Business Advice, from the Geek-Side - Issue #1

How to destroy a good idea

or

Management techniques designed to kill your business

Over the years of my career as a software engineer I have worked for a nice, wide variety of organisations, and to be honest with you there is a lot to be said for the learning opportunities presented by moving around a little and actively observing many businesses as a whole, rather than simply paying attention to one's own bailiwick.

Clearly I am not saying that I have all the answers, but here are a few things that I would strongly urge all business to AVOID doing, at all costs, and not just with software engineers, but frankly any staff. Really I am talking to Senior people in any discipline about what to watch out for when choosing a new role and perhaps more importantly what not to do when your next role or the one after takes you into a position where you are the boss, either of a major department or a whole company. Management that already thinks any of the approaches that I outline below are good ideas is already doomed, and they are going to assume that they know better than me or anyone else already, so I'm not expecting to win any hearts and minds here.

You may, upon reading this article, find it difficult to believe that any business is now or ever has been guilty of falling into these divisive patterns of management - if you do I am very pleased for you; what a charmed life you have led thus far - but I promise faithfully that all of these ideas have been born out of my own experience of the workplace, and all of them have happened in more than one place and at more than one time.


Do not lie to people at interview either about the role or your company culture.

It has become clear to me that a lot of organisations seem to think that experienced professionals are unlikely to join their ranks without a lot of what at best can be described as "selling the benefits" and at worst can be described as lies.

Setting aside the obvious point that if you are thinking this you might want to consider making some changes to the way in which your company operates and its overall culture, there is a way to make this work.

No one, and I say this with love, no one goes to their job because they love it more than lying in bed or going fishing or whatever floats their actual boat. People who run their own companies are doing what floats their boat, but working for someone else is always about paying the rent, putting food on the table and hopefully having enough money to go fishing (or whatever). As such people want to know what they are getting into in return for the time and effort that they are prepared to sell to their employer for money.

If you lie to them about what their duties will be, how much authority they will have or indeed anything else about the role that may help them decide if it is a deal on their side of the equation, then they will find out that you lied to them pretty quickly and they WILL NEVER TRUST YOU AGAIN.

If there are problems in your business's culture, if you expect people to work long hours, if you do not offer your senior team autonomy but instead micro-manage them, then be open about it. Any candidate who still wants to come and work for you, after you have been open about what they are getting into, is not going to be able to complain about it later. Not only that, but if they decide to sell you their time and effort on the terms that you have been honest about, you get two other side benefits.

They will trust you - because you were honest - and they will almost certainly see any improvement in your corporate culture as a huge win and become happier and more loyal. The other fringe benefit is that if no one ever accepts a job with your company you will start to build up a picture of the things that you need to fix.

Communicate honestly and transparently with your people as soon and as often as you can.

Silence will be filled with GOSSIP.

If you do not tell your people about the problems as quickly and openly as you do about the successes then your business will become consumed with "Did you hear that Joe is on the way out? I heard from Marie in Marketing that she heard from someone in HR that they are just looking for a reason to push him out..." and "I hear that the numbers are down, I guess there are going to be lay-offs".

Okay, let me be clear; sometimes there are very good reasons to limit the spread of certain information, especially to begin with, be those legal, competitive or whatever. The key is to communicate with all of the people that you can, as soon as you can. If there is a "circle of trust" make sure that they are discrete and can be trusted, otherwise you may as well have told the whole company or organisation.

All businesses have difficulties, but trying to hide them is poison. If you share the issues that are going on in your company, whether from without or within, as soon as you possibly can, then you kill the snake of gossip and rumour stone dead. I have seen happy, productive and motivated teams descend into fear, paranoia and bitchiness in a matter of days - hours in one case - just because the top tier management did not have the guts to come clean with their staff.

Timely and honest communication can quite simply solve this problem. It seems scary, but the organisations that I have worked for who operated in the open with their staff had far better morale, staff retention and overall results than the ones that did not.

Do not micro-manage. Do not drive from the back seat. Let smart people do their jobs.

