Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Management style: directing vs. controlling

Today I am in the mood to talk on a high matter - management.

I was managing a team of software testers for about 10 years and learned management from both ends: as a manager and as a subordinate. My manager side has learned that we are not as perfect as we may seem to be, so there is always things to learn from our more successful colleagues. My subordinate part observed a lot of mismanagement errors on the side of my bosses. Both kinds of experience allow me becoming a better manager myself.

Analyzing my own mistakes helps me avoiding them in the future. Watching mistakes of higher managers is a little bit thougher experience as it requires to get detached from theunpleasant emotions they cause and to observe the picture as if from the outside.

Management is not a science. This is rather an art. There are styles. Which style to follow depends on the situation on the managed project as well as on personal qualities of a manager. Methods that work best for one manager may be totally unacceptable for another. For example, strong egocentric leaders tend to adopt commanding style, while technical managers mostly use supporting style of management. The worst of mistakes is jumping from one style to another or having no style at all. It will look as if you act inconsistently and your people will have no idea what to expect of you, so they will be cautious andself- protective.

Part 1: Lessons of a manager

Below are some lessons I learned while being a manager.

Lesson 1: Be in touch with your team

In order to lead a team of people you have to feel them. You need to keep in touch with each team mate, to stay aware of what happens to the motivation level and what problems may prevent your people from feeling all right.

Managerial attention flatters people. They start feeling important and recognized. So, do not hesitate to stop by and ask not only about the status of ongoing tasks, but also about how they feel, what they did on weekend. Let them know that you care. I hope you do. Otherwise, you are on a wrong career path.

Lesson 2: Be informed and proactive

There is no excuse for a manager who does not know what happens on his project. Collect information regularly, summarize, analyze it and make correction to faulty actions timely. It will help fixing issues until it's too late.

Be proative and predict different kinds of situations, risks and contingencies. Have a plan for the cases when things go not as you wanted them to.

Lesson 3: Don't kill the initiative

Your primary goal is to provide the best outcome your team can produce. Some managers tend to achieve it by doing 200% themselves. Some managers control every action of subordinates strictly. Both ways are killers to personal initiative and responsibility. The people that are working for you are smart enough to take on decisions on their own (If they aren't then think if you have right people on the team).

It's ok that they make mistakes until they learn from it. Micromanagement is the cycle that never ends. People start thinking that their own thoughts are not needed and will wait for your command to take on every simple actions. Allow some freedom in decision making. After several (probably painful) mistakes you will get the team that can solve complex problems on their own.

Lesson 4: Don't push too hard

Pushing too hard is even worse than not pushing at all. Remember Newton third law and think twice before applying extra-pushing on people. All you may achieve is getting proportional resistance. Instead, try talking them into being your ally. Share the goal with them, make the goal their own.

Lesson 5: Trust but verify

Sometimes people lie. Have the means to check what you are told is actually the truth. In a while you learn who can lie and who is out of suspicion. After being caught on lie the former soon transform to the latter.

Lesson 6: Never commit to what you cannot deliver

This is the hardest part of management to me. I am a very optimistic person and I believe that there is no limits to possibilities for a team of professional. Probably, if the entire team was of such people, who simply forget about the other entire world when they see an interesting challenging goal it can do.

The reality is a bit different. Every team has capacity, throughput that cannot be exceeded. Committing to the task that is out of possibilities of your team is damaging to your image and career. I know that sometimes you are pushed to commit to the goal you don't believe in. Well you always have a choice...

Lesson 7: Foster a good friendly climate in your team

Healthy atmosphere boosts productivity. There is unnecessary friction. Peers willingly help each other to be successful. Communication is open and honest. Problems are made visible early, so you have time to react. Everyone is interested in self-development. There is a healthy level of competition within the team.

Part 2: Lessons of a subordinate

Now let's talk about what I learned to be the worst mistakes of my managers.

Harsh lesson 1: Inconsistent management

If you change your mind to often without justifiable reason people stop believing what you are saying. When they do, you cannot effectivelly manage them anymore.

