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The bad name of management and politics

Sometimes I wonder how it could get so bad.

Much of the management I have seen in my professional life has been mediocre or worse. I’ve worked in four countries, in companies from the tiny to the large, from the obscure to Amazon and Microsoft, and have found examples of bad management in all of them. It is no wonder that management gets a bad name. It’s often dismissed as “politics”. Politics, too, is a word sullied by practice. What a shame.

Both politics and management can be done well, and if done well are noble endeavors. Both are done at a small scale by everyone in their personal lives. But there are so many and so visible examples of bad management and bad politics, it makes one despair.

Aristocratic management

This is a pattern I find inexplicable but I see a lot of: the manager who believes his reports are “good people, but” … they cannot be trusted, and if left unsupervised they would revert to their base nature.

It reminds me of those parodies where two wealthy women sit by a swimming pool, sipping mojitos while complaining

It is so hard to find good help. Consuelo is a darling and the children love her, but I can’t seem to impress on her the importance of effort and high standards

When I went to work at Amazon in the Luxembourg office, my managers were inexperienced with software projects, but felt the need to make sure we software developers weren’t running amok.

At one point the Luxembourg office received the visit of some high ranked tech managers from Seattle. One of them had been my host manager while I still lived in Seattle, and we were on very good terms. At the end of their visit, he told me that they had had a meeting with my managers. They had asked them about the software developers and the projects we were building.

Oh, Jaime is technically very strong. Sometimes though, he gets obsessed with these toy side-projects, like building this “Coral Service”, and we really have to clash with him on that.

My host manager told them in a few punchy words that that “Coral Service” was no toy side-project, and that if we dared show our work to the company’s team of principal engineers for review, and we did not have such a service, there would be very serious concerns raised about our competence and our work.

After the visitors returned to Seattle, I could feel the panic in my managers. Their tone changed. They started to search for managers with real experience in software development, and within months we had a credentialed tech manager. That went badly, but it is a different story.

Stating the obvious

Most of us are not Steve Jobs.

A significant proportion of managers, founders and CEO’s, though, believe themselves to be his heirs. Just like kids learning to play basketball will re-enact and re-imagine the LeBron James dunk or the Michael Jordan game-winning shot before they are any good at bouncing the ball, let alone shooting, a lot of freshly minted managers dream of giving the iPhone unveiling speech, the Macintosh presentation, or the Stanford commencement speech.1

All this is very understandable. The problem is that those moments need to be earned; when they are not, you get mediocre managers dropping stay hungry, stay foolish to their reports while failing at their own obligations.

The arrival of the TED Talk and Linkedin have made all this aspirational culture grotesquely visible.

Last week I read in my Linkedin feed a post from an acquaintance, where he celebrated that he had been invited to talk at a panel for the most promising Spanish startups. He reflected on his 2 year journey with the startup he founded:

If people are not telling you you’re crazy, you’re not dreaming big enough.

One wonders how many people were telling him he was crazy, and how much opposition he got from “the world”, this modern-day Columbus, this Copernicus in the making.

Last week, chatting with colleagues, one of them griped that he needed to quit and join a startup. I told him that a pet theory of mine was that a lot of founders create startups to have a captive audience to make speeches to. In my last startup, I commented, in the bi-weekly sprint review, the leadership would often mention Elon Musk, work ethics, and making an impact. Two colleagues told me this had also been their exact experience in their startups. We all had to laugh.

That politicians and founders and managers play at being Roosevelt or Jobs is mostly inoffensive. The troubling bit is that they don’t seem to care as much about their obligations to their constituencies or their reports, that they look upwards so much more than they look downwards.

A depressing proportion of the managers I’ve seen would drop generic advice in team meetings to “work smarter” with little analysis beyond that. A coach who could only advise his team to score more points than the opponent would be fired, one would hope.

Gerald Sussman, one of my Computer Science heroes, said that a professor’s job was teaching first, and then with any spare time left, doing research. This should be a principle for politics and management. The job of managers and politicians should be first to serve their constituencies. The generation-defining speech is only possible when it is earned.

It’s not that bad

I don’t believe in the big evils and the big conspiracies. The “power corrupts” explanation doesn’t seem convincing to me either.

Hubris and incompetence are much more likely explanations. I mean incompetence in the Peter principle way. A manager that is doing a great job with a team of 6, and is then promoted a few levels up, might take a long time to get his bearings and to start becoming competent again. Realizing that he is ineffective and asking to go back down the management ranks would be the good thing to do. I have seen this done a few times. The people who do this kind of thing are people of substance.

It is not intrinsically impossible to do a good job in highly senior roles. The blog post What do executives do, anyway?, gives an encouraging view. The book mentioned in it, written by the founder of Intel, is one I have heard recommended before by people I respect.

Noted economist Daron Acemoglu co-authored a recent study on managers’s business education and its effect on wages. It called business degrees into question.2 The paper is 90 pages long and I will not read it, at least not soon. I looked around for reviews and articles that could give me a summary.

There was an article in the Washington Post about the Acemoglu paper, written by a former dean of a business-school.3

These data-obsessed MBAs optimize anything they can analyze — as if the future will behave like the past, including employee costs. […]

In the real world of business, the future is notoriously different than the past. There are no predetermined answers. Steve Jobs — who never got an MBA, but did enjoy calligraphy — understood this.

Side note: this argument—that doing quantitative data analysis on the past as a management policy is only effective if the world doesn’t change—is exactly the Achilles heel of machine learning, which these days is overhyping AI, let’s hope not to the point of bursting (a previous AI bubble burst in the eighties.)

One wonders about the “data-driven” approach. Why is there so little meta-data about it? When data-driven approaches lead to bad outcomes, does this get collected as new data? Who polices the police?

The graduates of MBA’s or other management/business oriented degrees, and even managers and “leaders” with no formal academic credentials, may have outlandish expectations of their effectiveness or their impact, but many of them learn and adjust once reality hits. They put away childish notions and do the best they can.

Not all management and not all politics could possibly be bad; too many things work well in the world. Many people do management and politics as part of their work and their lives, without fancy job titles nor academic credentials.

Time to leave you with the ending of Middlemarch, by George Eliot:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

  1. Steve Jobs - Stanford speech ↩︎


  3. The Real Reason MBA Graduates Make Worse Managers ↩︎