How to Survive Tough Times in a Troubled World
Spotting weak links and heading off potential disasters
Success as an executive requires the presence of
many qualities – whereas failure will proceed
from the absence of merely one of them.
Dr. Robert N. McMurry
MANAGING is a ‘career’ that begins after first serving time as an accountant, engineer, salesperson, administrator, programmer, or in some other role. Becoming a manager can be driven by personal ambition, status, satisfaction, money, power, achievement and other motivations. Promotion as an executive however, continues only to the point where managers begin to ‘fail’.
People who become managers are technically competent and have shown some aptitude for leadership - at least enough to have an opportunity as ‘leader’. Ironically however, the more they are promoted i.e. given more leadership responsibility, there transpires less formal leadership training (beyond a per functionary course or two early in the process), and often have less training in ‘soft skills’ such as reading people, politics, teamwork, building relationships and communicating than the actual ‘mechanics’ of leadership.
Long term, most managers accumulate enough experience and know-how to stay in their job – but ultimately reach a ‘ceiling’ or a level of emotional equilibrium beyond which promotion becomes too risky to contemplate. As a consequence, in most organisations who have moved from start-up to established businesses, there exist only a handful of managers who ever truly function effectively as leaders, while a large number battle on enjoying some, but usually modest success.
Recognising a truly ‘effective’ and a ‘marginal’ performer can be quite difficult – because managers often look and act in the same way. Understanding how - or more particularly predicting when - someone reaches the ledge between being good and a not-so-good manager can also be hard because such a change is imprecise and gradual.
Why managers fail?
Leaders fail essentially because they are in over their ‘heart’ rather than in over their ‘head’. Emotion rather than logic breaks down. The failure (typically to function effectively enough to get results) occurs because of emotional and psychological issues rather than any lack of technical know-how. In reality this can happen at any time. – It has little to do with the business cycle (although the added pressure of a turn in the market is often blamed). Out-of-depth executives can be hard to distinguish from competent ones at almost any time, pretty much because everyone’s results look bad in a downturn and great in good times.
Moreover in boom times small flaws and weaknesses in management style often get overlooked (if the consequences are not too obvious and the costs absorbed elsewhere). Besides – the argument goes - that management resources are thin in an upturn (there is less mobility) and there appears to be little alternative but to tolerate managers with some small flaws even in quite senior management. What is apparent is that when a downturn occurs however (since we are always a cycle this is inevitable) inadequate management is more easily exposed through closer scrutiny. Consequently more leaders do appear to fail in the ‘tough times’. But the causes of many business failures are already in place – in good times or bad – because marginally performing managers either remain undetected, tolerated, or in some cases propped-up by high-performing colleagues.
How to identify Managers who are out of their depth
MANAGERS (or anyone) who is in too deep or has reached or gone beyond their ‘level’ unconsciously seeks to avoid the spotlight by abdicating responsibility, avoiding decisions and not taking any action that might threaten their position. Their unconscious imperative is to survive, to avoid the headlights and to stay out of trouble. Thus, they become highly adept at saving face and appearing to be doing the job. Over time they become so highly practiced it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between genuinely effective managers and those who are not.
Why is detection so difficult? Managers are rarely, if ever, consciously aware of their face-saving behaviours (and we all do it a little, don’t we?) therefore, their behaviour seems perfectly natural. Another explanation is that time in the job fosters such strong belief that what they did last time has to be right this time. Further, when questioned, people genuinely believe their actions (or inactions) to be legitimate and justified and will argue strongly to prove it. Finally, we all tend to forgive small errors from those people we have grown close to and rely on. Sometimes senior management is just too close, or involved, to notice which explains why it sometimes it takes such a long time for senior management to become aware there is any problem at all.
There is no sure-fire way to determine who is a great manager and who might fail since all such managers will engage in some kind of defensive behaviour, but – on the premise the deeper the problem the more pronounced might be their behaviour -- you might be get some clues by watching out for these common face-savers:
Face-saving behaviours for executives:
• The perfect explanation. Managers who are out of their depth frequently proffer completely rational and plausible explanations for not delivering on promises or commitments. It can be a mistake to underestimate human capacity to rationalise away reasons for not taking action. The more logical, rational and believable the pretext, the more elaborate but plausible the explanation, the greater may be the prevarication.
• Denial. If the problem doesn’t exist there is nothing to deal with. Indulging in activity that puts decisions on the back-burner by saying ‘it’s not a situation that affects us’ is living with the hope the problem will go away, or solve itself, before it becomes too obvious to ignore.
