When I was designing training for one of the big accounting firms, I assembled a group of young managers to be my panel of advisers. “What’s the best advice you’ve received on how to manage?” I asked them. One response remains with me to this day: “find a junior and frighten him”. Back then I was appalled at the barbarity of this advice. These days I realise that it has value. After any promotion you have to gently separate yourself from your erstwhile peers and establish your authority.
It happens in other fields: there comes a point in every aspiring athlete’s life when they have to decide whether to join the rest of the squad at the pub or do that extra bit of practice and eschew the alcohol. Camaraderie is nice but it doesn’t get you better performance.
Those of you familiar with the Leadership Development Framework (LDF) will recognise this as the graduation from Diplomat (seeking the security of being the same as others) to Expert (deciding what is right for you as an individual). And you don’t need the LDF to recognise that it is one of the transitions that has to be made if you’re going to be a manager.
Does that mean we’ve all got to give up being nice people and become the kind of inconsiderate, arrogant jerk or standoffish bully who plays favourites that we clearly have too many of already? No it doesn’t, and here’s a clue to how to make the difficult transition easier.
Ask anyone who their favourite teacher was at school and most will tell you that it wasn’t the nice ones, it was “Ms Smith – because she was firm but fair”. And we readers instinctively know why. The nice ones sometimes had to turn nasty to control an outbreak that their niceness had encouraged. And the innocent quite often got caught up in the nastiness. With the ones that were ‘firm but fair’ you knew where you stood.
And “knowing where you stand” is the key. The good boss lets his people know what he expects of them and what they can expect of him. He initiates conversations, models behaviour and may even write some rules. With that understanding in place, being tough is not the same as being nasty. Being tough is expected. Being nasty is exercising your boss power without the explanation represented by the box at the third corner of the relationship. And a remarkable number of bosses continue to operate in binary fashion: partly because it’s easier and feeds their ego to be the sole decision maker; partly because its difficult to decide ahead of time what the rules of the game should be.
So here’s another clue. Most of the important contents of the third corner come from a proper understanding of what’s important to the organisation. Strict time keeping is a given where everyone needs to be present for the process to work: factories, restaurants, retail etc. But it has much lower importance in knowledge industries with their patterns of people working to their own schedule or working from home. Hoseasons, the holiday booking company, will fire staff who are 10 feet from a phone on the fourth ring. “If we don’t pick up the call a competitor might.” Lloyds Bank spent millions on a TV ad promising their customers that their calls would be answered by the fourth ring. But a bank’s customers are largely locked in. Having standards that are not linked to the purpose of the organisation is worse than none at all.
I am indebted to my friend Alastair Mant for Tough but fair. The illustrations of it are from his book Intelligent Leadership.