A Leader’s Manifesto
by Kelley Eskridge
Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a bad manager Go on. Put it in the air for the Boss From Hell who derailed your work, made arbitrary decisions, sent mixed messages, withheld information, micromanaged, sandbagged your process, put up roadblocks, put you down, took your credit, took your confidence, made you frightened, made you crazy, made you cry.
Now look around at the biggest problem in business. Look at all those hands.
What’s going on? In this era of supposedly enlightened leaders running so-called team-based businesses, with an MBA in every office and a knowledge worker in every cubicle, why can’t we address this most basic and most damaging issue? Why do millions of us — millions of us — leave jobs we love because of managers we can no longer endure, or stay and tough it out at enormous cost to ourselves and the people around us? Why are those the only choices?
Why don’t we manage each other better?
We carry a cargo of hopes and dreams and fears into our first jobs: we get slapped into reality by the grinding daily struggle with co-workers and supervisors and executives. And so it begins: the us-versus-them mindset. The bunker mentality. The view of human beings as ‘resources’ or ‘capital’. The military model of business, where we’re all crushing the competition, whether they be the company down the block or the guy at the next desk. The sports model of business, where we’re still doing the crushing but are expected to slap each other on the butt afterwards and go out for a friendly beer, just to show there are no hard feelings.
I hate to break it to all the corporate running backs out there, but feelings are a part of people and therefore a part of business. Frustration, defensiveness, fear; courage, conscience, love. Work is a human thing, the product of human brains, human muscles, human spirits, human hearts. And so work, like the humans who do it, can be awkward and exciting and scary and sometimes messy. And it has the human potential for joy, if business would only make room for it.
But too many companies behave as if the goal of work is to leave our humanity at the door. How else to explain why companies so often reward bad managers? You’ve done a great job, Bill, they say, meaning sales are up, costs are down, margins are good. Bill’s people might feel like a team of whipped dogs, but by golly he sure drives them to the finish line. So Bill gets a raise and a bonus, and his people learn that no one cares how they are treated at work.
The message is clear: results count more than the human beings who produce them. That message plays out in a hundred different ways at work. You’ve seen it. Contempt for failure and the implied disdain for learning that underlies it. Fear of conflict, and the equal fear of collaboration. The absolute terror of being wrong. The stomp-it-like-a-bug response to vulnerability. The insane idea that credentials, theories and statistics are more real than people’s experience. The focus on product and profit as the sole measure of success, where dealing with people is just a necessary chore on the way to the next dividend.
Why do companies continue to expect excellent results from people who are managed in terrible ways?
Pretty stupid, no? Let’s all go out for a drink after our shift and grouse about this latest example of corporate idiocy. But as we raise our glasses, just let me point out that we — all of us with our hands in the air — we are the companies. That’s right. Companies are just groups of people, you and me and that nice woman in Accounting, and we’re all cooperating in this system of management incompetence.
Why? I don’t know. Is it possible we really believe it has to be this way, that managing turns us into soulless jerks and there’s nothing we can do? People, that’s insane: we are the companies, and we can work together any way we choose.
Managing each other badly is unnecessary and stupid and wrong. It kills human companies and human souls. And it doesn’t have to be this way.
We can make a different choice.
That’s the key word: we. For too long, we’ve bought into the fiction that employees and companies are separate things. For too long, we’ve pretended that evil corporations have the power to make servants or slaves of us, when the truth is that every company on the planet is a human creation. But as long as we pretend not to know that we are the companies, we can also pretend to have no control over how the companies manage us. We focus on protecting ourselves. We read business books and go to seminars to learn how to deal with our Bosses From Hell and the chaos they wreak. We practice verbal judo and surf the wild waves of change. We cope when someone moves our cheese. These are all fine skills, but I believe we’re missing the point, along with the cheese: the point is that there should be no Bosses From Hell. Not a single damn one.
We must take responsibility for setting standards of management behavior in our companies, and then we must enforce them. Anyone with workplace authority over other people must have basic people management skills.
If you cannot, or will not, learn and practice these skills, you must not be allowed to manage people. In any capacity. Period.
No matter who you are or where you are in the hierarchy. Your executive title or your shark-like instinct for sucking every last dime out of a deal should not protect you: if that’s your company’s measurement of good leadership, then your company has its head up its collective butt, because leaders don’t lead dimes, they lead people. Nor should you be excused poor performance because you’re ‘only’ a front-line manager of a high-turnover team of entry-level folks, and who cares how the warm bodies are treated on their way through the revolving door? What difference does it make?