So you've hired someone on the basis of an extensive hiring process. They have the skills, the experience and the character / cultural fit for your business and you are paying them a reasonably large salary, large enough that you need to be absolutely sure that you get value. At all times try to remember that you hired them to do a specific job, a job that you do not have the skills, understanding or experience to do for yourself, or else you would not have needed to hire them.

If you constantly inspect their decision-making and challenge or worse still override them they will not stay in your business for long. Great leaders in business and other walks of life all agree, hiring good people and then getting the hell out of their way offers outcomes which are far far better than constantly being in their way. Clearly I am not suggesting that anyone should allow their staff greater power or freedom than is appropriate to their respective roles.

For the sake of clarity, I am not saying that a CEO, Owner or Founder should not step in occasionally and make adjustments or break ties in the Senior Team. There is clearly a need, from time to time for there to be one leader, one voice, that is what being at the top of an organisation sometimes requires. The kind of behaviour I am referring to is a consistent approach of "Lalalalala, I'm not listening" - a CEO, Owner or Founder who never accepts the ideas, advice or counsel of their Senior Team and is so insecure and immature in their approach to running the business that they fail to delegate real decision-making powers to their senior team, ever. Sometimes these top-tier people will justify this level of micro-management, supervision and control by claiming that they are disappointed with the performance of the people that they are smothering. My answer to this is simple; give them space, see if they deliver. You can always fire them as not fit for the position if you truly are disappointed with their performance, but you will never know for sure until you let them really do the job.

Let us imagine you have hired a Chief Technology Officer to run the tech side of your business. The best way to get value from that hire is to give them a budget and a set of objectives and then let them deliver what they discuss with you is possible in terms of time and budget. Telling them what to do from day to day and not allowing them the space to work out how to leverage their skills and experience to get a good result for the company will not only lead to bad results, but will also drive them out of your company very, very quickly. Once you have driven them away you will need to hire a replacement and absorb the financial, temporal and morale damage that is unavoidably going to be incurred by their departure.

All of this can be avoided by having the grace and maturity to let them do their job, because it is highly likely that their greatest wish is to do a good job and to help your company become even more of a success. What they do not want to do is tolerate constant interference or dodge and weave through palace intrigue, while doing the best that they can under the circumstances to avoid simply delivering disaster and failure.

Do not ignore a consensus from your staff that something is a bad idea.

If you want to achieve something, and either the goal or the plan you have laid out is universally rejected as "a bad idea" by your team, you need to listen to them. You hired them because they bring skills and experience to the table. If none of them believe that your goal or your route to that goal is going to work either within the parameters you have set or at all, then there is a reason and you need to hear them out.

Most people find it hard enough to speak truth to power, so if they have girded their loins and screwed their courage to the sticking place to tell you how and why they feel the idea is bad, then they are not making it up, and it is too big a deal to ignore.

The essence of this is even if the idea or the plan you have is the dearest thing to your heart, just because you are the boss is not enough of a reason if everyone that works for you thinks you have lost the plot. At the very least you need to persuade them, and that process does not include simply threatening or manipulating them, okay?

I have experienced this first hand more than once, but here is an example.

I was working for an organisation that was interested in opening contact centres in several of its operating locales, but not by using BPO / outsourcing options, by instead building bricks and mortar contact centres with on premises call centre servers / systems. No one in the senior team believed that this was a good idea, the Heads of Marketing and Product were unconvinced of the utility and the ROI for the capital expenditure, I was deeply suspicious of the proposed platform and the obvious workload that integration was going to immediately place on an already stretched engineering department and the Head of Operations, a chap with twenty-five years experience in the contact centre industry, described the plan as lunacy.

Nonetheless we were told that the plan was moving ahead and we all invested extensive time and effort in the project, in my own experience causing me to work extended hours that were incredibly onerous in order to keep up with this new workload and my existing duties.

I did in the end speak privately with one of the people driving the decision-making and made several points to try and highlight the problems with the project. This person laughed in my face and told me that I had no idea what I was talking about. I do not relish playing the age card, but I was working in engineering for companies with contact centres whilst this person was still in high school, and I knew that I was very much in possession of enough experience to know exactly what I was talking about.

