Politics in IT: Separate Operators From Performers

Operating with operators

I think I'm safe in assuming that most of the people who are reading this are performers; learning from someone else's experiences is not an operator mode of operation. There's no need to tell you anything about how to work with other performers, other than to pay attention and be prepared to learn. But performers need to protect themselves from operators at all levels, whether you report to them or have some on your own team. (It happens to the best of us.)

When it comes to your team, it's essential that you identify the operators and then either change their behavior or replace them. Doing nothing will sap the motivation and momentum of your performers, who may even begin to leave.

Identifying operators who work for you isn't as hard as you might think. I routinely had meetings with all levels of my staff and told the intervening levels of management that I wanted to deal with the team members directly without their involvement. Any manager who nonetheless showed up at such a meeting was behaving like an operator: Such managers felt compelled to find out who was saying what to me, and they couldn't bear the thought that their reports might be talking about them or how they were treated. If no managers show up but no one at the meeting can suggest any improvements and no one engages in unguarded dialog, you probably have found another operator. Staffers who report to an operator often feel too intimidated to talk honestly even when the operator isn't around. Another good tip-off that someone is an operator is an inordinate amount of self-serving credit-taking. Keep in mind that operators who report to you consider you to be upper management, and operators are always trying to present themselves to upper management as the one worthy and reliable person at their level. Everyone should be allowed to take a bow now and then, but with operators, this tendency is excessive.

If you report to an operator, you have more work of another kind to do, but if you are diligent, you will be left alone and have plenty of time to make good and lasting things happen with your team.

You should start to guard your flank as soon as you suspect that the person you report to is an operator. (You don't have to confirm your suspicion; the precautions that I recommend taking are in themselves innocuous, and if it later turns out that your boss is a performer, no harm done.)

Operators thrive on informality, which makes it easier for them to rewrite history or feign convenient amnesia as they contradict your version of events and agreements. To protect yourself, you must become a master of formality. You have to adopt the rigorous habit, as soon as possible after every meeting, of drafting a concise e-mail that reviews the course of action that was decided on, the direction that was given to you, the exact parameters of any assignment given to you, and time frames that were agreed to. My memos tended to start off with a statement such as "I have already begun to implement the actions we discussed at today's meetings, but before my people get too far along, I want to ensure that I haven't misunderstood anything." Then I would go on to outline everything as I recalled it, and I would always close with words such as "Please let me know if anything in this e-mail does not reflect what you understood."

Sometimes, you'll have to take action before you even leave the meeting. Your boss might give you a new assignment that you realize your team doesn't have the resources to handle because of earlier projects that already have you at maximum capacity. (If your boss really is an operator, then he or she probably already knows this and is simply seeing what can be gotten away with.) When it happens, you have to speak up, no matter what heat you might get for doing so. Tell your boss that you can probably handle this new assignment, though it could mean rearranging things and finishing some current projects later than planned. Be reassuring -- "If we can handle it, consider it done." Then do the e-mail thing again in a day or so to inform your boss that unless you can agree on a way to restructure existing priorities, the new assignment will have to wait. Again, end with words to the effect of "Please let me know if anything about this is not clear."

If your boss is an operator, he or she will push back on all this documentation and suggest that all of the follow-up isn't necessary. That is pretty much confirmation of operator status. Which means, of course, that you should not go along with the suggestion. Your e-mails are an insurance policy, making it much more difficult for an operator to pull you this way and that, according to whim.

Those initial follow-up e-mails aren't the end of it. As projects move along, you should have your team, on a monthly basis, keep track of the progress of all formally agreed-upon goals assigned them. Six weeks before your annual review (or your probationary period if you're in a new position), summarize everything carefully. Quantify as much as you can. Demonstrate progress against all your goals, showing how you achieved those that were reached and noting when your performance exceeded the target. Don't just say that projects were completed on time, for the agreed cost and as specified; provide the evidence. If your team was called on to handle ever more units of work, spell out their increased productivity. If they received kudos from your clients, forward them. (And it's a good idea to solicit as much praise from your clients as possible.) Then summarize all of this from the shareholder point of view, explaining how your team avoided cost, improved service or increased revenue.

About a month before your review session, send this report to your manager. Explain in a cover note that you thought this outline of the past few months' progress would be a handy guide during the review process. Of course, the operator manager is going to helpfully suggest that you spend your time on projects other than writing up things that the manager already knows all about. Don't be dissuaded. Just say that it was no trouble, because all of this material was generated by your direct reports anyway, as a way to allow you to objectively measure their performance; it was no trouble to gather it all together and send along to your own manager.

Formality is your antidote to operators' behavior, and dispassionately dealing with every exchange with them will serve you well. Even melodramatic, undisciplined bullies know when the evidence is against them.

Yes, these formalities will take some of your time. You'll find, though, that this will be a very small price to pay for making obstacles to your team's achievement simply vanish.

And your team members' recognition and rewards will be undeniable.

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way, from which this article was adapted. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.

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