Friday, November 17, 2006


Joe Girardi and Managing Up

Joe Girardi, the recently-fired manager of the Florida Marlins, just won National League Manager of the Year. He was good enough to win manager of the year and bad enough to be fired at the same time.

This got me thinking.

Girardi's firing offense, such as it was, was an impatience with the team ownership. The owners took a micromanagement approach, encroaching on what Girardi thought was properly his job, and he took public umbrage. So the owners fired him, despite the obviously-outstanding job he did with a team that had remarkably limited resources.

(Whether Girardi deserved 'Manager of the Year' is another question. For the National League, I would have voted for Willie Randolph. But that's a quibble.)

Sometimes there's a real, direct, consequential conflict between what your superiors want and what's actually good for the organization.

When that happens, the folks in the middle have a terrible choice. Comply with the silliness out of short-term self-preservation, pick battles selectively, comply outwardly but disobey below the radar, or pull a Girardi and follow your own sense of what's right, consequences be damned. Or leave.

Most of the management books out there are written from the point of view of a CEO. To me, that's a copout. It's easy to be bold when you have the autonomy to act. The real story of management, to my mind, is what to do when you're in the middle, and those above you are getting some really fundamental things fundamentally wrong.

At my previous college, this happened almost daily. Proprietary U was shrinking fast during the last year or so I was there, so it was in full-on panic mode. Since it was essentially built on the corporate model, dictats would come down from Home Office, and the job of local management was to execute them. The catch was that Home Office lived in its own little world, completely divorced from Objective F-ing Reality (OFR). As the insanity ramped up, I switched among the first three strategies for coping as circumstances and my energy level warranted. Eventually, it got to be too much, and I left for this job.

There's a fundamental disconnect between the skills of a loyal soldier and the skills of a leader – this is what strikes me as the glaring, tragic flaw of the corporate and military models. A loyal soldier does what he's told. If the brass wants to take the company to hell in a handbasket, your job is to get it there as quickly as possible. I think of it as the Eichmann defense, albeit in a vastly milder context. Upon rising to leadership, someone who has always blindly followed orders is suddenly expected to start seeing, and acting on, the big picture. A few do, but most don't. The fate of older, bureaucratized corporations is usually to slow to a crawl as loyal soldiers are promoted above their competence.

When the loyal soldiers climb too high, they typically fall prey to one of two pathologies: either they just maintain tradition and hope for the best, since that's what got them there in the first place, or they adopt the shiny new fad of the moment out of a desire to do something new that's still safe. What they don't do is think seriously and strategically about the long term, since they've never had to before and they simply don't know how. When threatened, they regress to the behavior they know best, which is fear-based reacting.

Girardi presents the opposite problem. He's a very good long-term thinker reporting (until recently) to an egotistical micromanager.

It's possible, in some cases, for the Girardis of the world to get by on a combination of people skills, guile, and discretion, until they finally reach a level where they have the autonomy they want or find something else to do. More often, though, they're driven away, blamed internally for being arrogant and externally for failing to 'manage up.'

Have you found a good strategy for 'managing up'?

I've always chosen the move on model. I find that shit really does actually run downhill.

I work in a hospital I am on the bottom. It stinks. Middle management can do nothing to support their team as they are loyal soldiers and as such, implementing whatever folly upper management has decreed. The upper management breathes a more rarified air than I do. I don't think all of them even know the big picture, but, somehow, they are now the policy makers.

At the bottom, the stated goal is patient satisfaction. At the top, it is the bottom line. Those of us in the trenches don't believe that we need to be sacrificed so that management can meet their goals, but that is always management's first line of defense when it comes to cutting costs.

I love reading you. The parallels between the workings of a hospital and life in a cc are scarily similar.
This may seem like a small detail, but my approach to managing up, when I have the opporunity (as a very junior TT fac. member) is to ask tough questions without seeming like I actually have an argument to make. If I am simply trying to fact-find, and start poking around places that other people don't want to poke around, sometimes the answer that get unearthed make the arguments for me. It's hardly direct, but my standing arounf here isn't secure enough for me to be going around making pronouncements.
At my humble university, my colleagues and I, all middle managers, have tried both approaches. Neither is working, or rather, we haven't had enough time to measure the results. We've embarked on major initiatives, trying to keep everyone informed and making sure that everyone at least has the appearance of input, but the response so far is just more micro-managing. Fed up, some middle managers have just given up and now do nothing.

The corporate model you mentioned is a big part of the problem. Since upper management is far removed from the problems, like low student performance and high faculty absenteeism, the solutions it presents don't really address core issues. For instance, one solution to poor student attendance was to call the roll for every class and get really engaged in new technology. But we're engaged already, so what exactly does taking attendance and putting lectures on powerpoint achieve? Nothing, except to add more paperwork.

The best advice another middle-manager gave me is play by the rules, but figure out which rules are bendable and which ones are breakable. And make sure everything has a paper trail.

But you're right, DD. It all becomes a drag after a while.
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