“News,” according to a theory nobody believes, started as an acronym for “North, East, West, South.” Here’s some news for managers trying to decide who should receive the best assignments, promotions, bonuses, and raises: You’re most likely to notice employees who face northeast. You should value the ones who face southwest.
We’re revisiting the management compass — the navigational tool executives, managers and supervisors consult to guide the relationships they depend on for success. The adroit ones pay attention to all four compass points: North, to those they report to; east, to their organizational peers; west to those who make use of what their organization produces; and south, to their staff.
As a general rule, managers fall into two categories. One is the northeastern crew, whose relationships with organizational peers and superiors ensure their personal career success. The other consists of those southwestern souls who, by dint of leading staff effectively and taking care of their service recipients, get the job done. Relatively few managers are adept at dealing with all four directions.
When it comes to your own personal effectiveness, there’s no substitute for skillfully mastering all 360 degrees. Part of doing so is to make sure that among those reporting to you, those who face southwest succeed.
It isn’t as easy as it might seem. No matter how good your intentions, the very nature of focusing attention on getting the job done means not focusing attention on making sure your boss knows you’re doing so. In many situations (IT operations being a prime example) success means invisibility — problems are what get noticed. If you aren’t careful, those who achieve invisibility will become invisible to you. They won’t expend any energy to make sure you understand what they’ve achieved; you — especially if you’re a nor’easter — won’t have any reason to look in their direction.
As a nor’easter you won’t have any reason to look in anyone’s direction unless they develop strategies for making sure you do. Who’s going to do that successfully? The nor’easters who report to you. Not those whose only skill is getting the job done.
It gets worse: Not everyone who does a great job is someone with whom you’re comfortable. It’s very, very easy to fall into the trap of mistaking relaxed interaction with strong performance, and social awkwardness with marginal ability. That’s especially true in IT, where the CIO, and often the next management tier as well, have to demonstrate a strong ability to interact well socially with non-IT business executives (northeastern competence). Those most comfortable interacting with business executives are often uncomfortable interacting with those who are, shall we say, nerdy?
We aren’t done either: Let’s imagine you conquer these challenges and find ways to accurately assess the real performance of all those reporting to you. Are you sure they’re equally able to do so?
This matters a lot, because in every IT organization — even those with exceptionally strong employees throughout — there’s a small cadre whose departure or demoralization would cause immense disruption. Among the IT staff their identities are well known. Whether your managers recognize their importance is another matter.
So here’s what you do. Presumably, you already include in your schedule regular meetings — formal or informal — with IT staff members. Next time around, ask this question: “Other than yourselves, which three people would it hurt the most to lose?” A few names will recur, over and over again — your shortlist of key staff.
Take the list and pull out their most recent performance appraisals. It’s a safe bet some of them didn’t receive strong ratings. It’s almost as safe to bet that most of those with weak ratings report through one or two managers — probably, managers of the northeasterly persuasion.
The situation is now clear. The question is, what are you going to do about it? At a minimum, it calls for some heart-to-heart conversations with the managers most prone to ignoring their strongest performers. It’s very likely you need to do more than this, as these managers are the ones most likely to create the illusion of strong performance instead of performing strongly.
As a leader, you can’t afford to deal in illusions. The only question is whether these managers can be saved. They aren’t all empty suits, tempting as it is to make that assumption. What you can assume is that throughout their careers they’ve been rewarded for facing north, and east.
It’s up to you to make sure the wind blows in the other direction.