Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What Jill Abramson Didn't Know

I doubt that Jeffrey Pfeffer has inside information about why Jill Abramson was fired by the New York Times, but if the stories about Abramson’s abrasiveness are half-true, she probably failed to cultivate the right relationships.

Leadership and management do not involve telling people what to do. They do not involve self-assertion or leaning-in. They do require that you develop and sustain good relationships with those above you and those below you.

Good managers set policy. They also create the best conditions for the implementation of that policy. It cannot occur if the leader does not have good relationships with others.

To be clear, the basis for such relationships is respect and courtesy. It has nothing to do with sharing personal or intimate information.

Pfeffer emphasizes the most difficult aspect of management, getting other people to do their best work:

You have to make them work, not only to get things done in the web of interdependencies that characterize most jobs, but also to keep your position. Leaders need support—from their subordinates, customers, and most importantly, their bosses. When that support vanishes, so do their careers. This lesson holds true regardless of your job performance and track record.

Most managers know that they must manage their staff. They should also take special care to manage their superiors. Abramson’s problem was not merely the complaints of her staff, but her failure to develop a good relationship with her boss, Arthur Sulzberger.

Pfeffer writes:

And everyone, even chief executives and executive editors, has a boss. Insufficient attention to managing relationships with bosses, such as boards of directors, has cost many otherwise talented and successful people their jobs—witness, as one example, last summer’s ousting of Men’s Wearhouse (MW) founder and emblematic spokesperson, George Zimmer, from his role as chairman of the board.

First, Pfeffer explains how not to do it. What should you not do when you are hired to manage people who want to have your job, or who think that they ought to have your job:

There are many natural human responses to such circumstances. One is to ignore your rivals and enemies. Another is to try to show everyone around you how smart you are and how much you deserve the job, in the hope that outstanding job performance will win them over. A third is to try to hire your own team and replace your enemies, a strategy that often can’t be implemented and has its own risks as you bring in other, inexperienced (albeit loyal) people to help you run a complex operation.

Evidently, such an approach foments contention and conflict. Some respond by complaining or even politicizing the problem, but it is better to learn how to manage a situation.

Pfeffer offers some suggestions:

… identify the most critical relationships, those individuals crucial to both your success and the success of the business, and nurture those relationships. This entails asking people’s opinions, even if you don’t think their views are likely to be helpful. It means telling people what you are doing and why—sharing information with them so they never feel left out. Serving relationships means going to visit people in their offices, not yours, and in countless other ways showing others that you value them, their experience, and their expertise.

Note well the importance of being open and transparent. People who feel that they are part of an enterprise work more effectively than do those who believe that they are working in a vacuum.

And note the importance of generosity and humility. You should not merely be keeping everyone informed, but you do well to drop into your subordinate’s office. It is surely better than summoning him to yours.

It is worth emphasizing, with Pfeffer, that relationships do not just happen. They require a considerable amount of work, made more difficult when you do not much like the people you are working with:

Working on relationships with people you may not like or even respect is difficult work, which is precisely why executive tenure is often so short. After a while, people forget how tenuous everyone’s hold on power is and get tired of the important but often mundane tasks of serving critical relationships.


Sam L. said...

There was an article, Shipmates, in the NEW YORKER, Apr 21 issue. On page 61d, IIRC, there was a promotion ceremony in which the promotee said something like this--if the guys working for me don't look good, I don't look good, so I want to make sure they look good.

David Foster said...

Related post I put up yesterday: Thoughts on Leadership and Command, from Two Writers and a General


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you... excellent post!

Sam L. said...

Concur with Stuart, DF.