Any of us that have been in the workforce for longer than a month or so has witnessed first hand on-the-job management in action. Please note my careful word choice of using "management" and not "leadership". Anyone can be a manager -- that comes with the job title. Not everyone can be a leader. In a departure from the usual leadership-focused blog posts...this one is aimed at helping us define the relationship between an individual manager and his or her manager, their manager's manager, and so on up the chain...all the way up to thinking about a corporate culture as a whole. Furthermore, I am going to present an easy-to-use tool to determine where you stand, in terms of your ability to be successful, as well as identifying how your manager and your company might truly feel about your capabilities.
This blog post is going to be part of a larger effort that will include follow-up posts designed to help organizations affect change and empower their subordinate leaders. For any company interested in the companion presentation, you can learn more about it on my speaking page.
Let's just get this out of the way: any similarities between the behaviors mentioned in this post to any managers in my chains of command over the past 30+ years, either dead or living, are purely coincidental.
Why Should You Listen to Me?
I have personally been in charge of over 50 teams, ranging in size from 3 to over 150, in military and civilian organizations, in both peacetime and forward-deployed situations...and I have consulted on enterprise-level technology transformations for companies ranging from "mom and pop" shops to household names. I have developed an innate ability to recognize both good and bad examples of management, leadership and corporate culture almost instantly. I have worked for managers of just about every kind. I fondly remember those that I would have followed to the ends of the earth, and wince when I remember those that could not pour pee out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel.
Moreover, I am a lifelong learner with a desire to amass as much knowledge as possible, particularly in areas where I have both interest and aptitude, such as building and leading high-performing teams. It's what I have done and will continue to do. I still apply lessons, both good and bad, that I learned at my very first job (McDonald's), and every subsequent job, to increase the performance of every organization I come in contact with, whether they are paying me or not.
I have never failed. I have either succeeded or I have learned.
One last point here - if you are looking for the typical "leadership" blog post, replete with positivity and group-hug goodness, you might want to strap in. I have not, do not, and will not sugarcoat anything, on this blog or anywhere else. Luckily, I have a large depth and breadth of expertise, backed up with hard earned lessons that can only come from practicing leadership in the real world, and am seldom wrong in these matters. That is not always the case with other areas of my personal and professional life. If I suggest something to you about how to make your organization better, ignore it at the peril of yourself and your entire organization. Just sayin'.
So, You Think You are a Leader
Let's dive right in and clearly state the problem here - there is an extreme dearth of actual leadership in the world right now...in the corporate world in particular, especially the closer you get to the front line. One of the main underlying reasons, which no one seems to focus on nearly enough, is that there is a pervasive culture of a lack of trust in subordinate leadership.
Older leaders like me (I am 49) are straight up refusing to trust younger leaders that work for them. I personally believe it is the natural and expected progression of each generation in this country (I live in the U.S. - would love to hear from international readers about what is happening elsewhere) having less and less respect for the generation behind them. I think there might be an axe to grind here as well, but let's get back on topic.
So, the first step to fixing the lack of trust in subordinate leaders is to identify and clarify those relationships. In this post, I will seek to provide some examples of things I have seen, both good and bad, as well as a key tool I came up with that you can use to examine your relationship with your direct supervisor or subordinate, as well as any other manager-subordinate relationship.
I strongly urge you to use this tool to examine not only your current and future work relationships, but also take some time to use this lens to reminisce on your past relationships. You will hopefully find that it is a refreshing, and surprisingly accurate, way to look at things, classify your past managers and shed some light on how the managerial personalities and corporate cultures that fostered those relationships act as a predictive tool for the decisions (good AND bad) that were made right beside you, all the way up to the corner office on the top floor.
There are essentially two simple areas of focus that we can use to examine any manager and determine whether or not they are set up for success or failure. Well...let's rephrase that a bit, as personal success and organizational success are often inextricably linked...and you can absolutely be on the wrong side of both of these key areas and still have success, however you define it (growth of revenue and/or headcount, meeting deadlines, even staying out of jail). But even "success" can be improved upon, especially if there are failures in the empowerment of subordinate leaders. That situation can be best described as a ticking time bomb.
