Stop. Grab a pencil and write down the first and last names of your past three managers. Stare at those names for a bit and re-live those months or years of reporting to this person. I want your off-the-cuff opinion about each one.
My guess is your opinion falls into one the three buckets:
I love this guy. Best manager ever. I still talk to him on a monthly basis because this guy taught me everything I know about what I do. He is my mentor.
Mostly harmless. This guy doesn’t really challenge me, but then again, he’s not really slowing me down. I’m not learning much, but I don’t have to put up with much bullshit. Also, I’m not sure what he actually does, but he leaves me alone… so… whatever.
Worst. Manager. Ever. This guy makes my life a living hell. I dread our weekly 1:1. I prepare for an hour and we still end up talking about random useless crap. It’s like we’re speaking a different language. I don’t know what he wants and, even if I did, I wouldn’t want to give it to him because I’m so annoyed. I mostly want to give him a poke in the nose.
I want to talk about Worst Manager Ever because, chances are, you’re right… you are speaking a different language and he’s just as frustrated as you.
As an individual contributor or a manager, you interact with two populations — those you work with and those you work for. The conversations with these two populations are distinct. With co-workers, you speak the Truth. You speak it because each of you are slogging out in your respective trenches, so what good is there to say anything but the Truth?
With managers, you speak the Way. The Way are the things we shall do to achieve organizational enlightenment. “Verily, I shall scribe a specification and it will be a good thing” or “Yea, it came to pass, I say unto you, I am working weekends.” The Way is however you’re communicating up to your manager. It’s different content and it’s a different tone and if you believe you have the Worst Manager Ever then you’re not doing it right.
In order to understand how to speak to your manager, you’ve gotta figure out how they acquire information and, chances are, they either gather it Organically or Mechanically.
Your first job is to figure out whether you’re working with an Organic or a Mechanic. To do that, think of any problem as a very complex itch. Now, this is no normal itch, it’s a complex itch and scratching said itch is going to take some work. Here’s the inner dialog for a Mechanic and then an Organic regarding how they’re going to begin their scratching
Mechanic: “An itch. Well. This itch seems familiar. In fact, I scratched this type of itch in January 2001. Let me first dig up my notes regarding that itching. Excellent. We’re going to need a matrix. The vertical column will be action items I can think of that will assess different scratching scenarios and the vertical axis will measure our progress against these different scenarios. Ok, we’re going to need a meeting to form a committee… ”
Organic: “Wow, an itch. Hmmmm… well, this sucks. Hey Frank, we’ve got a itch… whaddya think? Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. You know, this itch seems familiar… I think I’m going to deeply consider this itch while I drive home, but, first, where’s Mary? She knows all about itches and I bet she’ll have some ideas… I wonder what happens when I type itch in Google… HEY… there’s an idea…”
Mechanics move forward methodically. They carefully gather information in a structured manner and store that information in a manner that makes it easiest to find again. They quietly observe, they stay on message, they are comfortably predictable, and they annoy the hell out of Organics.
Organics are all over the place. They tend to be loud and they can tell a joke. They ask seemingly meaningless questions. They lean forward when they talk to you. When confronted with a horrible situation, you’re going to think they’re insane because they appear to be still smiling.
A large part of the managerial conflict can be summed up in the following scenario:
An Organic and a Mechanic are staring at each other across the desk and are thinking the following:
Mechanic: “This guy is walking chaos”.
Organic: “This guy is totally uptight.”
They are both right because they both violate each other’s sense of propriety. Knowing this solves half the problem. The other half is figuring out how the hell to communicate and that’s the hard part.
Prior gig, four years ago. I was hired in by the CEO as a Director while they continued to search for a VP of Engineering. As an aside, let me stress how bad of a career move it is to NOT know who you are going to be working for when you arrive. The thirty minute interview you have with your future manager is a critical piece of information when you decide whether or not to make a move. Here’s why.
The VP of Engineering showed up a few months later and he seemed like a bright guy. Good technical background… a bit quiet for my taste, but I’m loud so we’ll balance out, right? Our first 1:1 showed up, so I grabbed my big black notebook and plopped down in his office and WHAM HOLY MICROMANAGEMENT.
“What’s going on with this? How is Person X? What about Person Y? Have we done XYZ task? No, why? Why again? No really, why?” Question question question data data my lord does this guy think I’m sitting around surfing the web? Ok, deep breath Rands, it’s his first week and he’s gathering information so I’m going to cut him slack. He’ll chill out once he realizes I’ve got things under control.
