Leadership

Should managers pitch in or just manage the action?


If you've read some of my other blog entries, you know that I often refer to a company I used to work at. I came to that company at a fairly young age and spent the bulk of my formative career years there so I often use it to illustrate points I make. Also, it would be ever so awkward if I spoke about my current place of employment. So in the spirit of editorial freedom, and personal protection, I will continue to refer to my old company when I want to use specific workplace examples.

At one point in my tenure at that company, its executives decided to take a different approach to management. We managers were told that we should no longer do any of the day-to-day work that our staffs were doing. Now, part of me understands this. I'm all for recognizing "managing" as a separate and important skill set and for allowing managers to devote time to those skills. And I know how important it is for group managers to be able to strategize about the business and guide those who report to them into achieving those strategic goals.

But I didn't think the issue was that black and white. I just couldn't quite bring myself to watch my team members struggle with a big project when I could easily pitch in to help for an hour or two. This was especially true during hiring freezes. It's what I would want a manager of mine to do. If I were drowning, I wouldn't need someone standing nearby yelling, "Swim faster!" I'd much rather that someone toss me a life preserver.

Another reason was that I liked to keep my hand somewhat in my team's day-to-day work was so I could stay aware of any production issues they were facing. I was able to develop some pretty important efficiencies because I had a first-hand knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the what made my team run.

Some of my co-managers were all too happy to adopt this new stance, but for the wrong reasons. They figured that the further away their hands were from the dirty work of the "common folk," the more important they were. That was nauseating to me and not at all what management is about. The best were those who participated at the strategic table and then were able to translate the strategy into practical implementations for the team.

I've heard people talk about leadership in terms of great coaches. For example, Vince Lombardi never popped in to block for Bart Starr, and during his tenure the Packers had winning season after winning season. But real-world employment is a little more complex than scoring yardage (and most corporate employees aren't paid like athletes). I guess it's like everything else—there is a happy medium somewhere. What has been your experience?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

22 comments
Double DeBo
Double DeBo

A lot of it depends on the situation. A good manager will be able to read his/her people and either know when to jump in or ask if their help is needed.

Ozzylogic
Ozzylogic

My Manager is a bit different. Initially, when I joined, he asked me not to bother him with questions, and instead, setup 'catchup' meetings which he'd be too busy to attend. A month down the line, when the situation got aggravated, he said the countries I was handling were 'my babies', and hence, my responsibility, and then asked me to ask questions when I felt the need to. When I eventually did, I was told I didn't use my brains. Talk about being professional. So I stopped asking questions, and caught his drift, and made my own assumptions...and then he said whatever I was doing was my problem. So much for Project Management. Blimey.

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

This manager of yours needs a good kick in the arse and a lesson on proper managerial behavior.

Tig2
Tig2

The goal is for the team to be successful. Period. I ask my team to do whatever it takes to deliver. But I am also willing to help with the heavy lifting. And I never ask my team to do something that I am not willing to do. If an effort requires that we be working over night, you will find me with the team doing whatever I can to help out. I find that I have a stronger team that way.

casey
casey

I agree that overall success is the main goal, but disagree with the "wouldn't ask anyone to do ..." and ?willing to do heavy lifting? sentiments. If you're working through the night, not because of an unforeseen catastrophe or uncontrollable external event, but because your team is behind and you need to finish, then you have failed them as a manager. And while it may temporarily help morale to work shoulder-to-shoulder when things go bad, any team will quickly tire of the boss?s inability to keep them out of bad situations in the first place.

Ssp
Ssp

I do agree with your last sentence : "....any team will quickly tire of the boss?s inability to keep them out of bad situations in the first place. ". Most of the people in this IT world ARE tired already because of the above reason. It is not because the manager is bad but because of how the industry is driving people go crazy. Wonder when this industry will ever change and be back to the good old times.

Tig2
Tig2

We often have to wait until 10:00 p.m. or later to begin deployment. Everything MUST be complete by 6:00 a.m. the next day. If anything goes wrong, that schedule will become nearly impossible to deal with. By making myself available to be the immediate extra pair of arms and legs, we can avert failure to deliver. If I have to call someone in, we have to wait for that person to arrive. I may need the team to do the technical work but I can rack a server and make connections- little to no expertise required... but I am certified to do that work. There are areas that perennially have the need for everyone on the team to pitch in. Infrastructure is one of those areas. I do everything that I can do to avoid the problem. But my team seems to like the fact that I don't just sit back and watch them fall behind, I will ask my site lead what I can do to help them out.

