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Managing Managers: Avoid Becoming a Victim of Upward Delegation

A common work-happiness killer that lurks amongst senior managers is “I work very hard to meet targets, my juniors do not.  I do their work. I end up spending long hours, I am frustrated.”

This problem is everywhere.  The specific solutions would depend on the exact nature of the industry, organisation, culture, and project situation.  There are, however, some common traps that managers of managers should be aware of and avoid.

Before we proceed, I must reiterate the idea that a good manager must be a good person at heart.  You must have genuine concern for your juniors and their well-being.  Nothing makes me happier than to see juniors blossom under my watch.  I am sure that is the case for you too.  But don’t be naïve.

Trap 1:  Junior says “I don’t have the resources”

In many cases this may be a true assessment of the situation.  In other cases your junior may mean different things:

  1. I want more people under me: I like more people under my control
  2. I don’t want to have to request others to help me.  It’s too much for my ego.
  3. I haven’t assessed the project well.

How to respond: Ask for a detailed assessment of the need, with data.  Question whether your report has looked at available resources within the organisation which, while not directly being under his control, can be borrowed for the job.

When he says “I don’t know how this will work” you can respond with something nice that implies “It’s your job to make it work. Are you up to it?”

If you are pretty sure that he does not need more resources, you could use a more direct approach that wastes less of your time. You can say something to the effect of “I don’t agree with you.  Put your head to it and go solve things.”

If this is his way of breaking bad news about a project, it would be best to tell him what you think of the project status.  “I think you have taken this project into a crisis.  I want you to pull up your socks and sort things out.  I am not sure putting more resources will help.  Figure out all different ways of getting it back on track.”  Put it across nicely.

Trap 2:  “How should I do this?”

Don’t jump to answer this question.

Your mind is telling you “I must help my juniors.  I have to be there for them.”

But beware of providing solutions when you think he is capable of finding his own.  It could lead to a decrease of ownership on his part.  It could set you up for a “You told me to do it this way.”

You can be smart and clarify that you have some ideas but ultimately it is up to him to make it work.

Trap 3: “X is not cooperating”

In many organisations, heads of departments have to make things work across department and team boundaries and they spend a lot of time doing so.

This need not be the case.  Actually, the line managers should be doing it.

You can tell your report to go and build relationships and get things done even when resources are not in his direct control.  “Beg if necessary.  You are a manager.”

Trap 4: “I have done my part”

This is another common retort that you hear often.  Your junior can conveniently redefine his role as “doing some activities”.  In fact, he needs to define it as “doing what is needed” to get results.

Make him responsible for the outcomes.  So what, if everything isn’t in his control?

Trap 5: “We have a crisis”

Actually he means,  YOU have a crisis!  Some people create crises, when none exists, to display their troubleshooting abilities and therefore their worth.

Others create the impression of a crisis to keep you anxious.  That keeps you at bay.  At the end of the day, you should be happy that the project has finished.  Never mind that it was somehow finished.

Yet others find it convenient to escalate when things go out of hand.  Straight into the lap of a willing boss!

Tell yourself, “Relax.  Don’t give in to anxiety.  Let me take a hard look and see what has happened.”  This allows you to make a less emotional and more realistic assessment of the situation.  Get involved only if you need to.

See if you can explore other options like getting another manager to help.  By the way, proud managers usually hate it when other managers are asked to help, as they see this as a reduction of their power and esteem.

Trap 6: “I just want to keep you posted”

Some managers will cc everything to their bosses.  The idea is, when things go bad, he can say “But I kept you informed.”  You could thwart such tactics with a polite “I am happy that you keep me posted.  I would prefer a regular project summary that really shows the current status, rather than a cc of every decision you make.  You own the project and all the decisions there.  Don’t expect me to be on the watch for your errors.”

Trap 7:  Junior barges in for a big decision when you are busy or vulnerable

Clever juniors will carefully pick a time to talk with you and get your go-ahead on big decisions.  Either when you are very busy or most vulnerable, such as, just before the monthly review!

If you can help it, ask him to come later.  If he has finessed you, tell him directly “Don’t ever do this to me again.”

I had a junior who was adept at this.  He forced me to adapt and survive!

Building a Culture of Ownership

Last year I witnessed a leadership development program for top managers at a well known textile brand.  At the end of the program they were all chanting “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” That line bears repeating.

Encourage your juniors to take charge of outcomes.  Praise them openly for taking charge and delivering.  Don’t rush to pin blame when they fail, as long as they were really earnest in their effort.

