Spotting weak managers

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Principle #3 of the KJR Manifesto (aka Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology) states that bad metrics are worse than no metrics: If you have no metrics you’re ignorant and know it. Bad metrics, in contrast, give either the wrong answer to the right question or answer the wrong question.

Which brings us to the question of how to spot weak managers.

For the past couple of weeks we’ve discussed the advantages of replacing average, adequate employees with exceptional new hires. It’s an unsettling proposition because by definition adequate employees have done nothing wrong. It’s attractive because exceptional employees are at least ten times as effective as average ones while costing no more than twice as much.

Including managers. Measuring management, though, is an intriguing challenge, since according to the job description, managers accomplish their goals through the actions of others.

The customary measures used to assess managers are largely worthless. They are:

  • Coming in under budget.
  • Achieving assigned objectives.
  • Getting along with peers.

Coming in under budget is only meaningful to the extent the budget is meaningful. In most companies it’s proportionate to the manager’s political and negotiating skills, so coming in under budget is a less than remarkable achievement.

The same criticism applies to “achieving assigned objectives.” Objectives are, for the most part, negotiated.

As for getting along with peers … failing to do so might indicate a lack of leadership ability. It also might be the result of less than consummate skill when facing an adroit backstabber.

The right question isn’t how to measure management anyway. It’s what we mean by “exceptional management.” That’s easy: Exceptional management means getting the most out of an organization. Everything else is technique.

If you’re to remove underperforming managers and hire exceptional ones to replace them, you need to accurately assess the ones you have. It’s a challenge, because of the “management compass.”

Every manager deals with relationships in four directions: North, toward those higher in the organizational hierarchy; east, toward peers; west, toward whoever makes use of the organization’s products and services; and south, toward those who report to the manager.

Most managers either face northeast and manage their careers well, or southwest, delivering excellent results.

As a business leader you’re vulnerable to the management compass, because those who face northeast become very good at looking very good. If you rely on your own interactions with the managers in your organization and on what your direct reports tell you about the ones who report to them, you’re likely to mistake the ability to “manage up” with the ability to get the job done.

The usual solution is “360 degree feedback.” It’s superficially attractive. It’s also dangerous, because it penalizes managers who make difficult but necessary decisions that fail to please those who report to them. And, it encourages adoption of the “internal customer” model, whose failings have been chronicled in this space for the past dozen years (starting with “Who defines value,” 7/29/1996).

The best answer to “How do you recognize your strongest managers?” is just-too-late advice: Institute a comprehensive program of organizational listening, defined as making sure you know what’s going on out there. Organizational listening includes but isn’t limited to the chain of command. It might include 360 degree feedback if your employees are mature enough to handle it. It also encompasses employee surveys, informal staff roundtables, walking around and chatting, business satisfaction surveys, business employee roundtables, a substantive open-door policy, and carefully crafted performance metrics.

If you haven’t yet instituted a strong system of organizational listening, get started now. You’ll find out who your strong managers are pretty quickly.

Some of the others will turn out to be Just Plain Bad Employees. Make sure they’re included in the next round of layoffs.

But others will be victims of a classic IT mistake — turning a good engineer into a bad manager. This will often turn out to be a fixable mistake, an opportunity to recover the engineer you lost.

Through effective organizational listening you’ll also learn about the natural leaders you already have who are ready for a shot at management. Your best employees and managers also might know others who are ready for you to recruit them.

Here’s what’s tough: In a crisis, listening typically stops, the victim of impatience and concern. It’s too bad, because in a crisis there’s rarely a more valuable use of your time.

Go figure.

Comments (6)

  • The issue has always been a upper level manager may like a certain low level manager and makes sure that the person who rates them understands that he is to be treated with kid gloves. In other words the reviewer cannot give the person a real review if he does his ass is history. The manager can only hope to promote the guy out of his department or put up with the person until the “sponsor” is not involved anymore and that is unlikely to ever happen.

  • Nice idea but this cartoon illustrates one reason there’s liable to be some resistance. It’s about finance companies but the principle’s the same.


    By the way, it’s worth keeping an eye on this satirical and cynical daily strip about the finance world, it’s provided some of the most perceptive commentary on the current economic turmoil that I’ve seen.

  • Also, while i’m here, it’d be handy to include a link to the comments section on the KJR email so as to save me a few keystrokes and from having to use my own intiative to get here!

  • is there a reason I got three of these emails?

  • I have to laugh at the timeliness of this article. My company is in the process of the 360 reviews. Although they feel it’s valuable, I see where it can seriously give the wrong message. for example, I received on comment that had no validity, but nothing was said by the company other then “someone said it”. That’s a serious flaw, comments without verifing.

    Then again, whether or not a company wants excellent managers is all part of the politics and their “real” desire. Do we just talk it or do we act on it.

  • These columns have been a real pick me up since I was introduced to them by a colleague a few months ago. Finally, a voice that makes sense to me. I am an IT application support manager for a major utility. We use a water-fall SDLC that is set in concrete (once a milestone passes it takes an act of congress to revisit anything in that phase. Please keep up the good work. There are a number of us out here that need this voice of reassurance. Thanks.

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