Somewhere in your third year of being a manager, the Management Pixies will appear in your office in a puff of sweet smelling black smoke. There will be three of them and one will be carrying a gorgeous black top hat.
“Are you LeRoy McManager?”
The Pixies laugh. “Congratulations, you have passed successful through three years of management and we’re here to reward you, but first, one question: Have you seen Spiderman?”
“The first one or the sequel?”
“The first one.”
The Pixies laugh again. “What do you think the primary theme is in Spiderman, LeRoy McManager?”
“Um, hmmmm… life’s a bitch?”
Strangely, the Pixies don’t laugh. “No, try again. It’s important.”
“Ok, well. Hmmmm… Peter’s Uncle said something they kept yammering about… OH I KNOW… With great power comes great responsibility.”
The Pixies cheer and the one carrying the top hat flutters over to you and drops it in your lap. It’s soft and strangely warm. The hat-bearing Pixie looks up at you and grins, “You wear this hat when you want people to know who you are.”
“And who am I?” You look down at the hat and notice massive white block letters on the front, they read:
I’M THE BOSS.
A slow grin stretches across your face and you realize the hat has the vague smell of your Mom’s fresh baked bread. That smell has always given you a strange sense of confidence and you know that whenever you wear that hat, you’ll been infused with that sense of confidence.
All three Pixies leap into the air giggling, “Good luck LeRoy McManager, use your hat well!” More laughing. Another puff of black smoke and they’re gone.
You lift the hat slowly in front of your face, staring at the white block letters, soaking in the sense of power the hat gives you, and you put it on.
You stride out of your office never once wondering why the Pixies were giggling so much because, well, you’re the boss. The first person sees you walk by in your cloud of confidence and, once you walk around the corner, you don’t hear them snicker because, again, you’re the boss.
They’re laughing because while they know you’re the boss, they can see the other side of the hat and it reads.
… FOR NOW.
Managers can lose it.
I mean it. There are managers out there who are absolutely punch drunk with power and if you’re working for one of these folks, I’m really sorry. You’re a resident of Crazy Town and that means you never know what random crap is going to happen next and that sucks.
Manager’s don’t start crazy. It’s an acquired trait and this article explores what I consider the single best tact you can take to avoid a trip to Crazy Town. Let’s tackle it first with a story from an employee’s perspective.
You’re merrily typing way at your keyboard, hard at work at the next great feature when your boss walks in and says, “Hey, can you work on a Gizzy Flibbet?”
“Uh, isn’t the Flubjam the key feature? I’ve barely even started it. It’s going to take awhile”
“Oh yes yes, we’re still doing Flubjam, but I need you to prototype the Gizzy Flibbet and I need it in two days for a meeting with the Execs.”
“Oooooooook, you’re the boss.”
“That’s right, I am the boss.”
Two days pass and you pour your soul into the prototype feature. Like all investigations, you discover each step of discovery takes three times as long as expected. The final prototype coveys the idea, but the process to create that result has left you drained and pretty sure finishing the remaining work is going to take a really long time.
When your boss walks into your office, you summarize, “Here it is. It looks good, it’ll take awhile and I’m now very behind on my Flubjam work. Can I please get back to it?”
Squinting her eyes, she runs her fingertips along the front rim of her top hat. She nods and stares, “Ok, THIS IS GREAT. Let’s do this AND Flubjam AND let’s hit the same schedule! Go us!” She turns and leaves the room leaving your office with the faint smell of bread.
I’ll recap. Your boss has just picked the one scenario that involves the most work and has the least chance of succeeding. You’re screwed and while you might think your boss has lost it, you are a co-conspirator in this disaster because you didn’t do one simple thing, you didn’t Say No.
Manager don’t lose it simply because the Pixies showed up with the top hat, they lose it because those they work with forget to look at the back of of the hat. Remember:
- Front: I’M THE BOSS
- Back: … FOR NOW
Management is myth… just like the top hat. We, as employees, believe it’s there, so we treat these management types different. Yes, they sign the checks and they write the reviews, but, in a perfect world, those events are a function of your performance and not theirs, so it’s your job to not screw that up. I realize that’s a big fat stretch, but stick with me.
What is the real source of a manager’s perceived power? It’s the idea that they can make decisions. When the the team is stuck on a problem, they gather up in the manager’s office, present their case, and the manager nods and says, “Go that way!” More often than not, everyone is so happy to be past the logjam, they don’t even question whether it’s the right decision or not. “He’s got the top hat, so he must be right!”
No no no no. Also. No.
Managers lose it when they are no longer questioned in their decisions. When the team stops questioning authority, the manager slowly starts to believe that their decisions are always good and while it feels great to be right all the time, it’s statistically impossible. The most experienced managers in the world make horribly bad decisions all the time, the good ones have learned how to recover from their decisions with dignity, but, more importantly, help from the team.
Let’s take a look at Saying No from the manager’s perspective without any Pixies.
Back at the start-up, we were considering the move to a hosted model for our web application. I, in my third year of management, was in charge of presenting the pros and cons of such a move to the Executive Staff. We were in the middle of three huge deployments, so I decided to not put the necessary work into the presentation. I wrote it the night before and didn’t vet it with anyone. The end result asked more questions than it answered. It was a mess.
The Executive Staff went pretty easy on me. It was clear from their questions that they weren’t happy with my half-baked ideas and I left the room thinking I’d blown it.
The first person I saw after the meeting was Doug, one of my managers. Doug, “Rands, way to go! You hit it out of the park, man! When do we get started?” In my state of depression, Doug’s enthusiasm for my crappy presentation was intoxicating. Maybe I was being too hard on myself? Maybe it was a good presentation and I’m just being too sensitive? Yeah, that’s the ticket.
The second person I found was Randy, my other manager. His comment, “Ouch. That stung. What’s our recovery plan?”
Sure, I wanted to punch Randy, but he was spot on. I’d blown it and any other conclusion was a load of crap. The irony in all of this is that Doug believed he was doing the right thing by supporting me, but he was only eroding his credibility with me by not telling it straight. Think of it like this, if I’d swallowed the Doug Happy Pill, I would’ve done nothing to recover from my failed presentation and I would have looked like an idiot to the Execs.
What I did do was swallow the Bitter Randy Pill and completely redo the presentation along with the help of my managers. We presented a week later and actually did hit it out of the park. That’s with the truth gets you… progress.
No Versus The Truth
Randy didn’t Say No, he told me the truth, but I’m leaving this article entitled “Saying No” because I think it’s harder to contradict your boss than to tell the truth. Saying No forces an idea to defend itself with facts. Sure, no one really wants to hear their idea is crap. It’s hard to Say No and it’s even harder to Hear No, but who do you want to work with? People who are going to help you refine your direction or ones who will merrily follow your downward spin to Crazy Town?
As with every job, your success as a manager is the end result of innumerable decisions. While the front of your top hat reminds everyone that you’re the one making the decisions, the back of the hat reminds everyone else that, more importantly, you’re the one responsible for those decisions.