Tim on Leadership

Musings on Management and Leadership from Tim Parker

Who's The Boss?

I've been CEO.  And CTO. And VP of several very large groups.  Guess who the boss was each time, regardless of the job title?  Not me!  In every case, the boss for any executive is not the people above him (if any), his peers, or even his customers and shareholders.  His boss is always the people who work for him.

What's that really mean?  In a nutshell, without the support of the people working under the executive, they will be totally ineffective and eventually forced out.  Governing by fear and intimidation has never worked with a bunch of professional engineers, and never will, although I know a lot of executives who think that's the only way to control a group (what a mistake!).  Sure, the bully attitude may work in some labor environments, typically those which use unskilled workers, but it has never worked long-term when dealing with engineers who always have options.  Even governing a group by being pushy is a long-term disaster.  Pushing too hard for a short time is, unfortunately, part of the job, but do it too much or for too long, and you'll lose the support of your team.  And without your team, nothing gets done.  When nothing gets done, guess who gets the blame?

Sure, in a role like VP where I have a CTO, COO, CEO, and CFO (not to mention other alphabet soup titles like SVP or whatever) above me, I have a responsibility to them and they are my bosses, in one way or another, but still, the ultimate people who decide how well I do and how I manage my team is the group of people directly underneath me.  A happy, motivated, high-morale team can do wonders.  They will save my butt when it needs saving (as long as I am willing to do the same for them, and show it), and they will deliver quality products, on time, as much as they can.  Such a team is a pleasure to work with, and I find the honesty that comes dealing with such a team (believing what they say and trusting them) is a delight.  The opposite, an unhappy, low-morale, unmotivated team can drag everything down quickly, and enter into a period of stagnation that is hard to get out of.  Still, the right leadership and the correct demonstration of how things can be improved will change an unmotivated team into a motivated team in time (but it does take time, and the process is not easy, but that's a different discussion). 

So, when I walk into a role at a new company, my first job is to ensure I understand my team, what motivated them, what their morale is like, and how to either maintain or improve the situation given the constraints I have to work within.  I always believe that if I am honest with my team members, explaining what the issues are, what the constraints are, why certain changes have to be implemented, and what is going wrong and what is going right, they will be able to see the logic behind decisions and get on board with them (or at least accept them).  Forcing stuff through without explanation, especially negative stuff, is a sure way to cause dissent.

Team mood can swing easily.  A happy team can become an unhappy team very quickly.  A few wrong words from the executives, budget or staff cuts, mistakes in the development or support process, and a general denigration of the team can swing the mood bit by bit until a happy team is disgruntled.  The reverse is also true.  Do a few of the right things, with full explanation to the team, and the disgruntled attitude slowly dissipates. 

The key for me, and every executive in charge of a professional team, is to listen to the team.  Hear what they are saying, support them, understand them, and explain things to them, and you have a positive work environment.  Miss any of those things, and the mood will surely change, and not for the better.  I never, ever forget I serve my team at their pleasure.  If they are happy with the job I am doing for them, I get to continue to stick around and work with them.  If I screw up, they will eventually make sure I am the one who leaves, one way or another. 

I've never been power-mad.  I don't care for the title "boss", or the power that being an executive brings.  The role is about organizing and delivering, and that's the fun part for me.  Being part of a superb team is just the benefit for doing it right.  And I like having a lot of bosses!