Make them understand that they will not have perfect conditions, far from it. They will have to seek help from others not under them.  They will have to take risks.  They will have to suffer from conditions that are outside of their control. That is the nature of things in business.

Your own beliefs about being a “good manager” may come in the way.  Tell yourself “This is the only way my juniors will grow.  I owe it to them.”

Teach Strategic Thinking

Teach your reports to think strategically; to think of the big picture.  This topic deserves a separate post. So I won’t write much here.

The Shadow Side

This post is not meant to be a lesson in “non-stick” management.  Take this in the right spirit.  It’s not meant to be a Dilbertian view of management.  Indeed, you cannot promote an ownership culture without leading from the front.   I only urge you to be watchful for upward delegation.  And keep your wits about you.


Dealing with Prima Donnas

This post is about how managers can deal with people who are precious to your team but come with toxic behaviour.   Though my experience has been almost entirely in the software industry where this is a big problem, I think the problem exists in almost all fields.

Here are various definitions of the term “Prima Donna”:

  • a very temperamental person with an inflated view of his/her own talent or importance
  • a person who is difficult to please and who expects to be treated better than everyone else
  • a vain or undisciplined person who finds it difficult to work under direction or as part of a team

You probably see a few of them around in your organisation.

Prima donnas are Problematic

  1. They can damage the team spirit that you have so carefully built
  2. Others resent the special attention they manage to get – the unhappiness spreads
  3. They reduce your moral authority when you break your own rules to accommodate them
  4. They are a permanent source of irritation
  5. They create huge management overheads
  6. They set bad examples for juniors

But they are Precious

If such people were not precious to the organization, it would be easy to cast them aside.  The problem is, when such people possess unique knowledge, skills, and capabilities that make them indispensible.

While knowledge may be picked up by others, it is nearly impossible to replace these prima donnas who possess special but rare-to-find skills.

It can be a headache

When rules are bent to accommodate their demands it creates a bad precedent within the organization.  There is the hard working, team player who always puts the organization ahead of himself and does not complain.  He feels short changed when he sees the prima donna succeed in having his way.

Once, anxious not to lose such a prima-donna on my team, I offered him a unique pay package.  I then ended up spending the next six months dealing with simmering discontent within the organisation.

The problem is: you need both of them

You need the problematic specialist who can solve problems no one else can, as well as the team player who is always there when needed.

Here are a few tips to consider when a problem like this turns into a crisis and you find yourself between a rock and a hard place.

Short term solutions

  1. Reach out to your team through informal channels and tell them that you are aware of the problem, but also that you do not see an immediate solution; that everybody has to live with it in the short term.  Do not assume that the quiet, uncomplaining types do not feel hurt; reach out to them.  Assuage their hurt.
  2. Place emotionally strong and committed team players in the group.  Tell them explicitly that their task is to reduce the impact of the prima donna.
  3. Bargain hard with the problematic guy: give favours in return for good behaviour rather than task completion.  But do this very carefully.  Keep looking for opportunities to replace the guy as soon as you can.
  4. Keep yourself cool.  That sets an example for others to show that one can manage in spite of the situation.
  5. Assess the cost vs. benefits calmly. “Can I really do without the expert? Can I manage the destruction he causes?  How easy or difficult is it to replace him?”  Don’t rush to fire the expert in anger.  Don’t let fear overcome you either.

After much thought, a chartered accountant recently fired the only employee who was most familiar with his clients’ accounts, but had become impossible to manage.  He is living through the crisis but is delighted that he found his courage when he needed it.

  1. Accept the situation.  You may feel the guilt of not being fair with others.  Don’t be harsh on yourself.  It is ok.  You cannot be fair all the time.
  2. Don’t fall for arguments from the cynics.  Don’t let them make you feel that you no longer have the moral authority to enforce team rules.

Some ideas for the long term

  1. Create an environment where those who do not complain get as much attention as others. Set this culture in your team.  Remember that deliberate actions repeated over time define the way things are done in your team.
  2. Constantly try to reduce knowledge “dark spots” even when there is no crisis.  Encourage a culture of knowledge sharing.  Remind people that “Nobody cares about what you know, until they know that you care about them.”  Reward knowledge sharing as much as learning.
  3. Use tools and processes to simplify, share, and collaborate.  Sometimes merely enforcing transparency can do the trick.
  4. Tell people that they must have the humility to accept the Specialist for his superior knowledge or skills.  They will also have to tolerate his idiosyncrasies.  Set expectations amongst them such that the problem is manageable.
  5. Your time is precious and there is only so much to spend on “face-time” with team members.  But don’t let the loudest child hog the most time.  Spend good time with the committed but quiet people.
  6. Watch out for individuals who refuse to share their knowledge.  If you can afford it, set “buffers” around such people before the problem gets out of hand.
  7. Examine whether an executive coach may be of help to change the problem guy’s attitude.  Remember that coaching works only if the person himself is willing to change.

