Management, by objection

Friday, August 28, 2009
People leave managers, not companies.

Prior to moving to my current place of employment, I was a people manager for more than seven years. During that period, outside of layoffs and other such actions, I had a 0% voluntary attrition rate. That's right. During that period, which spanned both the dot-com boom and collapse, no one voluntarily left my team.

Several times since then, I have been asked if I would be interested in managing people again. Each time, I have declined. Not because I didn't enjoy it. Not because I don't believe that I wasn't good at it. The basic reason is this: Most organizations have made it almost impossible to manage people effectively.

I have watched while, for various reasons the benefits for employees have been whittled down to barely more than a regular paycheck and basic health insurance. My observation is that the companies have removed nearly all of the tools for rewarding employees, leaving managers only with ways for punishing them. Almost entirely gone are raises, bonuses, and forms of compensation beyond the financial. Employees are expected to work longer hours with fewer rewards. As good and compassionate as any manager might be, they need ways of making their employees feel valued without having to dip into their own pockets.

In find it becoming more and more difficult to be a corporate worker bee that contributes little else than to a company's bottom line. There is a scene in Star Trek: Generations where Kirk addresses Picard that often echoes back to me:
Well let me tell you something. Don't! Don't let them promote you. Don't let them transfer you. Don't let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship, because while you're there... you can make a difference.
I think there are points in our lives, where we want to do more than earn a paycheck, when we want to make a difference. Maybe this isn't true for everyone, but many people I know have expressed such sentiments. Perhaps I simply hang out with a more enlightened crowd. I don't know.

When I did manage a team, I did feel like I made a difference—at least to them. Even as the rewards diminished, I felt as least I gave them what I could in terms of candor and honesty. Yet even that will only go so far.

I do miss having a team of people to manage. In many ways it is much more fulfilling than just project management. I think, though, that will likely be a long time before I'm willing to do it again in the current business environment. I shudder to hear employees referred to as "human assets". I guess I should be grateful that at least we're still referred to as "human".
  1. In the current climate, "just a paycheck" is totally considered enough, and if I hear "you should be grateful to work, and we've got a line of people just waiting to replace you..." one more time, I'm gonna punch the speaker in the face (talk about career-limiting moves!).

    But seriously Steven, even when there was budget, you were one of a kind as a manager. And the days of Legos are, I believe, behind us permanently.

  2. And having heard those words myself, I felt this strange, cold anger.

    I cling to hope that there still remain pockets of corporate reality out there were people still count in companies--beyond the advertising taglines.