I say it makes all the difference in the world.
Good management and leadership are everyone’s right and everyone’s responsibility. If we step up to it, every single one of us on the job can know the enormous productivity and fierce joy that comes from working without fear of one another. We’ll make each other stronger, more skilled, more satisfied. And we’ll blow the roof off business.
• • • • • • •
First, here are a few notions to frame the discussion.
Managers are leaders, and leaders are managers.
Some people insist there’s a distinct difference in skill and focus between managing and leading. They talk about detail versus vision, process versus persuasion. But that’s not how it works in the real world. If you’re my manager, I look to you not just for my vacation schedule or my performance review: you are the person who shapes my working environment, who fosters a team culture that supports or suppresses me, who makes the wind howl or the sun shine in my little corner of the working world. I look to you to help me understand where success lies and how I should act if I want to reach it. That’s leadership.
And if you’re my CEO, I look to you to make sure all those executives know what they’re supposed to be doing, and have the resources and support they need to do it. I look to you to balance the company’s short-term and long-term goals and activities, and keep your people moving forward toward both. I look to you to make sure they don’t steal the company blind. That’s management.
If you’re not doing both, you’re not doing either.
Good management is better for business.
Work goes better when people have clear agreement about their goals and don’t undermine each other. This may be obvious, but it isn’t easy: getting and keeping people on the same page of the playbook is one of the great ongoing challenges of leadership. It works best when all the leaders are on the same page too: every manager in an organization needs to make sure that their team’s daily work is in sync with what everyone else is doing.
Managers at every level are important to business. I’m weary of the relentless focus we put on executives when we talk about leadership: I think a CEO is only as good a leader as the weakest manager in the company chain. If people in the mail room are being poorly managed, then the CEO isn’t doing her job, because she and her executives haven’t set the standards and enforced them.
And that’s a mistake, because every manager impacts employees whose knowledge, experience and imagination are critical to the company’s success. Ask any human resources professional about the coming talent war; just make sure you bring a large cup of coffee, because you’ll be there for a while. He’ll tell you about the increasing trend of more people leaving the workforce than entering, which becomes dire when you realize the new people replace the old only in headcount, not in knowledge and experience. Your human resources professional will advise you that retaining talented people will make or break your business before this decade is over. And he’ll remind you of the HR truism that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.
Drink your coffee and do the math. Bad managers drive good people away from your business, at a time when it’s more costly than ever to lose a single shred of human talent.
Good management is not about making everyone happy.
Find a good manager and you’ll usually find a happy team. But sometimes good managers make decisions that leave people downright unhappy. Are they still good managers? Absolutely.
Feelings are human. We all have them, and some of them are messy. Messy feelings scare people, and bad managers do almost anything to avoid dealing with them. They withhold information, duck conflict, spin issues, and deny the existence of problems, hoping that no one will get upset. Or they use their own messy feelings to scare us and control us, to make sure that we don’t challenge or question or protest. They shout and stomp and threaten us, and if we have the nerve to have feelings about that, bad managers tell us not to overreact.
It saddens me that feelings have been made so frightening that we spend precious energy trying to fool or bully each other into not having them. Good managers acknowledge and respect your feelings without trying to control them. Good managers let you have your feelings, although they may not let you act them out. They know that being angry or frustrated or scared does not give anyone, including them, the right to behave like a child or a jerk.
And so a good leader doesn’t try to convince you that the path is always smooth; she shines a clear light so you can see exactly where the bumps are. A good manager doesn’t shout you down when you are angry or confused or afraid; he offers you tools and information to help you over the bumps, and lets you decide for yourself how you feel about the path and whether you want to walk down it.
If you’re my manager, don’t worry about making me happy: be clear and direct with me, give me what I need to make informed choices, and then get out of my way and let me do my job and have my feelings. It might surprise you to find that those feelings don’t harm either of us as long as we behave like grownups.
And here’s the fundamental truth of the matter: good management is not a talent, a religion, or an attitude. Good management is a system of interrelated behaviors. If you can tie your shoes, you can learn to manage.
Ah, the excuses for not doing the work:
I’m not good at that soft stuff. Then you’re not a good manager or a good leader.
It’s easy for you because women are just more nurturing. Oh, please. Women in our culture learn to pay more attention to signals of approval and disapproval, that’s for sure, but that’s hardly the same as managing well. Anyone who’s had a bad woman boss, please put your hand back up for just a second. Yep, I thought so. Managing is not a gendered skill. Let’s move on.
My team doesn’t need coddling. Good managers coddle no one. Bad managers coddle themselves.