In some work environments and industries this problem will never go away.    This is especially so where the specialist has skills that others don’t.  What else can one do in such cases other than getting used to it!

Ramu and Shamu : Reader Comments

This time we cover an interesting thread of discussion initiated Sanjay Gadkari on the post Ramu and Shamu by Sanjiv Marathe

But before that, interesting thoughts from Suman Mukherjee as the year comes to an end.

1.  Success (Meaning how others measure you against some conventional standard) and Happiness (Pertaining to what you feel inside yourself) are tricky ideas when it come to professional growth. The real challenge is balancing the two when we are at the workplace.

2.  Work – Life balance (Implying work as the center of things and how life needs to be balanced around work to succeed at work without destabilizing your home) Vs. Life – work balance (Implying life and living well as the center of things and how work needs to be balanced around life to succeed at living life without jeopardizing your work)

Coming back to the post Ramu and Shamu

Sanjay Gadkari says…

Yes. Both Ramu & Shamu characters are seen every day around us. Today’s world is of street smart – Shamus. But most of us are brought up “Ramu way”. I mean our up bringing taught us to be Sincere, Hard working, Punctual, not to break rules etc. Unfortunately, the time has come to conclude that all these “qualities” are no more good for one’s success. In fact, the story tells us – Being always late, jumping stop signals.. etc. are in a way building the character of Shamu who would succeed in life.

The question is – are our ways of upbringing outdated ? Should we preach our children to be “Street Smart” the way Shamu was ??
I can understand to be little smart & enthusiastic. But today, the corporate world is promoting peolpe who are not sincere, who breaks the rules, or get the result buy hook or crook. Is this a good state of affairs ?

Sanjiv Marathe responds…


But I am also looking at the old man’s judgment. He trusted Shamu in spite of his initial failures and allowed his so called “experiments” to continue. He had faith in him that one day Shamu will learn from his mistakes, and eventually the ROI would be much higer.

Today, as a manager I have say 10 juniors reporting to me. To what extent do I allow them to break the rules? Hardly any!! Today’s juniors will just take advantage of “relaxed rules” and go party !!

How do I bring myself up to the maturity and trusting level of the old man?

Anyway, thank you Sandeep. interjects…

In an organisation we need both kinds of people and we need to encourage each person to develop his talents in the appropriate direction. An astute manager will recognise Shamu’s talents in entrepreneurship. At the same time, watch out for the shadow side i.e. ethically unacceptable practises.

Simultaneously, he will recognise Ramu’s talent for discipline and process orientation (we lament the lack of this in fresh engineers). I would then help Ramu with his shadow side i.e. not trying out new things for fear of being reprimanded.

Comment from Sanjay Gadkari…

It is really a tough task to identify Shamus who have great potential which can be developed. If we aquire that skill, may be we can make leaders for tomorrow ! But identification is the issue. Otherwise, all the Shamus (face value) will keep getting pat on the back; we will develop a culture that the way of life is – Jump the red lights, never be in time.. and so on.
Safer way could be to train Ramu to take some risks; be agressive in life.



Why Don’t Leaders Communicate

Most readers of this blog must have felt at some time or the other that their leaders do not communicate enough.

Communication from the top is key, when it comes to happy, healthy organizations.

As a stakeholder, I want to know where we are going.  How good is the future for my organisation and therefore, for me.

Lack of such communication creates heartburn. It is one of the biggest factors contributing to employee turnover after “bad boss”.

We know this. The question then is, is why don’t leaders then communicate?  I am talking here specifically about organisation wide messages that CEOs need to send to their employees.

I think, leaders know that communication is important.  The reality however is: it is tough to communicate!

Here’s why:

1.  Not having a clear idea of the future.

Listeners are looking for clarity on where the organisation is headed.  This clarity is often not there.  Leaders know what they are going to TRY but not always about how things are going to turn out.  Leaders don’t want to wind themselves up in knots with this.

