Tim on Leadership

Musings on Management and Leadership from Tim Parker

What Is Management?

What is a manager's real role?  To keep a bunch of talented professionals in line and heading to the same target?  Nope.  To ensure budgets are met and goals are attained?  Nope.  To hire and fire as needed?  Nope.  To be sure, all these things factor in to what a manager's real job is, but none of them describe the real reason for management.  Which I'll get to in a moment.

Put together any bunch of developers, engineers, QA specialists, project managers, and product managers, and you'll find they don't really need a "manager".  For the most part, people can manage themselves, and work with their teammates to get the goals of the project met.  After all, these are not a lazy bunch of uneducated people, they are mostly University trained with years of specialized experience, they can manage their own time, they can see the project goals, and they can work out how to get there.  Oh sure, a little directional control from a manager is useful at times, but for the most part each individual knows what they have to do and each team inevitable has one or more people rise as leaders by virtual of their nature, helping make sure the team focuses on the goal and gets where it needs to.  Teams can manage their technical and human resources quite well without an executive sticking his or her nose in repeatedly.

I've always believed in letting my teams manage themselves.  Yes, I set the priorities, work with the team to set deadlines, help arrange resources, and track progress, but the only times I get into the nitty-gritty details of who is doing what every day is when the team is not working well together, there's some crucial aspect of the project that needs my particular skills, or when there's some crisis in the team such as the lead being sick.  But over 30 years I've learned to let teams do what they naturally do, as they are all working towards the same goal and know, in some cases much better than I do, how to get there and what they need.  I become a facilitator for those teams.  Need another two people?  I'll arrange it.  Need more computer horsepower?  I'll get it.  And so on.  I support the team, which is doing the real work, even though I'm supposed to be "in charge".

So what does a manager (executive) do?  In reality, our goal as an executive in any company is not day-to-day management, but strategy. We set the goals of the company and the individual parts of the company.  As a technical executive, I set the product and delivery goals of our software or hardware.  That's my focus half the time: where do we have to be a month from now, three months from now, six months from now, a year from now, and ever further down the timeline?  Once I know where we have to be, how do we get there?  That's where experience in planning, experience working on projects large and small, and knowledge of your team and its abilities is crucial.  Translating the strategy we develop into actual products is a careful choreography between leadership on the one hand and letting the teams handle their tasks, and learning responsibility along and way, always making sure we can meet our strategic goals. 

I can honestly say I trust 99% of all the people who work with me to be professional and get the job done.  (The other 1% is destined to leave one way or another!)  Trusting your team and its members to do what they need to do, once the strategic goal is explained, is part of leadership and management.  Let them do their job, which is delivering outstanding quality products, lets me do my job, which is setting the overall strategy for the team.  And we all win that way.