Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Ray Lesson

The Ray Lesson

Some years ago, when I was working in the drugstore, I happened across an example of a “managing up” situation so extreme as to constitute a parody of the way these situations are supposed to work. Yet I feel the solution I worked out (and the lesson I learned in doing so) are worth repeating, if only as a humorous way of making my point…

When I first reported to my new store, all of the people already on the staff made a point of telling me to look out for the store’s Operations Manager, who I’ll call Ray. The Operations Manager is the second-in-command of a drugstore; he or she handles functions like inventory control, forward planning, ordering and so on, reporting to the General Manager and in turn supervising the Assistant Manager (or Floor Manager). Quite often the Operations Manager will function like the Executive Officer of a military unit or the COO of a company, and in many cases this individual will be being groomed for a General Manager’s position and a store of his/her own.

Ray was another matter. The story went that some years earlier, the company had accused Ray of embezzlement, but botched the investigation and were unable to prove he had done anything wrong. Ray had then sued the company and won, resulting in a large judgment against his employer and a work situation in which the company was unable to discipline him for any infraction short of a (provable!) major felony for fear of additional legal action. All of my new co-workers went out of their way to tell me how Ray never did any work, made the previous Assistant Managers do all of his work for him, and so on.

I have always made a point of making my own decisions about people; I also try to be aware of the fact that not everything the veteran employees tell the “new guy” is going to be completely true. Consequently, I reserved judgment about Ray until I got to know him for myself. My first impression of Ray was that he seemed like a nice enough person, but somehow unfulfilled, or at least frustrated. More than you would expect from a guy who knows he will never be promoted again unless he leaves the company, that is.

In talking with Ray, it rapidly came up in conversation that his greatest ambition was to attend law school and become an attorney, but he was unable to generate a sufficiently high score on the LSAT exam to get into any law program. Even those schools requiring only basic literacy and a check for the tuition were unwilling to take a chance on him. Ray was obviously quite intelligent, but the ability to get a high score on standardized tests actually has little to do with how intelligent you are; it’s more a function of how good you are at taking standardized tests.

As it happened, I had used The Princeton Review preparation guide when I took the GMAT (for business school), and I thought their method might work for Ray. Unlike a lot of the other test preparation services, Princeton Review does not just provide practice questions and drills on how to do them; instead, they teach you how the test questions are put together, and how to take them apart. Or, as they call it, how to “crack the system.”

I won’t specify Ray’s cultural background, except to say that I had grown up around a lot of his people, and I knew that as a rule they took a positive glee in cracking any system they encountered. By this, I mean no criticism of Ray or his people; it’s just one of their traditional values, no better or worse than anyone else’s. But I was pretty sure that Ray would take to the Princeton Review method like the proverbial duck to water, and suggested that he try it.

The results were, to say the least, dramatic. Ray bought the LSAT review book, read through it carefully, and then saw his score on the practice test rise by something like 60% in a week. He went out and signed up for the Princeton Review course as well, and watched his score continue to rise. When he took the LSAT the next time it was available, his score went from off the scale on the low end to absolutely stellar. He applied to all of the Law programs in the Los Angeles area, and was eventually accepted everywhere except UCLA.

Even more dramatic, however, was the effect all of this had on my working conditions. From the first day I told Ray about the Princeton Review, he became convinced that I was the greatest guy in the world, or at least, the greatest one in our company’s uniform. Not only did he never ask me to do any of his work, he started ordering other people to do MY work, so we could go sit in the office and talk about admissions strategies. For the rest of my time in that unit, managing my nominal boss (managing up) was as easy as asking for what I wanted.

The lesson I took away from all of this, the Ray Lesson, as I call it, is that everybody wants something, including your immediate boss. If you can find a way to get it for him…

Monday, May 28, 2007

Managing Up

Managing Up

What do they mean by “managing up?” I hear some of you asking. By now I imagine that the reader has sorted out the concepts of management and leadership, and has grasped the idea that it isn’t enough to figure out the best use of your people and then issue orders; one must also convince the employees to do what you want them to do. But what about those people who are not required to take your orders, even in the most nominal sense? How is it possible to manage those above you in the hierarchy?

First of all, let’s go back to those definitions. Management is the science of getting necessary work done using other people. The key word here is “necessary.” It would always be nice to convince your boss to make someone else do your work, and give you more time to read Dear Abby (or whatever you read during the day), but it isn’t really necessary – until the work you are being assigned is beyond the resources you have available. For example, if you have a project that will require 400 person-hours to complete, and a crew of four (plus yourself), you will need two 40-hour weeks to complete it. If the project is due sooner than that, you will have to get additional person-hours from somewhere, either by drawing additional workers from some other part of the organization or by authorizing the necessary amount of overtime.

