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The management compass (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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One fringe benefit of public speaking is meeting friends I never knew I had.

So it happened when I gave a luncheon speech recently at LawNet, an association for CIOs and IS managers who work for law firms.

You think you have a tough gig? Imagine having no status and no hope of promotion (only lawyers become partners). Imagine having no real company strategy to use in setting priorities, only 20 bosses, each with a priority du jour. Imagine technology being a key competitive differentiator, specifically asked for in requests for proposals but effectively ignored by your firm’s fragmented executive leadership.

After I’d spent an hour babbling about electric fish, prairie chickens, evolution, and IS management, I talked with dozens of LawNet members, many of whom regaled me with anecdotes about bad managers. Bad managers don’t, of course, outnumber good ones, but they sure stick more in people’s minds and craws.

My e-mail reinforces this conclusion. When I write about bad managers I get megabytes of “me too” letters; writing in defense of managers and executives yields the kind and volume of messages usually reserved for commentaries on operating systems or Bill Gates.

Memories of bad managers last longer than memories of good ones and create expectations that the next manager will be just as bad or worse. That, I guess, is how evolution wired us: Failure to anticipate an adverse situation can keep our genes out of the next generation, whereas failure to anticipate a positive event simply leads to a pleasant surprise.

IS Survival Guide is about managing staff well. It’s also about being effective in your job and about how to have a successful career. Managing staff well means building teams and nurturing employees so they can succeed. Managing effectively means getting the resources and decisions needed to accomplish your goals and get the job done. You measure success through career advancement.

These three dimensions of management aren’t intrinsically linked — aligning them takes deliberate effort on the part of company leadership. Sadly, managers can be successful without managing staff well or being effective, because many, and perhaps most, companies are structured so managers have plenty of power to filter information as it rises in the executive hierarchy.

You manage in four directions: down to your staff; sideways to recipients of the services you provide; sideways again to your peers and rivals in the company; and up to the executives above you. In my experience some managers are good at managing staff and service recipients; others excel at managing peers and organizational superiors. Very few are good at all four.

If you want to manage your staff well, be effective, and have a successful career, you have to master all four directions.

You also have to reconcile the three dimensions of management in your day-to-day job. I don’t care how much of a political rat’s nest you work in — good managers insulate the people who work for them from the politics in the rest of the company. Running interference for your employees is, in fact, a key part of your job.

That doesn’t mean you’re allowed to be so naive that you ignore your political environment. Your staff can’t succeed without the resources it needs to do its job. If you’re ineffective, everyone who works for you will be frustrated and ineffective as well, no matter how good a manager you are.

Your success, of course, depends on your ambition, your ability to “manage up”, and dumb luck.

If you want to succeed, or, for that matter, just be an effective manager, you’ll have to play some stupid political games. That’s OK: There’s one thing worse than playing stupid political games, and that’s losing them.

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