Saturday, August 02, 2014

Authority


We live in a world of noise.   I don’t just mean the machinery and traffic we endure every day, but the incessant demand for our attention from pretty much everyone.  Our family needs our attention, our work demands it, advertisers try every trick to grab it, and even when we want to relax, once again from commercials to features, someone’s right there grabbing at our attention.

OK, fine.  To a degree we learn how to cope with a noisy world.  But there is also a point beyond which someone ceases to offer value, and becomes just an annoyance.   One of these is what I call the fake expert.  I like to read ‘The Pulse” on LinkedIn, and the site loads up that section with articles from what they call ‘Influencers’ - celebrities, business leaders, and some folks with no obvious reason to be highlighted. Full disclosure – I have never been invited to post as an ‘Influencer’, and my lack of political correctness means I should never expect such an honor, which may play a small part in my opinion of LI’s ‘Influencers’, but my real complaint is the trend of articles on subjects where the author can claim no expertise.    

A sad example would from Frank Wu, the Chancellor & Dean of AC Hastings College of the Law, who wrote a little ditty he called “Your Boss Is No Better Than You” 


My first problem starts with the subject. When I read the article, Mister Wu was plainly addressing the business environment, and the matter of competency among different ranks.  The problem is Mister Wu’s credentials to speak as an expert.  His profile is pure academia:  Law Clerk after college, associate of a law firm, then teaching at law school, then writing, law work, and teaching law up to today.  What’s missing?  Unless you are na├»ve enough to imagine that a law firm can reasonably be compared to a corporation, start-up, retail or other genuine business that actually sells to the public, Mister Wu has less experience in business roles than a middle school student.   I have no complaint if Mister Wu wants to discuss some case in the news, or discuss liability for a business.  Unfortunately, however, Mister Wu posted his article on his opinion of business roles and ranks, on absolutely nothing more than what he has read in magazines and online.  To make matters worse, Mister Wu never even mentions the authors or studies he found so compelling.

Why should that be rebuked?  Three reasons, I think.  First, Mister Wu’s article took the place of a different article, and if a real manager or executive or long-time employee had written their account, the article would have been far more authentic.  Second, there are so many articles cluttering the web about business that it makes no sense to post where you have no applicable knowledge.  I do not, after all, post articles in law reviews about my opinion of the latest SCOTUS ruling, so there is no reason why some law professor bored with his profession should troll into a place where his opinion has no more weight than that of his readers.  If he wants to blog it on his own blog, fine, but a business site should seek out business people, not lawyers, on the subject of work roles.

And third – time wasted on Wu’s opinion devalues the site.  I am just a little less interested in LinkedIn’s “Pulse” articles, having learned that authors may troll in print for no better purpose than the editors at LinkedIn forgot their own core competency.

There is more, of course. Some of Mister Wu’s claims are not merely not completely true, but also can be dangerously false.   For example, in his first paragraph, Mister Wu wrote the following: 
any good supervisor should realize her direct reports are by and large more capable in their jobs than she herself could be if she replaced them.

So what’s wrong with that statement?  The problem is that a supervisor exists to direct and guide his or her employees, not to do their work.  A coach of a football team is not the coach because he throws the ball better than the Quarterback or tackles better than their starting Linebacker, but because he is the best coach.   Mister Wu’s inability to understand this distinction undercuts everything he says in the article.   

A good manager has to have specific skills, and that's where Mister Wu makes his second mistake - he assumes that degrees are irrelevant, and that is usually just not true. Someone can get a degree and never learn the skills they need, sure, but that's not usually case; the majority of people who earn management degrees do so to gain depth and learn how to be effective in leading their team. Mister Wu is correct to the point that managers must respect the work of their people, but he is completely wrong to insult and disrespect the talent and experience of managers and bosses. He does not begin to understand what a good manager does, or why it matters to the team.

Mister Wu doubles down on that ignorance, saying “An executive who is in charge of a project is not necessarily capable of fulfilling the specialized responsibilities of the people whom she oversees” .   There are several reasons why this is so wrong.  First, as I noted, a manager is not made a manager to do the same work as his employees.  A manager has his job to accomplish three missions:

  • A manager is given specific projects and assignments by the executives/directors.  He is paid to make sure these assignments are completed and well done; 
  • A manager exists to protect the company’s stability, financial health and prospects for growth, and
  • A manager exists to take care of his team, to direct them, provide resources and discipline or reward according to the worth of their work.
These are all important, and to the point, very distinct from the job description for regular staff.  Never forget that managers are paid more because they are responsible for results in a way that regular employees never have to worry about. 