The two areas of focus are responsibility and authority.
Let's quickly define each, as relates the context of both organizational management and this blog post, before presenting the simple tool we can use to determine where our managers, relationships and organizations reside.
I usually like to go with webster.com for things like this, but I really like the definitions from dictionary.com for both of these.
the state or fact of being responsible, answerable or accountable for something within one's power, control or management
Let's just cut to the chase here, shall we? We are talking about a corporate setting. Having responsibility means that you will be blamed if something goes wrong. Also, you will get the credit if things go well. Simple.
the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command or determine
I really like that last part - the right to control, command or determine. Once again...let's not get it twisted. In our presumptive business setting, authority means that you have the freedom to make decisions for yourself and your team without having to ask for permission or get second-guessed all the time. Perhaps even more importantly, you are given the autonomy to see things through. Authority in this case means DELEGATED authority.
Intro to the Tool
In order to come up with a simple framework for determining if your role at your company is a leadership role, I immediately gravitated to the paradigm of the Gartner Group's "Magic Quadrant", with our two foci on the X and Y axes. In fact, this device is so simple that I will not even insult anyone's intelligence by providing a link that explains that as you move from the lower left corner...moving to the right means there is more responsibility and moving up means more authority.
I will point out one key difference between this and what Gartner provides. If you look at one of their magic quadrants, there are actors all over the map, and there are levels to each quadrant. What you are about to see is a simple intersection of two boolean values. You either have responsibility or you do not. Same with authority. Also, if you have responsibility or authority 99.9% of the time, but your boss acted like you didn't that one time...you do not have it now and you never did. Sorry. That's how it works. That doesn't mean you can never have it in the future, though. We will address techniques for moving forward later in the series.
Let's take a look at the "Not So Magic Quadrant" to determine what your boss and/or your company thinks of your leadership potential, or at least whether or not you are set up to succeed or fail. Once again, let's remember that this can be driven by an individual's personality and/or past experiences, or even driven strictly by corporate culture. What that means is that you should not take your quadrant as a personal affront.
I'd also like to highlight why I wanted to call this "Not So Magic." There is no special sauce here. Responsibility and authority are not the only elements to this...but I have not yet witnessed a single exception to the way I am about to describe each of the four quadrants. It is an unfailingly accurate measuring stick. And the beauty is - all you really have to do is pay attention. In the immortal words of the last great American philosopher, Yogi Berra:
You can observe a lot by just watching.
Anyway - here it is:
Quadrant 1 - The Figurehead
If you do not have responsibility or authority, then you are a figurehead and nothing more. You are not really in charge of your team or group, cannot make decisions and will get none of the credit for any of the team's hard work. On the plus side, you most likely will not get blamed for things either...because, whatever title is on your business card, you are not in a leadership position. In fact, what your company is empowering you to do might not even qualify you as a manager.
I have found this situation to be extremely rare...almost all folks that actually have a title that implies some level of management will find themselves in one of the other quadrants.
Quadrant 2 - The Scapegoat
A man may fail many times, but he is not a failure until he begins to blame someone else. - John Burroughs
There is a reason why I chose a term (scapegoat) to describe the blame side of having responsibility, not the credit side. This is because, in over 95% of the cases where I have seen subordinate leaders with responsibility and not authority, the ability to push BLAME down on the subordinate leader is a readily apparent reason for the lack of delegated authority in the first place. The weak leader wants to control your decisions and how your team functions, but still be able to blame you when things go wrong.
This quadrant is, sadly, the OVERWHELMINGLY most common of the four...at least, in my experience. To delegate responsibility but not authority has been a tool of the worst, and weakest, managers for hundreds of years. It is especially sinister because a personality and/or corporate culture that will allow this kind of behavior will also almost always enable the supervisor to control the messaging up the chain. Therefore, it is exceedingly easy to push blame down to a subordinate manager in this quadrant when things go wrong and pull credit up to themselves if things somehow go right.