Unfortunately, either of these options will probably require you to get permission from your boss. If your department (or workgroup, or division, etc.) has no additional personnel to draw on, you may need to get your boss to arrange for support from another unit, and if your department has no overtime budget, you may need to get your boss to obtain funding (or authorization) from higher management. In either case, your boss should have the ability to draw the resources from elsewhere in the organization. Making use of your superiors’ resources and/or abilities in order to accomplish necessary tasks is the classic definition of managing up.

A much more difficult problem occurs when, having determined what we need the next level of management to do, we try to get them to do it. How does one “lead” someone at a higher level of the organization – someone who, in fact, is supposed to be leading you? Assuming that you have not been blessed with either an unusually competent superior (who will support you out of trust, loyalty, and your long history of being right all the time) or an extraordinary gift for leadership (which will convince your boss that you HAVE a long history of being right all the time, even when you don’t), you are going to be left with the unenviable task of convincing someone of a higher rank that they are best served by doing what you want them to do.

Keep that in mind as you frame your approach. Your failure, or that of your unit, will not serve your superior’s best interests, while your stunning success will. Ordering mandatory overtime will lower morale and damage your unit’s long-term success, while bringing in extra people to help out or offering generous overtime pay will raise morale and contribute to your long-term success – and when you succeed, the manager responsible for you succeeds as well.

Of course, the ideal solution would be to develop a strategy where by providing you the resources you need, your superior is able to achieve his or her own goals, and thus both of you benefit. If you can arrange all of your attempts to manage up in such a fashion, you may even be able to get your boss to do what you want him or her to do even when you don’t have a resource problem to solve…

But that’s a story for another day.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Leadership in Practice: The Saint-Exupéry Gambit

Leadership in Practice: The Saint-Exupéry Gambit

In my last post, I mentioned the distinction between management (the science getting work done using other people) and leadership (the art of getting other people to do what you want them to do), and that most people find one of these disciplines easier to understand than the other. Some of you are probably scientists, or at least craftspeople, carefully examining the skill sets of your employees to determine how to achieve the most efficient employment of those skills, but uncertain how to get the people involved to do what you want. Some of you are probably natural leaders, able to get the entire work group to follow you no matter what, but unsure of what orders to give in order to get the tasks at hand accomplished efficiently.

Up until business school, I had always fallen into the first group. I found the science of management as easy as the art of leadership was hard, and I worried about what might happen to me in a leadership role, if I ever had one again. It happened that not long after learning this distinction, I found myself in a role where leadership was going to be key. I had taken a job with a national retail chain, and was assigned to be the Assistant Manager (or Floor Manager, because this is the individual assigned to run the sales floor) of a large drug store in Los Angeles. Up to that point, the largest number of people I’d had reporting to me was 14, and the largest group I’d ever had to deal with at one time was about 3. Now I had a crew of 60 to look after, and most of them had been on the job a lot longer than I had…

Well, actually, all of them had been on the job longer than me; I’d been hired 12 weeks earlier and rushed through an abbreviated “management training program.” To make matters worse, the specific crew assigned to me had been in place an unusually long time for that company; the average length of service for my new staff was about 18 years. Or about 78 times longer than mine, if you like. I had to figure out what work assignments to make, and how to get my people to do what I wanted, and I had to get started at once if I wanted to keep the job…

I spent most of my first week on the job meeting everybody and reviewing their training records to figure out what they knew how to do, but as to the rest of it, I was stumped. How did I give credible orders to people with 78 times my experience? Preferably without looking like a complete twerp? It was at that point that I remembered a gambit from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French aviator, explorer and author. In his best-known work, The Little Prince, Saint-Exupéry has the title character encounter a number of adults who represent different human behaviors. One of these is a king, who claims to have absolute rule over the entire universe. Everything and everybody obeys the king at all times because, as it turns out, he invariably orders everyone and everything to do exactly what they were going to do anyway…

Armed with this knowledge, I began the next day by going to each member of the crew and asking them what they had planned to do today, and writing it down on the day’s assignments sheet. If the employee was going to do what I wanted them to do, I’d just approve the assignment and move on; if not, I’d ask them if they had time to take on the assignment I wanted them to do. If somebody was planning to do less than 8 hours work during their 8 hour shift, I would grin at them and say, “Give me something else to work with, or the Boss is just going to kick this back and make me give you something else to do.” Which was the truth; if the store’s General Manager didn’t like my assignments, he would add things on to each employee’s task list. And he’d usually add on a lot more than my crew or I thought was reasonable for eight hours work.

Word got around quickly that I was working with my people, distributing the work as evenly as possible, and trying to keep the General Manager from assigning them extra work as a punishment. More importantly, everyone realized that I wasn’t trying to tell them how to do their jobs; I was learning from them how the store worked and making sure everybody got a fair workload. Within a few days, all I had to do was walk around the store in the morning and write everything down, and the work took care of itself – or more accurately, my veteran crew got it done for me.

After three months or so, the General Manager came up to me one afternoon, and gestured to the assignments list for the day (now almost completed). “You know, most of the Assistant Managers I’ve had assigned here barely wrote anything down on the task list,” he remarked. “A third of a page at best, and it never seemed to get done anyway. You’re filling out two or three full pages every day, and everything is getting done, too! How the heck are you doing that?”