I’m too busy managing the business. I’ve got real work to do. Huh? Run that by me again? People are the business. Managing people is the real work of managers, and it’s some of the toughest work there is.
Here is the real work that good managers do.
They communicate clearly and completely. They tell the truth. They share information. They give you input into decisions that affect you, and they make decisions that you can understand even if you don’t agree with them. They help you establish process and systems so that you can do your job more easily. They tell you what they expect, and whether you are doing it or not. They walk their talk. They respect your dignity without pandering. They coach you without covering for you. They praise you in public and criticize you behind closed doors in ways that you can learn from, if you choose to listen. If you choose not to listen, or if you’re just not right for the job or the team, they tell you in a way that minimizes the damage, and send you off with some ideas for things you might be better suited doing. They are not your babysitter, your shrink, your mamma or your friend. They are the dispassionate facilitator of success — yours, theirs, the company’s. And when they do it well, in small daily ways they touch souls, change lives, and help to create the possibility of joy at work.
All of these things are behaviors. Any of us can behave these ways if we choose to, regardless of how we’re feeling at the time, the same way we can choose not to shove a pencil into the eye of the jerk who just cut the line in front of us. If you can learn to drive, you can learn to manage. If you can stop yourself from peeing on the street anytime your bladder is full, you can stop yourself from yelling at your assistant. If you can put together a bookshelf or a casserole, you can put together a team. If you have learned to behave effectively in one context, you can learn to behave effectively in others, and that’s what we’re talking about here.
Will we all be equally good at it? Probably not. Will it be easy for everyone? Probably not. So it goes. Most people who learn and practice will find it possible, and anyone who isn’t willing to suck it up and try shouldn’t be managing anyway. We all — store clerks, schoolteachers, surgical nurses, the guy who picks up the garbage — deserve good management and leadership. So learn the behaviors and practice them, or step off the management track; but no more excuses, please.
Managing is hard. Most bad managers and inept leaders are doing the best they know how.
Managing well takes guts. It’s tough and sometimes lonely work. There are good managers among us who have done and continue to do that work — why aren’t we rewarding them for stepping up to this most important job? There are bad managers who go to work every day feeling sick because they want to be good managers and don’t know how — why are we ignoring their desire and desperation? Why aren’t we helping them be better?
Like any skill, managing needs teaching, example and practice. If no one teaches us, if we have no good examples, if we have no standards by which to evaluate our practice, then skill comes more slowly. If at all.
I believe most managers want to do a good job. I think many just don’t know how. I’m not here to pound on willing, hopeful people who are unskilled or inexperienced. But I am determined that those skills must be strengthened; no other response is acceptable. It’s not right for human beings to be managed badly, even by someone with good intentions.
Every day, we promote people to management without teaching them what to do or how to do it. We give them the most important job in business with no other tools than a title; we hand them the corporate equivalent of a baseball bat and tell them to go in swinging. I believe the incompetent managers among us are swinging as hard as they can at results and profits and goals, discounting the bruises they leave on the people around them, because that’s what we have told them to do.
• • • • • • •
And so I say we should do something different. We should change.
This is a manifesto, after all, so here it is, straight up: I want a revolution. I want us to make the skills of managing human beings effectively, with grace and respect and joy, an essential part of business. I want it to be as important as deal-making and stock prices. I want a world where all of us who run the daily business of life — who sell the shoes, repair the furnaces, stock the supermarket shelves, send out the invoices, keep the fleets running, and restore the electricity in the pouring rain — can expect to be impeccably managed.
I want a world where managing people is an expertise, not a necessary evil.
A world where, no matter where we work, we find consistent standards of behavior for managers applied equally to the front line managers and the CEO.
A world where managers communicate clearly, consistently and respectfully about everything: information, expectations, process, decisions, conflict, concerns, money, and change.
A world where managers understand the proper use of delegated, collaborative, consultative, and directive decision-making.
A world where managers help people learn, grow, and get work done.
A world where managers have the bandwidth to treat everyone as an individual human being with a life, heart, hopes, fears and dreams, not just a cookie-shaped worker in a cookie-cutter job.
A world where managers have the courage and the will to be human at work. All the time. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when it’s hard.
I can hear the howls of outrage rising. That’s a lot to learn! Yes, it is: better get started. Well, I can’t do all that! Fine, then don’t be a manager. Spare untold numbers of worthy people the pain and suffering you’ll inflict because you are too lazy or too scared to lead and manage in a human way. Go have a ham sandwich or something, because the rest of us still have a lot to talk about.