itguyinde
itguyinde

As an IT manager I feel that it is important to be able to understand the work your technicians are doing and be able to lend a hand when times get tough. I would never advocate being oblivious to what your techs are working on. If they see you get in the trenches, it will empower them. Any good General in the military will tell you that ;-) At the same time, there needs to be the separation of roles because at the end of the day, the stuff you need to be doing as a manager (ie: reviews) still need to be done...and nobody's going to help you with that.

shraven
shraven

It would seem no, they should not pitch in. A vast majority of the managers I've had seem to subscribe to the view that the best way to speed along a project is to increase the frequency and detail of status requests and when a project really bogs down, the best course of action is to request all of this in written format. How exactly the increase in time spent on reporting leads to an increase in output on the project has yet to be determined. However for managers, it's more about perception than results. What looks best to their bosses and generates the perception that they're on top of things is clearly what is best for the project. lol

casey
casey

If you've got time to do what staff should be doing, something is wrong. Does your boss step in and do any of your functions when you get overloaded? As a manager it's your responsibility to delegate authority and tasks, not step in when things busy. If you are short-staffed because of a hiring freeze and work is slipping, then as a manager it is your responsibility to go to the "powers-that-be" and either get more staff or reset their expectations about the output from your section. If you're not doing these things, then maybe your not cut-out to be a manager.

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

in and help his/her team, even if it means getting down and dirty and actually doing some real technical work (lord have mercy!). Many managers have developed such an arrogant ego, that God forbid they help or are asked to help their subordinates. I've been in situations like this where the manager would delegate, but was very poor in telling other teams when they insisted in overloading us with too many tasks in an unrealistic timeframe. Such managers quickly become hated among their subordinates and work morale declines because all respect is lost for such egomaniacs. In a company, there should be no such thing among managers as "it's not my job..it's my subordinate's job instead", because everyone should pitch in any way they can, especially when there is a staffing problem and the amount of work keeps piling up.

casey
casey

Richard - From your comments you are an example of a good manager. You take responsibility for the output of your unit by taking steps to make sure your people are 1)doing things they should by monitoring the quality of their work and 2)helping remove obstacles that stand in the way of the work getting done. Helping troubleshoot a difficult problem is not, in my mind, "pitching in" as it's been discussed here. Taking ownership and fixing the problem yourself would be.

richard.gardner
richard.gardner

I largely let me programmers get on with things, but if they're producing badly optimised code, poor documentation or worse being lazy hard coding SQL in code I've got a problem. As long as they adhere to three tier logic and their documentation is good fine, but a manager who can't spot a lousy algorithm or bad practice probably shouldn't be managing developers. I also step in when programmers are stuck - it is usually a good idea to get some fresh eyes on a problem, I'm sure everyone here has stared at a screen for hours only to have a colleague look over their shoulder and spot an error almost straight away.

casey
casey

Thank you for reinforcing my point. The conditions that create an environment or event where the question "should managers pitch in?" arises are a direct result of bad management practices in the 1st place. Whether its bad planning (didn't see it coming), obliviousness (not my job) or just plain ignorance (no understanding of the relation between input and output), the root problem is the same: bad management.

shawn.bleam
shawn.bleam

Its all about the grays and the people. With almost 16 years in IT Mgmt (either project or staff mgmt), there is absolutely no black and white. Time after time I have found it valuable to pitch in at times for a few reasons -- when resources were tight or as the third string backup, and when you are early on in a new position. I have found that this has been invaluable in gaining respect with your staff. This does not mean you have to write the code, or build the server, but being a more active participant in the process is critical to gaining your team's respect. However, it is always a balancig act -- to keep your peers and boss' respect you need to keep most of your time on the strategic/business value you can deliver from IT.

DaPearls
DaPearls

Toni, Managers should be prepared to pitch in when and where needed. The trick is to know when to step back and let the team run and when they need you. They will not always ask. The bad manager thinks that they know everything about everything and does not trust the team to get the job done. Is it a case where the team does not have the right skills and the company/manager has not invested in their growth or is it that the manager did not hire the best and brightest fearing that they (the team) would outshine him/her? I have experience managing and being managed. I have had good managers and bad. The bad managers try to micro-manage or insert themselves to have visibility to sr. management. The good managers let the team run and are their to support them. I fall into the latter category where I have faith in my team, let them run the project and give them the knowledge that I am there to support them and get rid of the political and/or financial roadblocks. Just my two cents. David

