Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Monday, November 20, 2006

Common Management Problems - the isolation of being boss

I thought that it might be of interest if I shared with you from time to time some of the problems I have experienced as a manager.

Australia has what the Australian historian John Hirst has called a democracy of manners. Differences of wealth, authority and power do exist in the country and have widened in recent years. But our language and attitude are egalitarian, democratic and somewhat cynical. This flows through into the nature of relationships within organisations.

I grew up in this world. It influenced my attitudes and approaches when I first became a manager in the Commonwealth Public Service. Among other things, it meant that I identified with and was close to my staff, an approach that got very good management results. Then suddenly I was promoted again and met a problem that took me a while to even recognise.

The Australian Public Service was then broken into four divisions:

  • the first division made up of the heads of Departments and senior statutory office holders - a small group - was at the top.
  • then came the second division, a smallish (several hundred) group of senior managers across the Service from branch head to deputy secretary level.
  • followed by the third division, the main administrative/clerical division
  • and then the fourth division, all the support staff.

To put all this in terms that may be more familiar, the first division was equivalent to managing partners, the second division to partners in general, the third division covers all professional staff, the fourth division paras and support staff.

At the time of the promotion I referred to I was a Chief Finance Officer (Director) in the Commonwealth Treasury in charge of a section with nine staff. I had acted as branch head for extended periods, but I was still seen in terms of my third division role. In addition, Treasury was a relatively open non-hierarchical Department in part because of the number of well educated, ambitious and highly intelligent junior staff.

I was then promoted to the Department of Industry and Commerce as its senior economist in charge of the Economic Analysis Branch. I was now a senior officer in a much more hierarchical department with three sections and seventeen staff. I had also also inherited a branch under pressure with serious internal problems that needed to be fixed.

I had made special transition arrangements and had been receiving copies of the pinks, all branch correspondence, for a month before I formally took over. I had also met all the staff at lunch and had spoken on a regular basis to the acting branch head. So I had a fair understanding of the nature of the work and indeed was already carrying out some of the duties at the time I moved across.

Then I hit a wall on arrival. I knew that there were problems, but I wanted to make my own mind up about them. And indeed I am very glad I did because the problems were not quite as they had been presented to me. But initially I found it impossible to get the information I needed to make judgments. There seemed to be some form of barrier.

I had not changed. I was still applying the management approaches that had worked so well in Treasury. So was was the difficulty? It may sound dumb, but it took a little while to work out that I was now being treated as a senior boss, that I had moved from being one of us to one of them. As a consequence, people were now filtering what they told me.

I know that this problem is not unique. I also know that most managers are aware of it, although my experience has also been that a surprising number do not recognise its full extent. I have seen too many CEOs in particular who think that they know what is going on, that they do get good information, when the opposite is clearly the case.

The first thing that I had to accept in my new role was that the problem was real and was not going to go away. It made perfect sense for my staff to treat me with a degree of caution because I was simply too important to them to do otherwise. Importantly, I was now wearing a wider range of hats so had direct responsibility for enforcing policy in a way that had not applied in the past.

I also had to accept that it was going to take time to build trust. Trust did not mean, to use an old Australian phase, being one of the boys, boys in this case including both sexes. Rather, it meant treating people consistently and fairly, protecting confidences, recognising achievement and providing top cover. We used the term top cover to recognise my continuing role in protecting my people, in ensuring that they had the operational freedom they needed to do their job.

I will write on the top cover issue in more detail later because I believe that this is an absolutely critical condition for the creation of high performing teams.

Given that the communications problem was real and that it was going to take time to build trust, I still had an immediate need to find out what was wrong in the branch, what to do about it. Here I did two things:

  1. I focused on understanding work flows. What was being done, who was doing it, how was it being done, at what standard? I must emphasis that this did not mean micro-management, itself a major problem in professional services. I saw my role in setting quality standards and then letting people get on with it. As I gained understanding I was able to identify a few immediate problems that I could act on that would help people, thus building trust.
  2. I also got out of my office a fair bit, just talking to people, while also encouraging a range of branch activities. Some of this was informal and social, just stopping by people's desks to ask them something, follow up something. I also tried to find ways of working with as many people as possible, trying to help them on particular tasks.

In combination, this started to give me a feel for the the real scope of branch activities, of the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, of the real problem areas. I was also able to triangulate, to look at a person or an issue using several different information sources.

People's perceptions are always imperfect.

Two of my people were perceived by the Department as non-performers. I formed a different view.

One in a fast response, high pressure area was being so badly crippled by tension induced migraine headaches as to render him a non-performer. Yet when I talked to him I found his deep knowledge of the Australian economy and of economic statistics invaluable. He also had a female staff member who I felt was being under-rated, who had considerable potential.

In this case, and with his full agreement, we restructured section operations so that the female staff member and I worked on the fast response stuff, mainly daily economic briefings to the minister, while he focused on longer term issues. His migraines eased, the standard of our economic advice improved, while the female staff member seized the opportunity, in so doing moving onto a faster promotion path.

The second case involved a deputy section head who was perceived as non-performing in large part because he could not work the required hours. When I looked at this case I found that he had a non-performing section head who spent a lot of time on a private business interests and that he was in fact trying to carry the section. I also found that he was a single father with four children, creating enormous problems for him in trying to balance work and family. There was simply no way he could be on call in the way the Department was trying to demand.

In this case I facilitated the exit of the section head. I say facilitated because the section head and I agreed that he should go on immediate leave without without pay to do other things. A little later he resigned.

In doing so I found that the Department was well aware of the performance problem. I spoke to the section head in the morning and then prepared the necessary request. The required Departmental and Public Service Board approvals came through in just two hours, with the section head on leave that afternoon. When I commented on this, I was told that it had been just too difficult to handle previously!

I now restructured the section, making the deputy section head acting section head. With his cooperation I also restructured the work to give him greater time flexibility to meet family needs with other staff providing back-up when he was not there. He was later confirmed in the section head position.

None of this would have been possible if I had not spent the time required to overcome the communication barrier created by my role as boss.


Small Business USA said...

Jim Looks like you pulled off one of the most difficult challenges for a CEO, knowing what is really going on.

I have used many different strategies, depending on the business, from working in the customer care center on the night shift to asking managers to asking lower level management to write business plans for a new product or service based on their current positions.

It can be frustrating but most CEO do not even know they are not in touch with the real problems their companies face. A good friend, when launching the first cell phones for Motorola, found that his returns were going up on a regular basis, he put his assistant in charge of daily reports and the likes and went to work on the assembly line. Needless to say he found out where the problems were and soon had the situation under control.

Jim Belshaw said...

Very interesting, David.

There is also a size factor here in that the number of possible interactions between people rises exponentially with the number of people as do the organisational barriers to communication. So more possible communications, more barriers to communication.

One of the arguments apart from cost put for flatter structures is that they reduce barriers to communication because there are fewer communication points. In practice, the opposite can be the case.

In all cases, the challenge is to find out what is actually happening.