Monday, September 12, 2011

If You Love Somebody, Let Them Spend Money

With great power comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes a nail-chomping manager who wants to take it away from you.

It’s Das Kapital all over again, with Steve Carrell as Kap. The rank-and-file push for more unencumbered control over media and message and execution and budget, and managers hang onto those things like Cary Grant clinging to Lincoln’s nose in North By Northwest, claiming they’re vital to planning and predicting and managing and wheedling and cajoling and do all those things managers pinky-swear is in the job description if you pour lemon juice on it and hold it up to a strong light.
I totally get where managers are coming from. I would rather give up Diet Mountain Dew or negotiate peace between David Stern and the Tall People than willingly relinquish responsibility and control of the things I manage, especially if they contain even a molecule of cool.
“If you love somebody, set them free,” Sting sang, but Mr. Sumner never had to ride herd on a half-dozen caffeinated creatives, grooving to The Apples in Stereo and trying to build their own little Fort Sumter north-northeast of the salty-snacks machine.
It got so bad for one of my manager friends that she said to me, “This is one of the most talented marketing staffs I have ever known, but it’s also one of the most exasperating. They think they’re all experts at their stuff.”
And with that, my pendulum swings firmly to the proletariat. Of course they’re experts. That’s why you hired them. You wanted them because they’re good at what they do. You wouldn’t want bad people in those positions, would you? In fact, would you even want good people who don’t think they’re good?
You wanted good people and got them. You wanted good people who know they’re good, and got them. You must give them latitude. Unless you have the masochism factor of a cartoon rodent you cannot encourage them to the point where they get uncomfortably close to your kitchen and then slam the screen door in their face. You have to let them go, even if it means they fail, even – worse – if it means they succeed beyond all expectations.
Maybe the problem is in the semantics. Managing carries the connotation of controlling. Managers think they have to rule people when in reality they have to ensure production. But the reverse is also true, to an extent. Managers think they have to ensure production when in reality they have to rule.

The real reality is a combination play. Managers have to rule in such a way as to ensure individual production. Individuals produce when they feel empowered. Feeling empowered requires managers to give up some of their power, including the all-important power of the purse. And that can really hang managers up the most.
Now, let's return to the manager exasperated by the talents of his stuff. How should he react?
The first thing needful is to make sure the staff knows their goals and their constraints. What are they supposed to do, and what is the size of the box around them – time, rules, culture, personalities? Next, their resources. As they play in their box, working toward their goal, what do they have to work with?
If they understand their goals, their constraints and their resources, there's really not much more for the manager to do but to clear the way occasionally, stay out of the way mostly, and answer questions when they arise. And make sure the team gets the credit.
Sounds so simple. So why is it so hard?
The old reasons. Power. Control. Selfishness. A lack of managerial know-how. I know lots of schools that teach management, but darn few that teach empowerment. It seems odd that control and domination need to be taught but channeling what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" never gets taught. It's enough to make a fella want to turn big-R Red.
As for me, my hardest managerial task was trusting my staff to do it my way. But then I realized: My way might be wrong.  And what we were fighting over wasn't that big a deal.
Most of it isn't. But empowering your staff always is.