Management skills, or, monkeying around at Google

An article by Adam Bryant in the New York Times deals with Google’s “quest to build a better boss.”  Bryant looks at an effort by Google to mine its own data and figure out what made people better managers.  The list of behaviors, Bryant says, looks “forehead-slappingly obvious” :

  • Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.
  • Help your employees with career development.
  • Be a good communicator and listen to your team.

(From the Times, a fuller list of eight good behaviors and three pitfalls for Google managers.)

More important is the source of the ideas, and especially their relevance to managing at Google.  The company collected data from a range of observations about its own managers: performance reviews, feedback surveys, and so on.  They coded that data to help uncover patterns.  They conducted interviews with managers to collect more data.

One thing they found that they hadn’t expected: a manager’s technical expertise ranks “dead last” among the eight behaviors they uncovered.

What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

One drawback to lists of management behaviors like this one is a sort of horoscopic skew: you skim the list and decide that the ones that stand out are the ones that apply to you.  So a person who prides himself on his technical background might believe that as manager of technical people, he or she needs to have high tech skills.

That may be true on a project team, but to the extend you’re really managing, I don’t think so.  Think of the tongue-in-cheek definition of manager as “someone who gets other people to do the work.”  In a sense, that’s true: the manager is a kind of executive producer, helping to create the conditions in which the group can best accomplish its goals.  An often-overlooked aspect of that is acting as a non-judgmental resource to help people figure out how to solve their own dilemmas.

This is one of the main points of a classic article by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass, Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? (PDF).  They compare business problems to monkeys, and discuss ways in which subordinates try to put the monkey on the back of their manager.  Here’s a manager who’s working at empowering his staff (which is where most of the problem-solving should occur):

“At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will your problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you no longer have a problem. I cannot help a person who hasn’t got a problem.

“When this meeting is over, the problem will leave this office exactly the way it came in—on your back. You may ask my help at any appointed time, and we will make a joint determination of what the next move will be and which of us will make it.

“In those rare instances where the next move turns out to be mine, you and I will determine it together. I will not make any move alone.”

– Harvard Business Review, Nov.-Dec. 1974

Granted, you need to ignore a certain assumed hierarchical bias in HBR articles.  Even so, I’d argue that this, too, is head-slappingly obvious.  But “obvious” is often an after-the-fact label.  It’s easier, more dramatic, and perhaps more fun to pound the desk, to shout, and to act in general like a BlackBerry-toting gunslinger than to do the persistent work of helping people achieve the best results they can.