One month later and the barrage of questions is non-stop. This guy peppers me with random questions and I consistently leave his office feeling like I’ve been doing nothing WITH MY 72 HOUR WORK WEEK. It’s a cop-out to label this guy a micro-manager. Great, he’s a micro-manager. So what? I’m still going to walk out of his office on a weekly basis thinking I’m useless. He’s clearly Mechanical, but so what?
Remember, Mechanical managers gather information in structured way. They do this because they aren’t great at relating at people, so they let the left brain take over as a means of content acquisition. This means that if you have a Mechanic for a manager, you need to push the information in a structured, well known, and consistent manner.
For my prior manager, I wrote a status template. It started with products and listed current relevant bits for each of the products on my team. Following that, I listed personnel issues team by team. Contractor status, requisition status, vacations.
Each week, I’d fill this template out 24 hours before my 1:1. This was my first pass which loaded my brain with this week’s content. I’d remember things we’d talked about the week before and make sure that I’d have the most recent data on those hot issues. An hour before the the 1:1, I’d review again and fine tune. When the 1:1 arrived, I pulled out my print-out and started. I stayed on message and I never deviated from the template. Every week. The same structure chocked full of dates, data, milestones… anything concrete and real.
Consistency. Structure. He loved it. I literally jumped up and down after the 1:1 where he didn’t ask a single question because I predicted every single possible question he might ask.
My VP was a Mechanic and he wanted to feel the structure that encompassed dealing with every problem. Guess what, I’m a Organic. My 1:1s start with a “Hey, how the hell are you?” and then they wander. You’re going to walk out of my office thinking we just shot the breeze for a bit, but as we chit-chatted, I was carefully gathering content. What was your reaction to question X? What questions did you ask me? Yes, I appear to be collecting trivial crap with my random questions, but I tend to gather more information than Mechanics because who the hell knows what I’m going to ask.
That’s one situation. There are more and I guarantee yours is unique. My advice:
If you work for an Organic…
You’ve got to trust that they’ve got a plan even though it may not be immediately apparent. Don’t confuse an extremely open mind with cluelessness. Organics often have a more complete picture about what is going down because they are better networked.
If you’re a Mechanic, you’re going to feel a bit lost with your Organic manager because you’re OK with lightweight forms of micromanagement. It gives you structure. Most Organic managers I’ve worked with can put on a Mechanic hat and provide that structure, but you’ve gotta ask because it’s not their natural state.
It’s true. Organics often miss detail as they hurry from place to place.
If you work for a Mechanic…
Like I said above, a Mechanic will not believe you’re dealing with something until they feel the structure that encompasses a problem you’re solving. You must overload your Mechanic with data in order to satiate their structured brain. If your Mechanic keeps asking you the EXACT SAME QUESTION and none of your responses appear to be the answer, it’s time to counter with, “I really don’t know what you are asking.”
If you’re an Organic, you will wrongly assume that Mechanics don’t trust you.. and you’re right… they don’t. You will build trust by acting like a Mechanic with them. It takes practice, but since you’re already working for one, you’ve got a great role model. I’m not suggesting you need to transform yourself into a Mechanic (which is impossible), you just need to speak Mechanic long enough to sooth your Mechanical manager. Once he’s figured out you’ve got chops, you can start going Organic on him. He’ll deal.
Look out for…
Like Incrementalists and Completionists, the most dangerous Organic/Mechanic type is the switch hitter. My personal favorites are Mechanical Organics. These folks have all the slick tricks of Organic information gathering, but they’ve got the astounding organization skills of the Mechanic. They know everything and never forget a bit. I mean it.
Organic Mechanics are frightening. They have extreme depth of knowledge, but there is no obvious organic thread which ties it all together. Here’s the scary part. There is a thread. There is a purpose. They just aren’t letting you see it. Organic Mechanics will keep you on your heels and just when you think you’ve figured them out, they’ll change everything. I hate that.
The answer is in the middle
Organics doing battle with Mechanics or vice verse… is a waste of time. Organizational warfare does one thing… focus on the people rather than the business and that means you’re losing cash money. Whether it’s my manager or my co-worker, when I find myself in a Organic/Mechanic conflict, I think this:
“A purely Mechanical organization lacks inspiration. A purely Organic organization is total chaos.”
Organics fill Mechanical blind spots with their intuition and their passion while Mechanics create a healthy, solid home where nutty Organics can run into things at speed. It’s a team thing.