Nonetheless they rejected my advice in a very unprofessional and rude manner and then told me to get back to it, that delivery was an unmovable deadline. Of course as we approached the delivery deadline the Head of Operations quit over being micro-managed and then ignored. Then, as the truth of many of our objections became more and more clear, the project was eventually, quietly put back on the shelf. As a company we wasted months of man power and an untold amount of money, all of which could have been avoided by the decision-makers listening to the considered counsel of their team.

If you ignore a consensus from your staff that something is a bad idea, do not try to pretend that it never happened.

As an addendum to the prior maxim, if you decide to press on regardless with a project or goal against the advice of the people who work for you, and they turn out to have been right, do not do anything to paper over the cracks in your decision-making.

In fact I would go further and suggest that you need to go back to your team and honestly own the mistake and encourage them to believe that in the future they will be listened to. Failure to do so, and indeed failure to actually modify your behaviour in this regard, will lead to people at every level in your business beginning to become aware that you are arrogant, stubborn and not worthy of trust or honesty.

It is your job to lead, to set the direction and get the team to buy into your ideas honestly in order that you end up with a successful execution. If you continually ignore the counsel of your people, and never own your mistakes no one will want to work for you, and word travels fast.

The decision-makers in the organisation I mentioned in my last point drove me and three others out of the company over a six month period by repeatedly ignoring our counsel and then laying the blame for failure on us, even though we had moved heaven and earth to attempt to make a success of their ill considered plans.

One might easily suspect that we simply allowed the things that we disagreed with to fail, but I can say with a clear conscience that none of us were prepared to do that just to prove a point, and I think you would be very unlikely to find any true professional who is prepared to simply watch a fire burn in their company, out of nothing more than spite.

Do not welch on your bargains with your staff.

If you make a deal with your staff about something, for example accepting their estimate on the delivery of a feature based on X amount of resource, do not demand that they hit the deadline if you take some of the expected resource away from them by fiat.

No one likes deadlines to slip (believe it or not software engineers hate it) but what could be done in six weeks with six developers simply cannot be done in the same time-frame with two developers.

There is a famous idea that states that there are three sides to any productivity equation, and those sides represent cost, speed and quality. It is impossible to minimise cost while at the same time maximising quality and speed - you can only pick two sides of the triangle at any one time. If you want to keep something cheap and high quality then time must be sacrificed. If you want something at a very high quality in a very short period of time then the cost will be radically increased.

This is true of building a house, or a road, or a software system. Try to remember that, and act accordingly from a place of realism. Simply shouting your staff into submission will not alter the Laws of the Universe no matter how important you may think that you are.

Do not make anyone work long hours as a matter of course.

There is a sadly stubborn myth that if people would just work a little more, then the company that they work for would be a lot more successful, and there are companies all over the World that attempt to sell this poisonous culture. The simple truth is that if you allow your people the dignity of knowing that they will only ever be asked to work late or at the weekends in the most dire of emergency circumstances - you know maybe once or twice a year at most - then you will get far more out of them than if they fear for their jobs if they are not still in the office at eight o'clock in the evening or even later.

When the working day is done your staff should be able to get home in a timely fashion, to see their kids / dogs / train sets* and to spend time with their significant other and / or family.

Not only that, but there is extensive, credited research on the idea that people who work in "thought economy" jobs, like developers, designers, engineers and researchers, actually reach a tipping point from productive into unproductive after eight hours of work.

In other words, driving your staff too hard will lead to mistakes, errors that will incur more time rather than save time. Not only that, but burn-out is real. I once worked in an organisation where I was instructed to work my teams so hard that one of my developers was hospitalised with an acute immune collapse - believe me when I say that I know burn-out is real. Another experience in a different organisation led to the end of three long term relationships amongst the team.

There is a real and immediate cost to asking too much of people and the flip-side is that if you respect the need for a work / life balance your entire company will, without fail, become more efficient, happier and better.

Do not forget that your employees have lives, they are not just your workforce.

I worked for a company, once, where I was told that my role was being moved to another locale, a locale where the cost of living was considerably higher than the one I was in, and particularly so for families due to the additional cost of expensive private education being the only viable option for expats.

My response to this was that my family and I were happy to relocate to the new place, but my salary would have to go up in order to meet the overall cost of living increase and the fact that I would be forced to pay a large amount of money for my children's education in the new location. I was informed that I would receive no increase in salary.