I thought about telling him that a Little Prince (or a legendary French aviator) had given me a hint, but decided against it…

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What is Management?

What is Management?

All right, settle down; it’s not that funny a question. Actually, if you’ve spent any time in American Commerce in the last twenty years, you may have gotten the impression that management is, in fact, something you might find at the southern end of a northbound bull. Quite often “Management” as practiced in the United States (and other nations that have been contaminated by our views of business) is a collection of essentially random acts resulting from the Peter Principle at work. As formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in his 1968 book of the same name, "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."

If you have seen your nominal boss blame you for not reading his/her mind, fire the only members of the department who produce any work, refuse to take the action necessary to save the company from bankruptcy because it might interfere with his/her golf game, fail to understand why a national bank holiday might interfere with your deposits being credited that same day, issue directions that violate the Laws of Physics, or any number of other unfortunately common acts of idiocy, you may be excused for thinking all managers are, in fact, idiots who haven’t been fired yet.

But if that’s what management often degenerates into being, we should ask what it actually is. Allow me to quote what Dr. Edmund Gray, of Loyola Marymount University, told me and my classmates on my first day of business school. “Management is the science of getting necessary work done using other people,” Dr. Gray said. Then he paused, and smiled rather dryly at us. “If that idea bothers you, you’re in the wrong room!” he added.

The good doctor then went on to list a huge number of careers that you could pursue if you wanted to do all of the work yourself – the last one on his list being “Teacher.” “But if you want to be a manager,” he concluded, “you’ve got to accept the idea of using people the way a carpenter uses a hammer.”

This confused me, at first, because getting work done using other people is not quite as easy as all that – you can issue all the orders you want, but that doesn’t mean anyone is going to listen to them. It was much later in the program that I learned the other half of the equation: the definition of Leadership. To quote Dr. Gray again, “Leadership is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do.”

If you’ve made the logical connection that all leaders are therefore also managers, but not all managers are leaders, feel extremely good about yourself. It took me an MBA and five years of supervisory experience to draw the same conclusion.

Learning the science of management comes easy to some people; matching off the skill sets of the employees under your direction (your “human resources” in the literal sense) with the tasks you need to accomplish on the basis of efficiency and ability. Other people find it easy to convince people to do as asked, but have trouble selecting the right person for the right task, or avoiding assignments based on friendship or emotion. My point here is that you need to master both functions if you want to avoid becoming the punch line of Dilbert cartoon…

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Why am I doing this?

Why am I doing this?

The legendary sports columnist Allan Malamud (1941 – 1996) called his long-running column “Notes on a Scorecard” for the writing style he employed in it – short, often single sentence comments followed by three periods. These generally appeared to be simple observations of sporting events, public figures or ongoing trends, and were usually far more subtle and insightful than they appeared to be on a cursory reading. For 22 years they were required reading for all Los Angeles sports fans. I started reading Mr. Malamud’s column as a boy in grammar school, and continued every day until his untimely death in 1996, and it’s only fair to say that I learned more about writing (and sports, too) from him than I did from most of the people employed by my various schools to actually teach me these things.

I don’t expect my comments in this blog to be as interesting, or nearly as well written, but it is in honor of Mr. Malamud that I have chosen to call it “Notes on a Business Page.” Well, that and the fact that I’m planning on using it to share my thoughts and observations on a variety of business-related topics with whoever has logged in today. As to why I’m bothering about a blog in the first place, and in particular, one that covers issues already appearing in millions of other blogs, well, that’s a little more complicated…

I never intended to go into business in the first place. My undergraduate degree is in English (from UC Santa Barbara), and I had intended to come back to Los Angeles after college and write the Great American Novel. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your point of view), while the business of writing fascinated me, the business of starving to death while doing so didn’t…

So I got a job as a resume writer, since at the time people still did that for a living, and wrote other people’s stories for a living. It was steady work, and I got to be good enough that they promoted me five times in two years…

Then “Merger Fever” hit Corporate America, and I lost 8 different jobs due to mergers and acquisitions over the next ten years. In the process of trying to find a niche for myself as the resume industry was relegated to the compost heap of history, I got my MBA (from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles) and started learning more about how business in general and management in particular actually work. The result was an accidental tour of American commerce in general, as mergers of century-old companies, the disappearance of whole industries in the new economy, and a woeful lack of regard for career development or personal safety sent me careening through the Service, Retail, Energy, Entertainment, Wholesale, Consulting, Non-Profit and Education sectors…

I’m not exactly sure when I lost control of this career path, but along the way I’ve seen a lot of really strange things, and picked up a few insights that might worth having. I’ve passed some of them along to my students at the Small Business Development Center at Santa Monica College, and used some to assist clients as a management consultant in private practice, but there are still a few things I’d like to get out to a wider audience as I continue down this very odd life experience I appear to be having. Anybody want to come along? This could be fun…