I was told many different things by my managers, which I learned to be a lie. I was so frustrated that I stopped listening to what they say and started finding self-motivation in what I do. Not evryone can do this. Other people may simply allow their motivation to sink below the productive level.

Harsh lesson 2: Emotional management

Emotions indicate that you have lost control of yourself. Losing control is not the best thing because you hardly know what you are doing in such conditions. You may easily abuse someone and switch them into resistant attitude. In any case it will only make your management task harder.

I had a manager whose behavior was very dependent on the mood. He could shout loud at a person in the presence of others. This was simply devastating to the team attitude. Mostly it happened on Monday what made me believe that he had troubles at home. Anyway, your personal troubles shall be left off the doors of an office.

Another one liked to make harsh faces and to talk seriously". This was ridiculous. He looked like an idiot. Always remember that people sitting against you are smart enough to "read you".

Harsh lesson 3: Whishfull thinking

Wise men say "In order to learn how to speak you have to learn how to listen". Do not simply discard what you see for the reaction on the goals you set. Even if you want that deadline more than anything in the world, do not let this feeling to react on how you treat people who are going to work on it. Probably, you simply do not get the complete difficulty related to the task. Do not push because sonner or later people may agree with you being personally not sure that it's possible.

If you cannot suggest the way around the problems you have been reported do not simply put the responsibility and blame on your subordinates. Do not let them feel guilty because they cannot invent something completely new to achieve the goals you set before them. Instead, try to motivate them, give them your support, and recognize their achievements. They simply cannot provide more than they can! If you think they do then you are that kind of managers they mention in the anecdotes.

Harsh lesson 4: I am boss - you are fool

Do not pretend you are smarter than people who work for you just because you’re a boss. Most probably they are even technically more experiences than you because they do that kind of things every day. So, do not let only your voice speak. A good manager makes people saying.

I had a manager who _loved_ to speak. He was so enthusiastic about it that could never imagine how boring it was. It was a complete waste of time for those who listened.

Harsh lesson 5: This is them!

If something goes wrong have a nerve to take the responsibility. Report that you under-managed the process so it failed and take the blame. The worst kind of managers are those who start looking for the reason of failure in subordinates and finger-point to their own people, whom they hired and for whose performance they were responsible. This is so shortsighted. Believe me; this is obvious to your managers that you are trying to get out of responsibility. And they will not tolerate a manager who cannot bear responsibility. Think about that.

Harsh lesson 6: Having no idea what it's going on, yet make on decision

This is another though experience of mine. One day a big boss came to me and asked why we did not achieve our goals in test automation. I told him the difficulties we face on the way and how we decided to deal about them as well as presented my projections on which goals I can admit as reasonable. He was not happy and asked me if a problem was in a lead person. I was simply stunned because that guy worked as hell. He was the heart and the nerve of the project. I was so amased that I could hardly find the right words. Then I simply said my strict "no".

I was amased by how detached my boss was from what's actually going on on the project. However, he feels so sure of himself that tried to take on such a critical decision having lack of information. I would not call it smart.

Harsh lesson 7: The truth is out there...

One of the top managers I knew one day came to me and said exactly this "Vladimir, you are a good guy, however I do not see so much energy in what you do any more, so we decided to let you go." In that very moment I figured out why I did not trust that person before, why I hesitated speaking frankly to him. He did not tell me the truth that time. I figured it out later and it was not easy. The story was completely different from how he explained it to me. Why did he so? Because he did not care! He simply went the easiest way. He had no nerve, no courage to say the thing as they are.

Be honest. Say the truth. No matter what it takes of you to say it. Even if it reveals your own managerial mistakes, have the courage to admit them and to learn from them. Even if you are a big-big boss you still have things to learn. If you don't think so, you will never climb higher than you are now.

"A single lie destroys a whole reputation for integrity." - Baltasar Gracian

This is enough for today. I have to get back to work. I will write more on management later, when I have time and inspiration :)

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