The impact of this was that I would need to incur debt or spend my family's nest egg in order to continue to do my job. No one should ever be put in that position by an employer. That was the moment when I knew I needed to find another job. I had not been asking for an unreasonable increase in salary, I had not been asking to "get rich" under the cover of a change in working conditions. I simply asked that the financial impact the change would have on me and my family be recognised accordingly by my employer.

Sadly their response was to all intents and purposes "we do not care about you, your family, or your well being, nor do we care about your contribution to our company thus far". I had just delivered on a series of promises which were setting the business up nicely to reach its goals by the end of the year. The week before I had been name-checked in an email that was distributed to the senior team and the investors trumpeting successes, but now I was of no interest to them.

This is just one example of how damaging it can be to forget that the people in your company all have partners and money worries and kids or dogs or train sets* that matter to them probably far more than your business.

You can ignore these factors in their decision-making for a while, but in the end they will leave and find somewhere that treats them as whole persons, rather than numbers on a spreadsheet.

More importantly, I believe that there is a moral imperative for employers to treat fairly with their employees. It would have been far more equitable, in the above example, to offer me severance and some contacts and assistance in finding a new job than to expect me to move my family under the conditions that were being offered, or to change tack and leave my role based where it already was.

Conclusions

All of these pretty toxic approaches come out of two central truths that I have noticed about running companies, and this is not limited to start-ups, some of these examples come from established businesses.

  1. CEOs, Owners and Founders are sometimes in that position by more luck than judgement (particularly founders in start-ups), and they are often utterly out of their depth. Some very successful business leaders have ruled by fiat - Steve Jobs, by all accounts, for example - but those that have pulled if off are the exception to the rule and have brought something else exceptional to the table to offset the dictatorship approach, mostly by not being out of their depth. Other great leaders have learned quickly to hire smart, capable people and then let them do their jobs; that delegation is the only sustainable route to scale and success unless you happen to be an outlier genius like Jobs, Gates et al. (I have a theory that the real truth about Jobs, Gates and their fellow "genius" leaders is that they did actually delegate some things utterly, but only to a small circle of people that had proven their trustworthiness and pedigree over years of loyal service.)
  2. CEOs, Owners and Founders who are ONLY about "as much money as fast as possible" tend to be serial offenders in these kinds of bad management approaches. They are not looking at the whole board, they are not playing a long term strategy that leads to even more success and wealth later on. This stops them from delegating, making long-term decisions or indeed decisions that do anything other than maximising immediate revenue and / or profit. These are people who are looking for the exit. Their goal is only to build a company that someone else will want to buy either as an M&A target or through IPO. This is a valid choice, I suppose, but even the process of building a company up for exit, can in my opinion be achieved in far better style without such tunnel vision.

I am in no way suggesting that avoiding these pitfalls will immediately lead to success. Nonetheless I am certain that if you foolishly choose to adopt any of these problematic approaches, rather than giving them the wide berth that they deserve, you will not be able to hold onto good people, your business will grind to a halt and one day, no matter how long it takes, you will realise that you only had yourself to blame.

Not only that, but you will have to confront the painful truth that nobody likes you.


N.B. Do not contact me privately or comment here to ask me to "name and shame" the un-named organisations that I have referred to in this piece. Not only am I not dumb enough to do that, but doing so would be deeply unprofessional. The circumstances I describe above may have caused me stress and unhappiness in the moment, but I am still here, I have my health, my family and not only do I still have my skills and experience, but as you may be able to tell I have learned some pretty valuable lessons.

Any such overtures will be ignored - I will not even respond to repeat this statement.

Thanks for reading!


*I have been re-watching The Sopranos lately and Bobby Baccalieri's love for model trains is in the forefront of my mind for reasons that pass even my understanding, but clearly I am using a shorthand to suggest outside interests of any kind and am not suggesting either that model trains are the only past-time of any value, nor am I suggesting that only single people have past-times or that only childless people have pets. It's a shorthand, okay? I know plenty of people with family, pets and hobbies, just as I know people with any configuration of the above, but all of them have something in their life that actually matters more to them than their job.