Tuesday, October 03, 2006

On Lightroom and clueless CEOs

This happened to me years ago. I was fed up with the gross incompetence and immorality of one of the top managers at the company I was working for. I was a middle manager, and had a pretty bitter conversation about the state of affairs with one of my peers, the head of a much bigger, more prestigeous department.

After listening to my complaints for a while, he interrupted me somewhat impatiently. "You need to forget one idea," he said. "It's a fallacy that your manager needs to know more than you do."

In our European culture, he explained, we accept someone as our manager either if he's older than us, or he's more competent than us in what we do. And that's wrong. He suggested I get more used to American-style management, where all a leader is required to do is, well, lead (hire, groom, maintain, etc.) a bunch of great, competent people. He should not try to outsmart everyone in their fields instead.

This sounded great in theory. But here's how the story ended. This fellow manager of mine left the company after some major clashes with the ever-so-incompetent top manager. He went on to become a whole different kind of manager at a whole different kind of company. And while he had been universally loved and admired as a boss at his previous workplace, he was regarded by many as a kind of an asshole at the new company.

Here's why. At the first job, he had gradually risen to the position of management. He never supervised anyone whose job he couldn't have done himself. In fact, he trained and groomed a lot of great workers, including his successor.

As a boss, he was kind and understanding. That was in large part due to his personality, but then again, he was able to be understanding because he was able to understand.

Been there, done that: he knew pretty well when someone would bullshit him about any specific facet of the job. He was able to use his knowledge of what a task constituted when assigning jobs, setting deadlines, or negotiating compensation. He was as good as anyone at anyone's field: a characteristic that he apparently didn't think he needed for his job. He just happened to have it, and ran with it.

So what happened at his new company, where many ended up fearing and even loathing him as a ruthless dictator with unrealistic demands – a shocking departure from his previous reputation as a genuine good guy and great manager?

Simple: he had to manage people whose jobs he had never done. This is one big step to make for any leader climbing up the leadership ladder. Suddenly, you lose your immediate grasp of what and how everyone is doing. Suddenly, you can no longer tell easily a good job from a bad job, legitimate complaints from bullshit excuses, being concerned from being anal, and so on.

What do you do about it? I don't pretend to know the answer. But you need to make up your mind about how you would like to be clued in on the missing bits of information. Do you want to learn, or remain ignorant? Do you want to get involved and micromanage, or take back seat and rely on the expertise of others? Do you want to trust your people, or do you want to keep auditing them? You need to be consistent, especially in relation to your people: you can't go back and forth between extolling someone's competence and dedication one minute, and frowning on him utterly convinced that he's a fraudulent, back-stabbing weasel the next. And a surprisingly large number of senior managers get that wrong. I'm sure you've seen quite a lot of them.

So at the end of the day, you need to decide whether to become knowledgeable or to stay ignorant. Many agree that it's no problem to be ignorant, as long as you display the right kind of ignorance. And I'm in no position to judge one way or the other. I've seen fairly ignorant managers who were much better than some others with vast knowledge of their field and everyone else's. So knowledge is just one of the factors.

But how important a factor is it?

While it's probably impossible to know all about every operation being performed at a large organization, I might tend to side with those who believe that the more you know, the better you're equipped to make judgment calls or decisions.

And finally: can you really run a company if you're no expert at the core competence of the business you're running?

For example: can a sales guy run a software company?

With the obvious example being Microsoft and Steve Ballmer, you might also want to take a glimpse at Adobe, as John Gruber did, at its sales guy CEO, and the company's dubious (to put it mildly) marketing decision to shoehorn their innovative Lightroom app into their Photoshop "product line".

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