This situation presents a special dilemma for those of us that a) know that this is about the worst thing you can do to a subordinate with managerial responsibilities and b) have a problem keeping quiet when they see something wrong. Luckily, most of the times I have seen this, I have had the good fortune of being paid as a consultant and expected to not only notice it but also recommend a fix.
Quadrant 3 - The Chump
It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong. - Thomas Sewell
When you have authority but not responsibility, you are basically doing all the work but not getting any of the credit. Similar to what we mentioned earlier, there is always a chance that your supervisory manager can give you the credit when the time arises, but if either his/her management style and/or the corporate culture has put you in this quadrant, what are the realistic chances that you will not just continue to be a chump? Slim and none, to say the least.
The most prominent use of this quadrant as a tool for the weak manager to manipulate the even weaker subordinate is the "show us you can do the job before we give you the job" phenomenon. I have seen this at several companies over the years. I have seen it in corporate situations, but it's extremely prevalent at consulting companies.
An example would be identifying a high-level, experienced consultant for potential practice management in the future...so you give them the "opportunity" to perform practice management tasks as an additional duty on nights and weekends, while still having a "max billable time" requirement. Show us you can do it this year, and we will make it official next year.
This is a pretty old trick, and usually results in guys getting elevated to those higher levels that have already demonstrated a willingness to go the extra mile for the company. On the surface, it looks like a win-win. The problem is - the employee is taking all of the risk. I have always found that part fascinating...that a consulting company that would never accept a 100% risk engagement with a client would expect their employees, their most important resource, to accept a 100% risk engagement.
Not only is this hypocritical, it is also abuse, plain and simple...and guess what - if you as the employee show that you are willing to put up with that kind of abuse once, what do you think that will get you? Answer: more abuse.
Something else very disturbing about this pro-company, anti-employee approach is that I have seen it used at some extremely large companies...and it reeks of cheapness and a lack of willingness to invest. Telling someone they are not worthy of investment until they demonstrate that they are willing to not only alleviate your risk but also take extra abuse for only the potential of future reward is easily in the top 5 examples of organizational leadership failure I have ever seen.
Quadrant 4 - The Leader
You have delegated authority, complete with the ability to make decisions that are best for your team and the mission, and see them through. You have full responsibility for the performance of your team. You will get credit when things go well, and you will appropriately get blamed when things do not.
Although this is self-explanatory, I can't resist hitting a teaching point here. Unlike the less-than-optimal examples we have discussed earlier, the appropriate conduct of a leader at any level is to ALWAYS share the credit and keep the blame. Not the opposite. To either share blame or hoard credit even once is a failure of the highest order. Let me qualify that, since it is such a blanket statement. I am talking about PUBLICLY sharing blame and credit here. If someone on your team actually committed a screw-up that led to the failure, you owe it to that person and the entire team to take it as a teaching point, being as blunt as you need to be (or as they can stand)...but that should be done within the team itself.
If you work for me, and I catch you publicly blaming a subordinate, this will put you on a performance improvement plan on the very first occurrence and heading to HR for outprocessing on the second offense. No exceptions. Before you label me a tyrant, I will mention that this expectation is clearly communicated in my first meeting with any and all subordinate leaders.
Here is my best practice: hold any subordinate leader to the same standards you hold yourself. In fact, and this is the tricky part - you should hold ALL leaders, even those above you in the organization chart, to the same standard that you hold yourself. Culture and personality (anyone else hear Corey Glover right now?) can make this extra challenging.
Oh, what the hell. Here you go. You were already humming it in your head anyway. You are welcome. Neon green t-shirt and compression shorts with blinged-out tuxedo jacket? But of course.
More challenging still is that holding others to the same standard you hold yourself is no guarantee. If you accept a culture of abuse, and propagate it down the chain, expecting those below you to exhibit the same weakness that you yourself possess...well, that is technically in keeping with the rule of holding others to the same standard you hold yourself. No real point to this paragraph other than highlighting that you need to be ever vigilant against weak managers.