Such as: it’s true, this is a long and challenging list of behaviors. They are what is required if we are to manage each other well. Of course it’s not possible to learn them all at once, but it is absolutely possible to learn them.
Confucius said: The best time to plant a tree is ten years ago: the second best time is now. The best way to get something done is to begin.
So let’s begin. Here’s how you can join the revolution:
1. Sign up for the standards of good management.
2. Set up systems to measure and reward good managers.
3. Set the example.
4. Get the skills into your organization.
Sign up for the standards.
Put your stake in the ground. If you are in a leadership position, don’t assume that your people are getting all the good management they need. Ask them: you might be surprised. Talk to them about standards of management. Ask them if there’s anything on this list they don’t want. Sign them up. Then make a plan, and make it a priority.
If you don’t have this kind of authority, then talk to your colleagues about these standards. Agree to observe them with each other: after all, even without ‘authority’ don’t we all manage each other in small daily ways? Don’t we all impact each other’s jobs, each other’s days, each other’s lives? Sign each other up to manage those small moments better. And then work together to persuade your boss of the value of these standards to the team. If she listens, great — sign her up. If she doesn’t, well, that’s a data point, isn’t it? Talk to her boss. Send the CEO an email. And if none of it works, then take a good look at where you’re working.
And sign yourself up, because every one of us matters.
Measure and reward.
Change is hard, even (sometimes especially) when it’s the right thing to do. There’s nothing wrong with a little incentive, positive and negative. You already know the stick: anyone unwilling or unable to behave better as a manager shouldn’t be one anymore. Now for the carrot: practicing these behaviors will bring their own eventual reward, but the learning can be difficult and long. Make it worthwhile. Peg bonuses — including those of the CEO and his executives — to employees’ evaluation of their manager’s skills. Offer a Friday afternoon off or a dinner out to those who complete the training — whatever they would value. If you don’t know what that is, ask them. Recognize them with public praise. Write a letter to their spouse or their sweetie thanking that person for their patience with the extra time this new work is taking. Make it so damn attractive to learn these skills that people are fighting for the chance.
Set the example.
If you’re a manager, assess yourself in these areas. Then go ask your team how you’re doing. Make it possible for them to give you honest feedback. If that sounds scary, welcome to management. Most of us would rather lick our competitor’s boots clean than get in the room with an angry shop steward, or find out that our best sales rep thinks her meetings with us are hours of her life that she can never get back. But if you aren’t willing to evaluate yourself, how can you be trusted to evaluate the managers under you? If you don’t model the behavior, why should anyone else?
If you aren’t in a position of authority, set an example anyway. Especially if your boss isn’t willing to climb on board, or if your teammates are skeptical. Show them that this stuff works. It’ll feel very lonely for a while, but not forever — in my experience, and the experience of every good manager I’ve known, there are relatively few people who don’t eventually respond well to being treated like human beings on the job.
Get the skills into your organization.
Hire them in whenever you can, but don’t wait for that. Start training people now, or, at the very least, start training yourself.
People who tell you expert management can’t be taught are right. Like gardeners and chefs and artists and surgeons, managers become expert by doing. But we can learn where to start: what skills are important, and why, and how to begin applying them. We can learn what works, and then we can practice it until it works for us.
And here’s where the rubber meets the road: what skills should we learn? Who does the teaching? How should the learning be structured? Do you simply throw a random bunch of consultant programs and half-day hotel ballroom seminars at people and see what sticks?
Well, that’s an option: any bit of learning we can do in the area of managing humans will help make our workplaces better. But I don’t think it’s the best choice. I think it’s better that we learn from and with each other, in an environment of safe inquiry, with an integrated program of learning that combines values, concepts and practical tools that we can begin using immediately. Such a program should also help us begin building support systems — communities of practice — within our own companies, and beyond.
I passionately believe these skills can make a difference in our lives. I believe that work and life will be better if we stop damaging each other and start working together in ways that acknowledge and value our humanity, warts and all.
One of the key behaviors of a good manager and leader is transparency: making our thinking process visible to others, and sharing rather than withholding information that affects our own process or that of other people. Another key behavior is supporting the growth of everyone around us.
In that spirit, I’ve created a learning program whose curriculum I am giving away to anyone who wants it.
It’s called Humans At WorkSM. It teaches the core skills that every manager needs, and can help managers at any level, in any business function or industry.
