Just because you have a fancy job title doesn't mean you can manage your team members by bossing them around. Servant leadership is an important skill for managers, as the best managers are those who serve the people who work for them.
Belinda, the VP of engineering, gathered her thoughts. I am not looking forward to this conversation, but I need to have it. Again.
Dan, the director of development, arrived on time for his one-on-one. “Hey, Belinda. Do you think we need all of our time? I have another meeting in ten minutes.”
“Let’s see what happens. I have a number of things on my list.” Belinda stood, picked up her notes and notebook, and met Dan at her visitor’s table. “What’s been going on this week with you and your teams?”
They discussed the problems that Dan’s teams had solved and what was still remaining.
Dan then said, “I have to tell you, I’m really enjoying this new role.”
“Oh? Tell me more.”
“Well, I get to tell people what to do. I really get to boss people around.”
“Do you find that effective?” Belinda asked. “Can you provide me some examples of how that works for you?”
“Sure,” Dan replied. “In the Alpha project, I told that team, you know, the one with Vijay, Susie, and those two other people whose names I can’t remember? Well, I told them to get off their tushes and get down to business. We can’t wait all day for them to “spike” their work. We need results. And what did they do? They finished their work. I sure told them.” Dan preened.
Belinda paused for a minute. “Dan, do you remember anything about developing software?”
“Sure, but my needs are so much more valuable now. You asked me for an estimate. I gave you an estimate, right?”
“Yes, but what you gave me was meaningless,” Belinda said. “You intimidated the team. You threw your weight around and acted like a bully. You can’t even remember the names of people who work for you.
“I don’t want a single-point estimate. That’s not useful. I want something I can work with, but that’s not the point here.
“When you disregard the fact that people are working hard to provide you good data, you are belittling their work. You might not like the way these people work, but that’s not up to you. They have chosen to work that way, and as long as they produce results, they can choose to work that way.
“When you don’t know the names of the people working for you, you act as if you are more valuable than the people in your group.
“You are not acting as a servant leader, which is what I need from my managers. Great managers serve the people who work for them. Yes, they also serve their managers. Middle managers are stuck in the middle. I serve my managers and I serve you, which is why I’m providing you this feedback.
“When you tell people to stop spiking, what do you think will happen?”
Dan looked confused. “They’ll just get on with the work, right?”
“Well, they might. If they do, they have no idea how long something will take. If you then ask for an estimate, it will serve you right if they answer, “Christmas,” and don’t tell you which Christmas. I bet these smart people will ignore you and continue doing whatever they were doing before. You will marginalize yourself.
“The problem is that managers are not more valuable than technical people. You can’t believe your own press. Managers provide different value.
“You can tell people what to do. You can tell them how big the estimate should be. You can tell them any number of things, and that might even work for a short time. However, they will eventually flip the bozo bit on you.
“Managers are valuable when they serve their teams. Managers are valuable when they create an environment in which people can solve problems. Managers are not valuable when they puff out their chests and say, ‘Look at me, I’m the manager.’ When you put your needs first, you are not helping anyone.”
Dan sat there, stunned. “But you gave me all these responsibilities. I have to accomplish them.”
“Yes, you do. You accomplish those responsibilities through your teams. You don’t do them yourself. That’s why you have people who do the work. You ask people how long the work might take, right? You decide on the project portfolio, along with the other directors and me, because we make decisions as a management team. You help your teams problem-solve. You provide meta-feedback and meta-coaching. If people ask you to remove management obstacles, you do so. That’s how you can manage the fifty to sixty people you have in your group—through your managers. How else could you manage that many people?
“You serve the teams. You serve the people. They don’t serve you. Just because you have a title with director in it does not make you “more equal” than anyone else. Your title means your decisions are more strategic for the organization. Other people make strategic product decisions. You might help with those, too, but you are not more equal than them.
“Would you like to talk some more about what management is?”
Middle Managers Have a Difficult Balancing Act
Many middle managers find themselves in a tricky situation. They have a senior manager who says, “Gimme this project,” or “Deliver that report,” or “Do this with half the time/budget/people,” and they are too far from the technical work to understand the details of it. They resort to mandates, demands, or blaming the project teams, because they don’t understand what it takes to deliver a product.
We have all seen the demands roll downhill and the environment that creates. It’s not pretty.
Great Management Is Servant Leadership
It takes much more work, but instead of demands rolling downhill, when managers understand what their managers want (i.e., the problem) and then provide solutions, organizations run better. Things may not be perfect, but they are better.
To do that, managers need to lead problem solving and to be servant leaders. Managers need to create environments in which everyone can contribute.
It’s not about managers being more or less valuable than the rest of the team; all team members contribute in their own way. What is important is how managers contribute. If managers don’t provide servant leadership, they are not providing the leverage for everyone else. They are not creating an environment in which people can do their best work.
Bossing people around doesn’t sound like valuable management to me. Does it sound that way to you?
Read more of Johanna's management myth columns here:
- The Myth of 100% Utilization
- Only the 'Expert' Can Perform This Work
- We Must Treat Everyone the Same Way
- I Don't Need One-on-ones
- We Must Have an Objective Ranking System
- I Can Save Everyone
- I Am Too Valuable to Take a Vacation
- I Can Still Do Significant Technical Work
- We Have No Time for Training
- I Can Measure the Work by the Time People Spend at Work
- The Team Needs a Cheerleader!
- I Must Promote the Best Technical Person to Be a Manager
- I Must Never Admit My Mistakes
- I Must Always Have a Solution to the Problem
- I Know How Long the Work Should Take
- I Must Solve the Team’s Problem for Them
- I Can Move People Like Chess Pieces
- Management Doesn’t Look Difficult From the Outside, So It Must Be Easy
- I Can Compare Teams (and It’s Valuable to Do So)
- It’s Always Cheaper to Hire People Where the Wages Are Less Expensive
- If You’re Not Typing, You’re Not Working
- You Can Manage Any Number of People as a Manager
- People Don’t Need External Credit
- Performance Reviews Are Usefult
- It's Fine to Micromanage
- We Can Take Hiring Shortcuts
- I Can Standardize How Other People Work
- I Can Concentrate on the Run
- I Am More Valuable than Other People
- I Don’t Have to Make the Difficult Choices
- I Can Treat People as Interchangeable Resources
- We Need a Quick Fix or a Silver Bullet
- You're Empowered Because I Say You Are
- Friendly Competition Is Constructive
- You Have an Indispensable Employee