Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Blame Game- Top Management is always the enemy!

Everytime as middle managers we wear multiple hats viz., handling customers, handling subordinates, streamlining processes, handling bosses and handling super bosses!! The whole idea of this blog stems from the fact that at some point of time managers would be frustrated at the whole idea of executive management(corporate) giving them some directions that are totally tangential to what they do on a daily basis. Managers also feel that executive management has got no clue on the practical implementation angle and they just make all decisions top-down. They feel that corporate does not understand the daily challenges that they face and corporate feels that managers need to be guided all the time. There is definitely some wisdom here looking at both angles and this is the first step when a manager transforms himself to become a leader!

Corporate is not the enemy even though it can too often seem that way with unreasonable demands or out-of-touch expectations. It's just that corporate has a job to do, and sometimes it actually knows some things that managers don't know. Corporate is not trying to micromanage but trying to balance middle management needs with the needs of other parts of the organization! Naturally it's trying to manage short-term results and long-term investments. It's trying to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, a worthy cause underneath it all. This perspective usually gets lost with the middle management in both ways- Either the middle management thinks that the corporate is the enemy or they think they just need to listen to what corporate states and do exactly what they are told to do. Obviously both these states are detrimental to the growth of the organization and the growth of the management team!

I have seen a lot of middle managers complain that the corporate has got no perspective on the day to day realities and I do empathize with them for sure. For example: We are currently being audited for KPMG on CMMi and ofcourse the corporate goal is to have all project managers follow processes for all customers. But project managers face the challenge of implementing this with a customer who does not give a damn about processes!! This is a case in point whereby the project managers will be pulled by the corporate for non-implementation. There are many ways to solve this problem but blaming the corporate for pulling on this is not going to solve the problem!.

But even if the corporate's intentions are good- beware! You as a leader must relentlessly shield your team from its interference. To do otherwise is a fast track to losing your team's confidence and respect. Every time you groan that "Executive Officer A says that we need to have 100% billing for this customer" or complain that "Executive Officer B is forcing me to get rid of person Z because he's so bad at his customer presentation/packaging skills and attitude", you make yourself look like a puppet whose strings are being pulled by the corporate. In fact, you actually make yourself a puppet. It is very easy for managers to look at their team and scream about the corporate; And this is exactly what they should NOT do. Ever, ever, ever. That's a total career suicide for the manager and not much better for the team. Very soon, instead of looking to you for direction, your people will be looking around you, searching for signs from the "real boss".

It really happened with me once whereby I was reviewing the resource utilization with my business manager and as usual I asked him to reallocate 4 resources to another new project as the current project was coming to close. Immediately the business manager agreed for the same as he felt that he was just obeying corporate's instructions!! Unfortunately the current project that is coming to close can be extended through a maintenance contract with the same team and there is a potential repeat business because of the same team. Ideally this perspective should have been given by the business manager; instead of that the reallocation just happened because the corporate asked for it. Tomorrow if there is a question on the repeat business it will be easy to wash the hands and say, "hey they asked for it and they got it".

As a manager you should never even give a perception to your team members that you cannot fight for them! Once you give that perception it is very easy for the team to observe and understand the dynamics. As I always say, "everyone observes you while you are at work" and there is no hiding from the fact that your team always evaluates you every second. So any complaining like this will immediately change their perception of you as a leader!

The perspective on this very simple- Sometimes there are optimal/rational decisions imposed to the management team and sometimes there are sub-optimal/irrational decisions imposed to the management team! The key is to find the balance in these decisions and create your own communication plan that can address and align both the interests!

It is very common to have corporate interfere with your team thereby giving a perception to middle management that they are micro-managing, hurting speed and morale etc. Obviously the suggestion is to not become a corporate apologist, trying to sell every edict to your people as if it were ice cream. By all means, push back hard on behalf of your business. Challenge nonsense expectations. Negotiate for resources. But keep that process behind closed doors, and when it is over, whether you have made gains or not, own corporate's final decision as your own. Take it to your people as your plan.