I wish I could say that this quadrant was commonplace. It is not.
Quadrant 5 - Anarchy
This "quadrant" is the domain of the bully and sociopath - unfortunately both extremely common personality traits of the most powerful men. Subordinate leaders of these managers have no idea what quadrant they are operating in on a day-to-day (or even hour-to-hour) basis. I have seen lots of people in positions of power act this way. Their ability to vacillate between giving and taking away both responsibility and authority, based strictly on their own whims, makes them the weakest of the weak. Like any bully, they tend to show extreme fissures at the first show of strength.
While it is extremely easy to "fix" this situation by just quitting, if you fancy yourself to be any kind of leader, this behavior demonstrates not only weakness but irresponsibility. You owe it to those in your charge to fight for them.
NOTE: I understand that, by definition, the concept of a fifth quadrant is asinine. Meh. This stuff needs to be said...especially when you consider that we are seeing this behavior exhibited by the leader of the free world on Twitter on an almost daily basis.
What Can You Do?
So, you just took a long look at your situation, figured out what quadrant you are in currently, and somehow kept yourself from tendering your resignation and/or slitting your wrists. What next? Are you doomed?
If you do not have the luxury of being a consultant and acting like the Two Bobs from Office Space, take heart. As I learned from Harold and Kumar, the universe tends to unfold as it should. Rest secure in the fact that the folks that perpetrate these poor excuses for leadership on their subordinate leaders will eventually get what is coming to them.
As a consultant, I have often had the opportunity to be the agent of the aforementioned karmic retribution. Those have always been some of my most rewarding engagements, and ones that I always look back on fondly. Making things better for the client moving forward is the goal, after all; ending the cycle of abuse is a nice cherry on top. I also choose to believe, in my consulting bubble, that the weak leader will also better serve his/her future organizations by making some changes to their style. I realize that those habits die hard and they are more likely to be a weak, angry person that blames me for calling them on their malarkey. Sorry, no room for those thoughts in the bubble.
I have not yet had the privilege of detonating a substandard corporate culture. The closest I ever got was to look the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company in the eye and tell him that his lack of trust was being echoed almost all the way down the chain of command and was clearly holding his organization back. Furthermore, I could just about guarantee that it would put the entire business at risk once he retired. He thanked me for my input and told me that he just had too much skin in the game to trust anything but the most trivial decisions to anyone besides himself.
But even in that case, there were small pockets of leadership excellence sprinkled throughout the organization. That should be a key take-away from reading this article. You will also notice it as a common theme in all of my writings on leadership and corporate culture.
Patterns of excellence can, and do, radiate outward from any level within an organization.
Make things better within your sphere of influence, no matter what is happening outside of it. If you are dealing with a substandard corporate culture and/or a substandard boss, break the cycle of abuse and take one for the team...take one for YOUR team. They didn't do anything wrong, and they deserve the best you can provide.
Pull your team's blame up to yourself...your boss is putting it there anyway. As long as you are already doing your job as a leader and taking fire for your team...how about using every opportunity to push credit down to them as well?
Another salient point is that these problems, just like 99% of the problems in the entire world, can be fully mitigated, or at least minimized, by better communication. You should force yourself to clearly communicate standards to your subordinate leaders at every turn. Most people, even those too arrogant or lazy to practice it, understand that. What most people do not understand, and even fewer put into practice, is that you also have the right to communicate your expectations of leadership up the chain as well. Once again, strive to hold ALL leaders to the same standards to which you hold yourself.
Whenever the culture of abuse exists, the temptation to keep it going is very strong. It is the path of least resistance, and will absolutely cause the fewest problems between you and your boss. If you possess the weakness of character required, go ahead and propagate the madness. Most likely, no one will ever stop you.
But I want you to be better. I want you to take a stand. Fight the urge to comply with weakness. Choose the harder right over the easier wrong.
If not you, who?
NOTE: Please stay tuned for future posts in the series, where we will highlight some techniques for helping yourself and your subordinate leaders get to Quadrant 4.