Thursday, April 21, 2011

Helicopter Management

There are about as many kinds of management as there are managers.

There are managers who micro-manage:
"First, you're gonna get coffee. Then you're gonna use the factory pattern to add new widgets to the frobble. Then draft an email to this customer and send it my way for review."

There are managers who manage by metrics:
"I see you did 6 story points this week and 8 last week. Talk to me.... what's going on?"

There are managers who try to manage by exception:
"Look, I got you what you needed, and I know you can do it. So I'll get out of your hair and you just let me know if there are any issues."

Different management styles work for different people, on both sides of the relationship. Some people can't manage their own time, and they simply can't work effectively for a someone who manages by exception. Some managers aren't detail-oriented enough to be micro-managers, even if they wanted to be.

There are many good management styles. There is only one truly terrible management style: helicopter management.

The helicopter manager sometimes looks like a manage-by-exception type. He disappears for weeks, and employees just keep moving along with the project. Then, out of nowhere, he shows up and starts micro-managing. Every document and email needs to be personally reviewed by him, and he wants to know about all the design patterns, the rate and type of support calls, and the status of each internal bug found.

Sometimes the helicopter manager has a pattern, showing up at "big events" (releases, major client meetings, sales calls). Other times, it appears completely random. Either way, that style of management exhibits inconsistency and causes the people being managed to waste time trying to figure out how to react.

And that's the thing about management. It's an implicit contract between the manager and the employee that says, "here is what I expect of you, and here is what you expect of me". After that contract is in place, it's up to both the manager and the employee to keep to it, and that means behaving consistently. A helicopter manager violates that consistency and that contract, and that causes people to spend more time worrying about the relationship and less time getting work done.

Be a manager in whatever style works for you and for the people who work for you. Just don't be a bad manager; find a style that works and stick to it until it doesn't work any more. Don't be the one to break the contract. Don't be a helicopter manager.

Disclaimer: I feel the need to point out that I do not currently work with any helicopter managers. This was spawned by a conversation with a friend who is taking her first management position and wanted some advice.

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