Remember Executive Officer A's idea of having 100% billing with a particular customer? Say he won't budge, even after you've made the case that it's stupid in your business high-demand environment. At that point, you need to buck up and move on. Get with your team and figure out a way to deliver the plan of having 100% billable resources by creating a bench that can take care of transitions/replacements!

As for poor resource Z, whom executive officer B wants fired- that's another case for the middle managers to own. If resouce Z is a solid contributor, instead of pulling the trigger while blaming executive officer B, quietly work your tail off to improve his packaging skills and attitude. In other words, make it your job to manage the interface between corporate and your team. And when corporate makes that interface thorny, don't share your pain- absorb it. If that sounds a bit unnatural, that's because it is. It is perfectly human for managers to want to blame "up there" for how hard it is "down here". But real leaders can't do that. And they don't.

Prakash Gurumoorthy

PS: I have taken some ideas from an interview of Jack Welch to write this blog as I felt this is appropriate for any middle managers!


Ramiah Ariya said...

This is a nice blog - but ofcourse I have my differences.
My differences are with a single line of yours:
"But keep that process behind closed doors, and when it is over, whether you have made gains or not, own corporate's final decision as your own. Take it to your people as your plan."
The reason I am concerned about this statement is because I have heard this repeatedly in my company - and I am not convinced that statement has merit.
My frustration with "management advice" such as Jack Welch's or Iacocca's is that it is really not aligned with sociology or psychology. Most of these guys have a singular perspective.
Why would it be upon a middle manager to carry an unpopular decision with which he/she completely disagrees? Any psychologist will tell you that it is against human nature to do so. It is not "career suicide" but "conscience suicide". A corporate is not a military organization - if someone dissents, they will continue dissenting - and they have every right to. Why can't we look at it the other way - that corporate has FAILED to convince a middle manager? You can claim that the corporate knows things the manager does not - but the manager can claim the same thing!
I do understand that from the corporate's perspective this would ofcourse, be ideal - if every decision is taken claiming that the corporate knows more, then basically all the responsibility is on the middle management all the time!
I think the fundamental tension and disconnect in an organization is this (and social scientists will agree with me) - the corporate has very very different goals and stakes from employees; and middle management are also employees.
For example, while the goal of a corporate is to retain talent by all means possible, employees including managers would try to maximize their potential - if necessary by leaving. They do not have the stakes corporate has in an organization.
And the law recognizes this - middle managers are included in labor law protection.
With the above split in mind, it is easy to see why middle managers WILL NOT take responsibility on a decision forced on them by an organization - it spoils their reputation among people they work with daily and share their goals and stakes.
People such as Welch or Iacocca played for higher stakes and hence their opinions are not surprising - Iacocca was famously anti-union.

Prakash Gurumoorthy said...


I understand where you are coming from and ofcourse its the responsibility of the corporate to convince middle management.

This blog primarily focuses on implementation aspects of middle management where they are in complete agreement as well. I have been through that phase whereby conceptually I am in agreement with the top management but failed in the implementation phase and then blamed the top management for the same. This is more for this case and I sincerely believe that there is a mix of optimal/sub-optimal decisions to be taken in professional life.


Vaidhy said...

One solution to reduce the impact of this problem or reduce the frequency of issues being raised would be frequent SMR (Senior management meetings). Which means the PMs, Business heads (Account wise) will need to interact and discuss the current happenings and future plans, project status, financial status of the account, discuss any other issues in a forum.

These kind a meetings, probably once in a month should be fine. When we get to discuss the problems with the top management more frequently with transparency with the facts in place, I think this could be the possible solution. Middle management will also get a feel that they are being recognized fort their effort and time spent. Totally it is about the psychological feeling of the middle manager that he/she is not being recognized…

Musings said...
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