Humans At WorkSM is specifically designed to be accessible for new managers. We need to do as much as we can for people new to managing. It’s unacceptable that we routinely give people the biggest responsibility in business — the management of others — with no guidelines and no resources, when we could so easily offer a grounding in basic skills, a foundation from which new bosses can start building good experience rather than practicing bad management.
And it’s equally unacceptable that so many longer-term managers want to improve their skills and are denied the chance by companies on the grounds of “we don’t have money for training right now.” That’s ridiculous: helping people improve the core skills to do their job well is no different from providing them with the right software or a telephone. The money you spend on making managers better will also make better the work of every single person who works with that manager.
But if you don’t have money to spend, you can still help your managers, or yourself, by using the curriculum to develop your own company, team, or self-study program.
Take a look at the program (http://humansatwork.com/program/). You’ll find a free, downloadable, detailed curriculum designed around these skills:
- Identifying the behaviors of good managers, including the core values of clarity, transparency, authenticity and relationship.
- The difference between authority and influence.
- The organization as a network of formal and informal relationships, and how to identify, prioritize, and develop the relationships important to you and your team.
- Models and tools for effective communication, including inquiry and listening.
- Structuring communication to deliver messages face-to-face and through email, to individuals and groups.
- Collaborative, consultative and directive decision-making, including an effective model of working consensus.
- Leading effective meetings, including brainstorming and group decision-making tools.
- Working through difficult conversations and conflict situations.
- Effective team organization, including roles and responsibilities, process and information flow.
- Establishing team culture, including ground rules for interaction, communication, decision-making, disagreement and handling mistakes.
- Treating people as individuals while still managing the team consistently.
- Behavior-based interviewing process and tools.
- Integrating new hires onto the team.
- Employee development strategies.
- Raising concerns.
- Performance assessment.
- Discussing compensation.
- Managing your priorities.
- Managing change successfully.
- Building support systems and community of practice.
Humans At WorkSM is designed as a series of facilitated conversations that present key concepts and skills, and help people connect them with their own experience. People in the program learn from each other as well as from the course leader. There are in-class exercises and homework projects that allow people to begin immediately applying new skills on the job. You’ll also find a list of books and readings used in the core curriculum, as well as an extensive list of additional articles and web links provided as support material.
If you’re in a position of authority, make it mandatory for every manager in your organization to learn these skills, and have their staff evaluate them accordingly. Find people in your organization who can teach some of this curriculum, and reward them for doing so. Or hire someone outside your organization to teach, but make sure you get what you want — don’t settle for pre-packaged Powerpoint® pap that doesn’t synch with these basic skills. Interview your potential teachers to make sure they demonstrate the skills you’re asking them to share. Ask a lot of questions about what they are offering, and if you don’t like the answers, find someone else.
If you don’t have the authority in your company to mandate this training, then start using your influence. Ask your manager, or his manager, or the CEO, why your company allows people to be poorly managed when there is a program available to give their managers basic skills. Talk it up. Spread it around. Persuade people. And if nothing else, learn yourself and practice — at work, at home, with your friends in the bar, in the grocery store checkout line, on all the unsuspecting people around you who will wonder why they feel happier working with you than with the warthog three cubicles over who never says thank you. Put together a group of like-minded people to read the books and talk about the ideas, and join the public community of practice online at the Humans At Work web site for more discussion and strategies.
Take the chance. Raise your hand and heart and will to the idea of being human at work.
Join the revolution. Place as much value on the collective soul of your company as you do on your quarterly reports. Imagine the world where we all manage well, because it’s smart and sensible and right. Imagine beginning. Imagine learning one skill, one effective interpersonal tool, one helpful phrase, and using it tomorrow, and making that moment of your work life a little easier and a lot more real. Because every small step matters, like ripples that combine to make a wave.
Here’s a story you may know. A man walks along a beach where starfish have washed up above the tide line. They’re dying. The man sees a little girl picking them up one by one and throwing them back into the sea. She’s slow, and she doesn’t throw well, and there are millions of starfish. As she picks up another, the man says, You’re wasting your time. There are too many. Don’t try so hard. You’re not making any difference.
She throws the starfish and watches it sink into the water. Then she turns to him and says, I made a difference to that one.
Let’s make that kind of difference to each other. Don’t believe the people who tell you it can’t be done. It can be done. Don’t believe the people who tell you it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It makes all the difference in the world.
Work is a human thing. Let’s treat each other that way.
A Leader’s Manifesto copyright © 2008 Kelley Eskridge. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. You may print copies for your own use and share them freely with anyone, but you can’t use it for commercial purposes, and you may not change the text in any way. This is a slightly different license from the license attached to the program curriculum. Please take note.