Thursday, May 16, 2013

It's a simple question: do you care about your people, or your career?

Nick Palmisciano is a former infantry officer in the U.S. Army. At the start of an interesting set of comments about being a new Army infantry officer (engagingly titled "Don't Be A Douche"), an interesting comment on caring about your people:
2.) Your guys are more important than your career.  
This ties in nicely with my last point, but it is worthy of its own bullet.  You’re all going to be civilians someday, no matter how much you love the military or how long you serve.  Years from now, the fact that you made Colonel or Sergeant Major won't erase the fact that you threw some unsuspecting subordinate under the bus to avoid punishment, and it certainly won't remove a stupid decision you made based on pressure from above that got someone killed or injured.  Every leader I've ever respected has been willing to stand in the Gates of Fire when it mattered.  If you're not willing to do this for your people, be honest with yourself and quit.  Join corporate America – you'll just annoy people, not get them killed, and you'll make more money.  Everyone wins.
I'm reminded of (former Marine commandant) Al Gray's comment to The Basic School in Tom Ricks' great book Making the Corps:
What bothers him most about today's military, he goes on to say, is careerism. It has eroded the other services  he warns, and is creeping into the Corps. The only thing you should worry about, he tells the assembled second lieutenants, is taking care of your people. In fact, he recommends adding one new little box to the officer evaluation reports: It would say, Does this officer care more about his career than about his troops? A "yes" mark would terminate that officer's career. 
Obviously, the evaluation criteria for officers in the military and managers in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries are very different. The military expects 'leadership' (a vague term, to be sure) out of its officers and senior non-commissioned officers as a primary responsibility; that's not necessarily the case for the business world.

However, I believe that direct reports can sense when supervisors and managers see them as valued members of a team (not, I note, just by referring to them as "a team") and not human data collection devices that will provide information/products/processes that will lead to greater corporate glory.*

I'm not naive enough to think that there isn't a mutual benefit aspect to this, of course. A good way to move up in the world is "make your boss look good." (Making your boss look bad, of course, is a good way to move down as well.) Direct reports are very, very good at sensing when that "mutual benefit" is out of balance, and they're even better at sensing when managers are actively taking credit for results and decisions that they did not make.

I agree with General Gray -- larger organizations should take note of the potential careerism of their employees and incorporate it into their evaluations of managers. I am, of course, hopelessly naive.

*This is probably where industry's long-time model for scientific administration may be failing. It is usually the case that the person at the top is some combination of "the smartest scientist" and "the most senior person" and "the person most likely to make good decisions." Somehow, that got translated into "to be a people manager/supervisor, you probably need a Ph.D." Academics don't teach leadership/mentorship skills to their graduate students, and I am not sure that they should. 


  1. The less that your family (ie wives and parents) evaluates you on the money and status you obtain in your career, than the more likely you are to hold to high standards of objectivity and integrity. Unless, of course, if you have the golden hands and all of your fantastic ideas work, then you can have it all.

  2. Of course you should not have to be taught leadership/mentorship skills in graduate school. You should show up with the skills already cultivated in high school and college, which initiative, leadership, and work habits are learned. Apparently this assumption is idealistic given the way graduate students let laboratory equipment fall into disrepair since simple maintenance takes away from their time to get "results."

  3. It appears in Palmisciano's article that the military likes to insert some young fast-tracking hotshot into the pecking order ahead of much more experienced guys who didn't go to Berkeley, I mean West Point. Seems like industry is jumping on this bandwagon more and more; recently promoted managers all seem to be late-20s hotshots instead of seasoned veterans. Ditto for the glass ceiling for anyone who lacks a credential regardless of actual job performance.

  4. I think this is mirrored in a lot of overall business strategy as well. Instead of a company making choices for developing a robust and sustainable business model, they make choices to maximize current profits as much as possible, no matter the financial or legal cost to the future of their business or its brand. Apparently a lot of money now is better than even more lots and lots of money in the future.

    This is analogous maybe to a pre-tenure professor who might overlook some malfeasance or ethical shortcuts by his or her grad students if it's producing big journal publications that allows the prof to secure tenure. Not that this sort of thing ever happens in major academia. No siree.