Senior Program Analyst
Senior Program Analyst

Ive had managers try to Micro-Manage my activities and during those times it was very difficult for me not to fall into the symptom of "Not thinking for myself". - My Manager will tell me it should be different anyway so Ill just wait until he tell me so I do it his way the first time (right or wrong). Ive also had managers who knew nothing about my field and would NEVER give me any direction, feedback, etc (Unless it was to repeat something he heard from someone else usually months later during our reviews). This at first seems to be great but after sometime cases do comeup which one might like to have some "Guidance or Direction". Also in crisis it sometimes doesnt hurt to have another hand in some of the work especially if others can't do thier jobs waiting for you to complete something. I think a good middle of the road is good. Allow your team to do what they do best and give a little helping hand when it is appropriate, asked for, or if you don't feel they would preferr otherwise. Dont force your way in and DONT TAKE OVER unless its critical to do so, but offer and suggestions are rarely turned away if given appropriately.

fobille2
fobille2

I agree with your strategy, in fact I do it in our company. Being an IT Director, I still like to get my hands dirty, involving myself on a lot of projects that I give to my staff. Because at the end of the day, nobody even my coordinates nor my equals and the top of the food chain can tell me I don't know what I'm doing.

esteck
esteck

Decision vs Implementation of Decision: Companies (which are really just people) make decisions with good intensions. Some times those decisions are well thought out well into the future and sometimes the decision is shown to be horrible in a few days or even hours. So what is the intent behind the decision to separate managers from the work? Is it to create an elite set within the company? Is it because too little focus is on the forest and too much on the trees? Is there some other reason like the president can't justify managers salary to the board (who secretly wants to sell the company) if the managers are workers with management responsibilities? What ever it is you need to understand the intent. The best way to do this is to ask the question, "Why was the decision made?" Next comes the implementation of the decision. Now if the decision is bad and you know its bad. You can many times effect when and how the decision will be implemented. Some decisions can be put off implementing for years due to the logistics of implementation. Thereby making the decision ineffective. Sometimes the decision can be only partially implemented, like having the accounting group implement the decision before the rest of the company does. The effective manager will realize that the black and white of decisions really doesnt't exist and mostly is not what is intended by the decision makers. If you read contracts you'll see the same problem. Contracts (decisions) are written with different sections to solve problems. But many times the language of the section could be misintrepreted if applied to a different set of circumstances. This happens in most contracts and is easy to find if you look for it. Until you understand more about the decision, it is hard to know what course of action to take or if any change is actually needed. Good luck Ed

bmchenry
bmchenry

I have been on both sides of this issues. One of the first things I did when I took on the managment reins in my company, was ask my team what their expectations are of me in regard to this situation. The consensus was for me to do my job, and let them do theirs. Managing programmers is not like managing a team at McDonanlds. Programmers are very unique individuals and take a lot of pride in their work, but detest when the CIO or manager monkey in the programming end. Often times, a programmer will simply rewrite the code his way that best fits. Now that is not to say, I do not jump in when someone is drowning...part of my job as a manager is to keep the wolves at bay, meaning I do not let executives and other department managers overun the team with wasted requests with little ROI. I found an interesting article about what really motivates programmers...wish I had wrote it myself. http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/FieldGuidetoDevelopers.html

Sumjay
Sumjay

This question is debatable for the simple reason ? It all depends on your environment. If you have enough staff ;-) then it is advisable that you let them do what they know best in terms of coding, helpdesk, networks etc. It is the manager?s job to keep all lines of communications open, with feedback to the necessary layers of the organization. He/She has to look ahead and watch out for potential problems and take proactive actions to prevent them. That?s the manager?s job. They also have to keep in mind the business objectives of the organization. The IT manager cannot take refuge behind Techno speak screens anymore. This does not help communications in the non-techie business world. Which may not help when the annual IT budget allocations take place. When you have limited staff ;-( then to help out when there is intense pressure to meet a deadline will definitely help the troops in the trenches, that is, if they want it. But if you are hindering their concentrated efforts (How many times have you come across IT folks in front of the computer in deep thought working on a problem? ? many, I am sure), then it?s better to stay out of the way and step back. This stepping back will help the IT manager to look at the issue with wide angle lens and more than likely come up with an improved process to handle it in the future. Eh, voila, you have Continuous Improvement Process in action. So, should managers pitch in or just manage action? ? It all depends !

Daniel.Muzrall
Daniel.Muzrall

As a manager, your job is to manage those who report to you, not to tell them how to do their job. As part of that, you must also recognize when your team needs assistance. Being able to jump in and lend a hand when it is really needed will do a lot for you and your team...above and beyond meeting a deadline, or averting some crisis. It will show the team that you have a vested interest in their success, and show that you want them to succeed. It will also remind the team that you're not just a manager...you're a manager who actually knows what he/she is doing, and not just blindly or arbitrarily managing the team. The latter can go a long way!