2.    Wanting to look in control

Leaders feel the burden of expectation of being the one with all the answers.  Reality is, they don’t. It is tough to stand up and say so.

3.  Need to have winning news

This MD friend of mine thought that we should have a town hall meeting only when we had clinched a big deal.  “Else”, he would ask “what is there to tell?”

It feels nice to stand up and proudly announce winning news.  But that may not always be the case.

4.  Not making commitments

Leaders need to make forward looking statements.  It is a headache to publicly make commitments and put that pressure on oneself.

5. Keeping options open

Leaders find it easier to use “unofficial channels” to communicate ideas in ways that allow them to keep other options open.  They find this much more “manageable”.

6. Managing expectations

Listeners are looking for BIG news from leaders.  Often, progress is achieved in small steps.  So, even when the organisation is inching forward as it should, leaders find it tough to manage expectations people have from such “events”.

So, next time you catch yourself complaining about this, give your top management some rope.  Take the initiative to talk to them about where the organisation is going.   Don’t expect clear answers always.  But keep talking.

Take The Lead

Don’t wait for such town halls.  If your company is listed, you will definitely be able to see the financials.  The best place to understand the business is by looking at cashflows.  If you are not familiar with this subject, read up.

Understand what the operating cashflows are and how they have changed over time. If the reports provide department wise or BU wise cashflow details, understand which businesses are generating more cash than others.

Take an interest in knowing the company’s strategy and ask questions when you can.

What Is My Purpose

At the core of the communication question is the question of purpose.  Purpose is the meaning that we derive for our work.   This is not just vision or mission.  It is the reason why we as an organisation exist.  It is how we contribute to the world.

Sadly, sometimes leaders fail to communicate even this.

Find out the purpose that your organisation stands for.  Next, build a mental link between your work and the purpose.

Here is an example from a company that makes specialized software products that banks use to process payments.  “Payments is the pulse of every business.  We keep that pulse ticking.”

As a programmer working in the company put it “When I write code I imagine that somebody’s heart operation is waiting for a payment to reach.  My program makes that happen- swiftly, efficiently, without errors.”

You are not alone in that cubicle.

Ramu and Shamu

Here is a guest article from  Sanjiv Marathe.  See here for more about Sanjiv

Old Man had been behind the wheel for many years. Everyone in the town knew about his taxi service.  It was reliable. Old Man was a good driver, loved his cars and took good care of them.
His service was in demand, but age was catching up. Old Man wanted to retire.

Thus it came about that he hired two drivers Ramu and Shamu.

Ramu was sincere and hard working.         Shamu was enthusiastic.

When Old Man started their training on safe driving, Ramu listened carefully, Shamu got bored easily.

When Ramu was practicing parallel parking, Shamu was busy racing with other cars.

Soon, both started taking passengers across cities. Ramu was punctual; when someone booked a taxi at 10:00, he used to be at the door at 9:55 itself. He drove carefully, never crossing the speed limit.

Shamu on the other hand was always late. But if the passenger expressed a genuine urgency, like catching a flight, Shamu somehow managed to reach the airport on time, sometimes jumping stop signals and exceeding speed limits. Still, he never had any accident, not yet, at least.

Once a passenger wanted to reach early and pressed Ramu to do whatever he could. For the first time Ramu took a short cut. Unfortunately the road was under repairs. They reached the destination very late. Old Man scolded Ramu for not obeying instructions.

From that day, Ramu curbed all his instincts and only followed planned routes. He stopped giving suggestions because he could not give satisfactory answers to Old Man’s questions though, Ramu felt he had done nothing wrong.

With Shamu, on the other hand, detours were common. He would try different routes without paying much attention to Old Man’s orders. Initially he ran into difficulties, but he learned from his mistakes. Soon he found out what worked and what doesn’t. Like which roads have less traffic, where do policemen keep a watch and where they are don’t .

Ramu would never open the bonnet and would alway rely on service centre even for a small fix. Even for a wiper change, he would get three quotations, compare them and obtain a proper approval from Old Man.

Shamu was the curious sort. He acquired elementary know-how on car internals like engine, hydraulics, and wiring. Shamu never bothered to ask and took liberties with maintaining the car.

He decided on the spare parts, the seat covers, tyres… and just sent the bills to Old Man.   Initially his experiments failed, but he persisted and figured it out.

While Ramu never looked beyond his assigned tasks, Shamu was busy learning about other cars in the market and what the competitors were upto.

