps forward.

“People feel fulfilled when they can see their future and opportunities to pursue it, and, they feel frustrated when they do not.”

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.”

In the Open

“But won’t James feel uncomfortable, maybe distressed if he knows I am talking directly with his team members,” Brendon shifted in his chair.

“You and James are part of a team. As the manager-once-removed to James’ team, you expect James to talk to you about each team member and their career progress. James will notice things about his team that you won’t see. By the same token, James and the team have work to get done, so James, by design will focus on shorter term issues, while you focus on longer term issues. And, just as James is the coach for his team in their current roles, you are James’ coach for his current role. No one is talking behind anybody’s back. It’s all out in the open.”

“Shouldn’t HR do this instead?”

“Some companies think that,” I replied. “The problem is that HR is not in the accountability loop. As James is accountable for the output of his team, you, as James’ manager are accountable for James’ output. This chain of accountability puts you in the best position to have individual mentoring discussions with James’ team, and individual coaching discussions with James.”