Management Lessons From My Bad Bosses (Part V)

(Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV)

Brad, the Middle Manager
I eventually moved on from the blue collar world (and, if we’re counting, the pink collar world, since that’s the color sometimes assigned to retail work) into the white collar world, although by the time I got there, business casual was the norm and the collars were not often white. Now, in many places, the collars at all are optional. I made a couple of moves from technical writing into software quality assurance, back into technical writing, and then onto Brad’s team as a Quality Assurance Analyst I.

Brad managed a team of Quality Assurance Analysts working on a chemical modeling and lab benchtop software suite for a large pharmaceutical firm. By the time I got into my cubicle, the project was late and on the verge of losing money, but that was beyond my purview. That was in Brad’s world, as it were.

I don’t know Brad’s background, but I do know that it was not anywhere in the technical realm of software. He did have an MBA, though, and when the company was hoping to move from a product-based business model (you build it, you sell it, people buy it) to a project-based business model (you promise to build it if someone promises to pay for it), it staffed up its ranks, including its management team. The org chart featured a vice president in charge of projects, a director in charge of projects, a bunch of managers in charge of teams on the projects (at this time, the plural form of project was still only anticipated, and the only actual project, as I mentioned, was in trouble), a set of leads on each team, and then team members. That’s three tiers of management where technical skill was optional, and in Brad’s case was sorely lacking (although his hiring of me proved his keen insight into the matters of personnel).

As far as I could tell, Brad’s main job duties included sitting in meetings with other managers and sometimes team leads (but not the actual meetings with technical staff—the team lead took care of that and assigning roles and day-to-day duties). I am pretty sure he made some PowerPoint presentations and reports of some sort, along with annual goals for the team and individual reviews of his team. But he pushed paper and handled the Parkinson duties of the team.

An anecdote into interacting with Brad: I wanted to buy a $35 text editor that I’d used before to help edit the various and sundry text files a Quality Assurance Analyst I would edit during the course of the day, such as configuration files, batch files, and the special files used by chemical modeling software import features. I told Brad I’d like it. He put it into his process and workflow, and he wanted a business case for it. So I wrote a document that included a comparison between the installed text editors, Microsoft Word and Microsoft Notepad, the advantages of the text editor I wanted (IDM Software’s UltraEdit—since I’ve named its competitors already loaded onto my workstation at the firm, I might was well offer an unsolicited testimonial to it). The document identified all the text files I’d edit with it as well as future uses for it (including the buzzword XML, which would prove important although not relevant at the time).

After reviewing the document, Brad called a meeting of the Quality Assurance Analysis team to discuss it. Before that meeting, though, the team lead called a pre-meeting to discuss it. The four QA team members gathered in a meeting room to discuss what a text editor was and why QA might need it. The importance of editing the data files we’d need to test or reviewing log files was a bit lost, but I mentioned XML, the buzzabbreviation took off. Although the product did not use eXtensible Markup Language now, someday it might. The buzzword traveled up the food chain, and Brad turned the either approved or got approved the purchase.

The process to approve the purchase cost more than the purchase itself, but it was the sort of thing that filled Brad’s day. Until the company, trimming its headcount to stave off the disastrous consequences of its altered business model, cut Brad during a set of layoffs. After that time, the QA Team Lead reported directly to the Director or the Vice President with no productivity loss.

Unlike Ron, Brad was not lost in the trappings of being a successful businessman; Brad was lost in the trappings of being a manager. Brad illustrated to me that managing people doing a task works best if you understand the task at hand and don’t get yourself into a situation where your only skill is holding meetings, preparing papers, doing group projects, and doing the sorts of things that earn you an MBA or used to suffice when you reached a certain level within a very large corporation.

In today’s fluid, lean business world, you have to make sure that you grok the thing you manage and that you can improve the efficiencies and add value to those under you. I kept this in mind when I reached the executive level and spent my time helping my people solve the problems they found in their jobs and increasing the company’s efficiency by boosting the employees’ efficiencies. If I didn’t call enough meetings, so be it. The point of the job was to do the job, not to talk about it.

You can read a hundred books about good business practices, but the lessons within them will only be the abstract knowledge distilled from a cavalcade of someone else’s success. The stories and ideas within them might slide from your consciousness like raindrops from a freshly washed (with the deluxe package including the clear-coat sealant) car. Even when you look back to the good bosses you’ve known personally and have worked under will seem translucent in the pleasurable glow you had from working with them and succeeding in your position therein.

But the lessons you learned from your bad bosses are distinct because they were painful. If you, with enough therapy, can look to them to understand why your bad bosses were bad bosses, you can be a better boss yourself. I’m not talking about studying the psychological motivations or getting in touch with them emotionally to understand what compelled them to behave as they did; I’m talking about understanding why what they did was ineffective as a manager or leader.

Besides, they took a little bit of your soul in those brief hours/days/weeks/months/years you worked for them. Shouldn’t you take a little something back?

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