Ramu spent his spare time calculating improvements in mileage on account of an improved engine oil.  Shamu spent his free time befriending and helping garage repairmen. He could call them in case of emergency even at 2 o’clock at night.

Once it so happened that Ramu while taking a turn a jeep came from behind and scratched Ramu’s bumper.   Though it was jeep driver’s fault, Ramu lost the case because the rule says “indicator should be shown 150 meters before the turn”; Ramu had shown it at 140 meters.

Had this incident occurred with Shamu, he would have blasted the other guy with a few choice cuss words, and may be grabbed the perfume bottle from the jeep as compensation and move on.

Once Ramu’s car broke down just a kilometre from the destination. The gears were stuck. He panicked and could not to handle the situation.  Ramu kept calling the 1-800 number of the service help desk. But to no avail. One by one all passengers got down; they refused to pay, refused to help, and made their own arrangements.

Shamu had learnt that it’s nothing to do with the gears but an issue with the clutch cable. He could cut the cable and fasten a piece of wire. It was a temporary fix, but it worked for the last kilometre.  There would have been a slight delay in reaching the destination, but he could manage to keep his passengers happy. And they would pay.

Two years later.  Old Man was considering his deputees performance. He could not find any obvious lacunae with Ramu.   He had worked sincerely to train to drive well. For him it was job where he obeyed orders. Performing his duty meant a job well done.

Shamu’s driving  was not as good. But he enjoyed every part his job.  Shamu asserted his authority in deciding everything regarding his car.

Travelling with Ramu was boring while Shamu regaled his audience with his stories.

Though Shamu had at least 20 points on his improvement list, and though his car had higher maintenance costs, Shamu had progressed beyond his job description. He had shown innovativeness on many occasions and has saved the business a lot of trouble.

People are more comfortable dealing with him; passengers loved him.

To Old Man, that’s what mattered the most.

What would matter to you?  Who has done a better job?

Conflict In Teams May Be A Good Thing!

One source of unhappiness at work is conflict within teams.

We simply cannot understand why the other person has to behave the way he does, in team situations.

“He comes late.” “He is unprepared for meetings.” “She calls too many meetings.” “She disagrees with everything I say in meetings.” and so on.

Here is an alternate view of the situation: People come with different inherent traits. These play out in variety of behaviours. When we fail to understand why the person behaves that way, we feel unhappy.

Dr Meredith Belbin has created a model for various team roles. Here is a short description:

Action Oriented Roles

Shaper: Dynamic, extroverted people who challenge the team to improve.

May be seen as argumentative.

Implementer: They get things done. Convert ideas into practical plans and into actions.

May be seen as inflexible and resistant to change.

Completer-Finisher: Pay great attention to details. Dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Perfectionists.

Prone to anxiety, refusal to delegate.

People Oriented Roles

Co-ordinator: Interested in building consensus within teams. Excellent listeners. Want to guide the group towards common objectives.

May tend to be manipulative.

Team Worker: Supportive, do what is needed for the team rather than what interests them. Flexible, diplomatic.

May be indecisive, maintain unclear positions during decision making.

Resource Investigator: Well networked outside the team. They can sell the team’s ideas to others and get necessary resources.

May lose enthusiasm quickly, over optimistic.

Thought Oriented Roles

Plant: Creative innovators. Introverted, like to work alone rather than in a team.

Cannot take criticism, may be poor communicators.

Monitor Evaluator: Can analyse ideas. Carefully weigh pros and cons before coming to a decision.

May be perceived as detached, unemotional.

Specialist: Pride themselves in their deep knowledge, skills, abilities. They constantly keep learning in their field of expertise.

Pre-occupation with technicalities, unable to see the big picture.

We can easily see that each of us tend to play a few roles more than others. We are also likely to show some of the weaknesses described.

We could learn to appreciate the other members style, role and contribution.

We could also learn to tolerate their weaknesses. We can stop assigning them labels such as “unprofessional” or “enemy” and do ourselves a ton of good.

Indeed, a diversity in traits is necessary for the success your projects!  Developing a tolerance for this diversity will not just make you successful but happier too.

Touching Rendition Of The National Anthem


This post has got not much to do with the topic of this blog.  But I feel compelled to share this youtube video.

This video an assertion of life.  Of that irrepressible force  within all of us to find meaning, dignity and happiness within our circumstances.  That life is possible inspite of all odds.  Indeed, those with less can be greater human beings.

The things we discuss on this blog, pale in comparison.

Thanks to my brother Raj S Rajagopalan for bringing this video to my notice.