Mister Wu is not done insulting professionals in roles he does not understand, saying “people who are quick studies suppose that a cursory review of a subject enables them to substitute their spontaneous judgment for reasoned recommendations made by others”.   Note that Mister Wu assumes that people with advanced degrees and professional certifications only make ‘a cursory review of a subject’.  He does not stop to consider that his logic suggests his own credentials would disqualify him to teach his own classes.   After all, by his argument Mister Wu does not really know the law better than his clerks, assistants, or students – an advanced degree equals a ‘cursory review’.   Mister Wu clearly does not examine his own claims in anything like an objective manner.

Mister Wu has a law degree, and a lot of experience in academia. He does not have a single day of work in any real business enterprise.  Mister Wu has never worked retail, manufacturing, or in any environment where he can speak with experience about how corporations evaluate and promote talent.  He has never had to work with a business plan, had to evaluate a staff for bonuses and promotions, never evaluated an employee to determine if they need additional training or resources.  Mister Wu, in other words, has absolutely no credentials to speak on any business operations topic.

None.

The damage done by Mister Wu may not be apparent, but his arrogance and contempt for the value of managers and bosses undermines the effectiveness of companies and teams.  Managers can be good or bad, more the former than the latter, and assuming that because someone is the boss that they are actually less competent than their staff is both undeserved and malicious in character.

Every business that runs with a focus on customer service depends on good managers.  Every business that builds on a solid business plan depends on good managers.  Every business that plans to be around a decade from now will depend on good managers.  In my three decades as a manager, I have worked for rotten bosses and great bosses and learned from all of them.  I learned how to evaluate performance, how to determine necessary training for employees, how to choose candidates for promotion, how to protect good employees from layoffs and from being passed over for promotion, how to discipline employees and to create genuine improvement processes.  I am far from the only boss to learn all these things, but a good boss must be respected in order to be able to do his job, and that means employees cannot trash bosses with false claims and insults, just because they do not understand their boss’ duties and responsibilities.  Business structures change over time, and all kinds of ideas get tossed around to create innovation and growth.  The boss, however, is a necessary role in any business and it is vital to understand the role, not attack the boss out of ignorance. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Obstacle or Resource? Think About Your Situation



Back when I was a young man, I found myself unable to get a job.  A friend of mine was the City Manager for Plitt Theaters in Waco, so I asked him for a favor and got hired as a doorman at the cinema.  Over time, I was promoted to Assistant Manager at a 2-screen cinema, then Assistant Manager at the City office (under a new City Manager), then Manager of a 2-screen cinema, then Manager of a 6-screen cinema, then opening manager of a new flagship cinema near the Galleria in Houston.   Along the way, I learned from my superiors and colleagues, and over time I saw their fallibility as well as their skills.  When I worked in Houston, which was the Gulf Coast Regional Office for Cineplex-Odeon (which bought out Plitt Theaters in 1986), I happened to work under a particularly cruel and vicious Vice-President of Operations, a man who seemed to take great pleasure in causing stress and trouble for managers in town.  Nothing we did was ever good enough, and if we made even a minor mistake (or if one of our staff made a mistake), we were punished severely for the offense.  For example, in 1990 I won an award as the Outstanding Manager in the Gulf Coast region.  At the ceremony, this VP took me aside and bluntly told me I did not deserve the award – he simply had to give it to someone and I had “screwed up the least”.  I beat profit and attendance expectations four years straight at the Spectrum Cinema, but received no praise for it.  I trained employees well enough that the same VP who regularly yelled at me for minor and sometimes imaginary mistakes found my staff competent enough to make managers of three other theaters.  I could have topped that, except that this VP was so boorish and vile that he fired or chased off at least a dozen great managers who had worked for me – one the VP drove off because he was gay, another was bullied because she wore a pantsuit on a weekend instead of a dress, still another was told he would be fired unless he wore a silk tie with his suit.  Charming fellow, that executive.

And yet, years later in a different industry, I was able to apply lessons learned from this executive to help me in my own career.  I did not, of course, copy his behavior but looked for his opposite.  Where this executive would steal credit for work done by others, I made sure my bosses heard when one of my people had a great idea or did something great.  The funny thing is, that didn’t hurt me a bit.  Where the VP would yell and scream at managers in front of staff and customers, I made sure praise was always out in the open, while criticism – if needed – was delivered in private and always with the idea of finding solutions to problems, not attacking the person.  I worked hard to respect my colleagues and to see their point of view, and in so doing established myself as a team player and a good fit in any project.  From my return to school, where I used these skills in team-building, to working with customers and colleagues, I found constructive lessons even from painful experiences.

You never know how you may make use of something, even if it seems bad at first.  If someone drops a ton of bricks on you, maybe you can build a house.


Good luck.