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'?