Opinion: The real power of managers

If you want to really help your organization, one of the more subtle things you need to learn to do is to effectively change the subject.

Over the years that I’ve advised technical managers, young and old, some patterns have become apparent. One is that most seem to go through a series of distinct stages in their understanding of the role of manager. There are different stages for different aspects of the role, but the patterns are relatively consistent.

When it comes to beliefs about managers’ roles in information flow, the pattern is interesting and instructive.

Stage 1: The Translator

At this stage, the manager tends to see herself as merely a link in the vertical information chain. She takes orders from above, translates them to those below, collects status reports from those below and consolidates them for those above. It’s an active, but not influential, role. The back rooms at the United Nations are filled with highly intelligent people wearing headsets, listening to one language and simultaneously speaking the same thing in a different one. It’s an essential function, but no one thinks of these people as diplomats.

Stage 2: The Defender

In the second stage, the manager sees herself as defender of her territory and underlings. The passive link in the information chain is transformed into a heroic leader, placing herself in the path of the hostile onslaught. The dangers may come from above, from peer organizations or from outsiders, but the manager begins to see her role as not just passing along information, but also influencing the content of the information to the benefit of her group. This stage may come quickly or not, depending on the toxicity of the general environment. If the world outside a manager’s group is particularly hostile or her previous boss was a particularly weak defender, it tends to come quickly.

Stage 3: The Participant

Eventually, the manager begins to see herself as more than a conduit or a belligerent, but as a participant in a managerial conversation. She takes on the role of adviser to the boss, collaborator to peers and mentor to subordinates. She now interprets information, shapes it, processes it, and selectively passes it on or withholds it as needed to move a broader conversation: the discussion of how the collective should deal with its reality. The manager is now part of the larger system of making an organization go, contributing to decisions, taking positions, influencing policies. By now, she views the outside world as a more nuanced place, both hostile and filled with possibilities.

Stage 4: The Agenda Setter

In the final stage, the manager takes part in an even more abstract conversation: that of setting the agenda for the managerial conversation itself. Now the manager begins to help shape the perceived reality of the organization, not just the managerial discussion of how to respond to that reality. Setting the agenda involves interpreting facts, opinions, predictions and feelings, as well as prioritizing and analogizing. But more than anything, it involves building a consensus among a management team about what should be on the common agenda and, just as important, what should not be on that agenda.

Taking part in the agenda-setting conversation is not as simple as it may seem. As managers become aware of this role, they tend to be rather ham-fisted in their first attempts to force issues into the group consciousness, blurting out their ideas in open meetings or proposing solutions to problems that no one else perceives.

Learning to advance the agenda is largely the skill of changing the subject of the managerial conversation. To advance your managerial skills, assess your stage of development and start thinking about the next stage.

Paul Glen is the founder of the GeekLeaders.com Web community and author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass, 2003). Contact him at info@paulglen.com.

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