Friday, November 5, 2010

More On Leadership and Stinky Fish

A great post over at Fistful of Talent about the overconfidence of new managers lured me in by mentioning stinky fish in the title. I mean, who doesn't enjoy stinky fish analogies about leadership?

The author Suzanne Rumsey briefly describes her own first management experience and admits she wasn't 'all that.' Which made me think of my own first management experience...

Overconfidence? Guilty as charged. I jumped at an early chance to manage a global team. I had a graduate degree in international business. I had almost a year and a half of professional experience. I had worked abroad. I was totally ready to lead.

Looking back I don't think I was such a terrible first time manager. It wasn't an easy gig: I had to produce a Japanese HR product with no knowledge of Japanese HR practices. There was no team so I had to build one, which at the time meant training non-technical people who had the functional skills I needed to develop software. Japanese employees also respond to a different leadership style than American employees, which I had to adapt to. I did my best, I cared about my team and we got the job done.

But my leadership style was pretty rough, especially vis-a-vis other more senior team leads who created work for my team. In other words, I managed down OK, I managed up sort of OK, but my lateral management left much to be desired.

Fast forward a few years to my first global project management job as an implementation consultant. I'd cut my teeth at a big German transportation company and was stepping up to a functional lead role for a huge global implementation at a high end global car manufacturer. Again, I was a bit junior for the role but completely confident in my ability to get the job done... if everyone would just do as I said.

(Does anyone else hear laughing?)

I soon discovered that project management is much harder than management. When you manage people, if you have half a brain, a dollop of self-awareness and decent people skills you can get people pointed in more or less the right direction. They report to you, after all, so you have a whole bag of tricks to incent them.

Whereas project management is like herding cats. No one reports to you so technically, no one has to do what you say. Your influence is indirect, i.e., you might be asked to provide input on someone's annual review or you can recommend that a problem consultant be removed from the project. But that's about it.

So all of a sudden you're in the realm of persuassion and consensus building rather than coersion. You have to figure out what people want and help them get it so they'll do what you want. More importantly, you have to keep the trade off of favors balanced with the end goal in mind so that the project keeps moving forward.

And if you're paying attention, here's what you learn: Direct managers must also lead with persuassion and consensus building rather than coersion, at least if they want to be effective.

Unfortunately, not all managers learn this lesson. How can they, with so many props at their disposal? To a large extent, managers control upward communication, work assignment, compensation and perqs. Who needs leadership skills?

The 'smart' ones focus on building relationships to their own colleagues and management team, too often at the expense of the people reporting to them. We can't even blame them for this because in most companies managers are by and large dependent on the good will of other managers rather than their own teams.

But I don't want to get all systemic here. My point is simply that putting a manger in a project manager position forces them to learn some new skills that will stand them in good stead as a manager.

So here's an idea: Before you give someone more power than they are ready to wield, why not give them a chance to show what they can do without it?


  1. It's curious that so many people are given leadership opportunities with so little preparation. I - like many - was probably not ready for my first leadership role, and if I was being completely honest, I've probably been unqualified for most leadership roles that I've had (please don't share that with anyone :)).

    I think that you are right on with developing the ability to influence others without formal authority. This speaks to good leadership development programs within organizations. But, there may be something to being thrown into the fire - the lessons learned by scorching are sometimes the best leadership lessons learned - they tend to stay with you for a very long time.

  2. Great post. I like the description of the learning curve and the movement towards consensus building and persuasion. I like the idea of having managers earn their stripes through managing a project - an environment where you need to manage up, down and sideways before being put in a position where they can get away with managing up at the expense of direct reports.

  3. Great post! I love you suggestion of giving someone less power before giving them more, and had to share it with my readers in my Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks of the week (found here: they might take a different approach to leadership in their organizations.

    Be well!

    - Chris

  4. Oh there are so many things to say to this blog. Stories of ahem "on the job training" for management roles. Stories of things I've seen, etc.

    Instead I will comment that I read recently (and I believe it) that relationships are critical for all levels of management but the need grows as you progress. So those who want to see their career progress through multiple layers of management would do well to figure this out sooner than later.


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