Ed: The last day of Deconstructing Managers week. It all started on Day #1.
What happens when they lose their shit?
Pride and panic. The two delicious ends of the management spectrum. Pride is when it’s going swimmingly. Great product release, selling well. Hired that phenomenal guy from the other group who is going to totally write us another fabulous product. More requisitions in the pipeline. Golly, I can’t imagine it going better, can you?
Getting to pride is usually the end result of a lot of work and a little luck. What you can learn from your manager in this phase is how they’ll deal with that swelling head of theirs. Do they take care of those who got them there? Do they have a plan for what’s next? All of these are interesting developments, but they don’t show you half as much as panic and there is no bigger panic than a layoff.
Your manager is not a manager until they’ve participated in a layoff. I mean it. I know he fired that one Fez and he hired a bunch of the team, but those are individual, isolated activities. He hasn’t truly represented the company until he actively participates in the constructive deconstruction of an organization. There is no more pure a panic than a layoff and you want to see who your manager will become because it’s often the first time he sees the organization is bigger than the people.
A layoff is a multi-month affair. By the time it’s been announced on the front page of CNet, it’s been bouncing around the boardroom and your bosses staff meeting for a couple of weeks. This means your boss has been staring at you for the past couple of weeks in 1:1s and ignoring everything you say because he’s trying to figure out how to layoff half of his staff. You are very interested in who he becomes during this time because that is actually the person you’ve been working for these past few years.
Once you’ve got a confirmed layoff, you need to go back to each of the questions on this list and ask them again. How is he talking to you? How is talking with the organization? What is he doing to make-up for the fact that pretty much everything stops in a company when a layoff is leaked? Is he staying politically active? Or is he checking out? All of these observations teach you about your boss and, conveniently, give you insight into whether or not you should be looking for another gig.
Panic backs a person into a corner and their only means of getting out of that corner is relying on skills that have worked for them in the past. This is how a normally friendly manager can turn into a backstabbing asshole when it comes to a layoff. See, they were an asshole before; you just weren’t there to see it. If you are lucky enough to see this behavior as well as make it through the layoff, well, you learned two things. First, this guy I work for degrades to jerk when the sky falls. Second, he values me enough to keep me around. The question remains: are you going to hang around waiting for him to be a jerk to you?
The Big Finish
When the first layoff hit Borland, I was a two years into my QA stint. I do not remember wondering what a layoff was and I don’t remember wondering if I was going to lose my job. What I remember is the Senior VP of Applications, a fellow named Rob Dickerson, who walked around the building, gathered the product team up, and then told us the straight dope about the layoff… in the hallway. This is what the layoff is about, this is who is affected, and this when it’s happening. I’d never interacted with Rob in my life and, come to think of it, I never really interacted with him again. Still, I think fondly of the guy because during a time of stress, he illuminated, he didn’t obfuscate.
A successful organization is built of layers of people that are glued together with managers. Each layer is responsible for a broad task be it engineering or QA or marketing. Between each layer is a manager whose job it is to translate from one layer to the next… in both directions. He knows what his employees want. He knows what his manager wants, and he’s able to successfully navigate when those wants differ.
The way he navigates these waters is by knowing the answer to two questions. Question #1: Where did I come from? Being able to relate to those you manage comes from intimately understanding their job. It allows you to speak their language. Question #2: Where am I going? A plan for your manager’s next big move is his incentive. It puts him in the uncomfortable position of trying to discern the murky political motivations of the major influencers of your company. It might not be a skill set he has, but he’s never going to stop trying because he knows where he wants to go. He’s got a map defined by his motivation.
Why do you care that your boss wants to be VP of Software? You care because his success is your success. If he doesn’t know that, he might be evil.