• Passing the buck. There are numerous ways this might be done. The objective being to move the problem on to someone else for them to solve:
- Form an investigative committee to look at the problem and report back. A favourite of Governments but also quite common in business (one recent senior executive we met had 3 different committees looking at delegation, all because they couldn’t make a decision on who would do what job).
- Delegate upwards. - Induce the boss (perhaps by pointing out the importance of the decision to the company) to commit them to solving the problem.
- Delegate the problem to a subordinate by explaining this would be a ‘valuable learning experience’ for them.
- Call in a Consultant or some kind of expert to ‘double check’ that we are on solid ground (a frequently used tactic of bureaucracies to avoid political fallout and controversial decisions). Consultants also make great scapegoats if things go awry.
- Abdicate, simply explain this problem is ‘not my province’ and belongs in someone else’s jurisdiction.
• Advocate secrecy. In truth there are few secrets in business and honesty and transparency is usually welcomed. But the manager here might plea for political correctness or concern for other’s wellbeing. They defend their position by arguing ‘staff could be confused, distracted or unable to comprehend’ if they were told the true state of business (so lets not tell them), or that ‘so-and-so will be hurt if we criticize them’ (lets not hurt their feelings).
• Displaced Effort. Means putting the focus and energy into the wrong things e.g. producing perfect PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets and data concentrates on the means rather than the end result; or arguing about consultant-generated alternatives; or highlighting the debate, not the solution; or volunteering for special committees, meetings or travel likely to immerse the manager in activities unrelated to their real job.
• An excessive need to prioritise by arguing ‘we must consider everything in order’ and take a ‘safety-first’ approach, saying … ‘we must crawl before we walk, walk before we run’ … ‘haste makes waste’. This can have the added bonus of making the manager seem a calm, wise voice in a storm. Arguing the need for some kind of study or research to get all the facts before a full and proper determination can be made also causes delay (and breathing space).
• Over-the-top Procedure and Process. Here the manager goes to great lengths to find an answer in ‘the book’ or company manual and argues against setting precedents or sailing in uncharted waters. If there no solution can be found in the manual, no action can be taken! Similarly, they will argue any action must comply with current policy – even if such policy no longer applies.
• Becoming buried in detail. By advocating the ‘devil is in the detail’ and becoming so concerned with side issues (detail) the manager engages in looking after molehills. So busy do they become with trivial matters that they will never get to the main issue ‘which will just have to wait while we deal with this.’ This behaviour is often characterised by working excessively long hours and perfectionism (a senior executive we know habitually missed flights after getting sidetracked into detail such as triple-checking presentations, documents, etc).
• Disappearing, becoming unable to be contacted. It difficult to have a decent conversation with people if they are constantly in meetings, interstate or flying somewhere. A common tactic is to flee-the-scene and hope either the problem disappears or that someone else will fix it if you’re not there. A senior executive (an MD) we know, disappeared immediately after a torrid Board meeting on the pretence of having to conclude a minor acquisition interstate. Not only was he not personally required to be at the meeting, but the deal had been 4 months in negotiation. He was away for 3 days. Tempers had cooled by the time he returned but not to the extent of saving his job.
• Become ill (or addicted). This not only directs attention away from the manager (and his inability to cope with the problem) but removes him from the scene and importantly elicits sympathy from others. In fact quite often the company is blamed for putting the manager under undue stress and causing the illness, when the opposite is true.
• Using double-talk, code or management-speak. Cluttered or confused communications are usually delay-making diversions. Included in this category is the excessive use of initials, acronyms, double-talk (… ‘We do this when ‘A’ happens, but that when ‘B’ happens, except when ‘C’ affects ‘B’ but not ‘A’ and then we do …etc’), speaking in ‘management-ese’, the idolisation of management gurus or theories, and also habitual joke (or story) telling.
• Eccentric physical habits/behaviours or an irrational bias toward some point of physical appearance, exercise or dress to distract attention from real world problems. Include here the obsessively ‘clean desk’ - ‘cluttered desk’ syndrome and a pre-occupation with gadgetry (mobile phone, GPS, laptops, iphones, blackberry, etc).
If you are in responsible for a team take a deep breath and a long look at those around you. You may save your own career by spotting face-saving behaviours before they lead to failure. And, if you can provide support, structure, and hope for survival (discussed in our article on ‘Executive Incompetence & Immaturity –turning around a failing organisation’) you might save someone’s career, or let them go if you must. But either way, now might be a good time to put aside your own face-savers, and act!