Areas of concern

Early in my career as a manager, I attended a discussion where the question was raised: are we people managers or business managers?  Is it more important to be good with people, or to know the business side of your product?  Over time I have realized it’s much more than just those two – and I’ve begun calling them the axes of concern.

Which axis is most important?

  • You could say that the people are the most important. Without them, you can’t produce your product.
  • You could argue that the product is most important.  Without it, you can’t employ your people.
  • You could argue that the process is the most important.  Without it, people are ineffective.

The truth is your organization and your employees need you to focus at different axes at different times.  Effective managers can operate comfortably on a variety of axes.  Of course, we’re all naturally going to gravitate towards the axes that make us the most comfortable, or where we feel most effective.  It’s part of managing your own career to figure out how to get into roles and surround yourself with the right people so you can focus on the axes where you are most effective, without the organization paying the price.

It might be your first instinct, when hiring someone, to pick someone who values the same skills you value.  You’re a strong process guy, and you’ve just interviewed a candidate who feels just as strongly about process as you.  Congratulations!  But if neither of you are good with people, your team is lagging.  Nobody is focusing on an axis which is at times the most important one.

Likewise, it’s vital when thinking about your own career to think about how your management views these axes of concern.  You may have incredible technical instincts, but if your manager dedicates most of his time to thinking about Process and People, your strength on the Technical axis might escape his notice, even if you’re helping make sure his organization is well-rounded.  You may have to take some extra time to make sure he’s aware of your contribution in that area.  When people talk about how hard it is to do self appraisals, I think of issues like this — just talking about how cool you are can be difficult, sure, but the real challenge is figuring out how to spin the fact that you’re great at something your manager doesn’t seem to care about (while suppressing the fact that you aren’t so great at something your manager clearly does care about).

Over the years I’ve enjoyed the mental exercise of thinking about these various axes of concern and modeling them at their extreme both in my own life and those around me.  Some mental games to play:

  • If you replaced your entire team with code-producing computer algorithms, and your job was simply managing the business priorities to figure out what those algorithms produced according to schedule, would you be happier?  Would you feel like you could finally do your job?
  • If every artifact your team produced was immediately thrown in the trash and nobody cared what they did, would you be happier?  Would you feel like you could finally do your job?

When you find yourself too strongly aligned to a single axis, it’s probably time to take a look at your surroundings and make sure you are still operating effectively.  Whenever the structure of your organization changes, rethink your alignment on the axes.  Don’t be blind to a sudden shift in priority at the senior management level, for example.