The following is a series of personal thoughts and reflections on eight or so years of learning my way around what it means to be a senior quality assurance or engineering manager. As some of you know I have recently found myself once again looking at the future of my professional career and wondering what it holds. The man who made the decision to change the entire organization of my department this week gave me some great advice. In our long and unofficial exit interview he challenged me to write down my thoughts on things I can personally take away from my successes and failures over a decade of different management roles.
Since I over share (according to everyone who loves me) this is the medium I’ve chosen to use. No names will be changed since I have no desire to name names or otherwise talk about specific instances, people, or companies.
Entry the First: The Monsanto Challenge
In which our hero finds himself experiencing blowback for not recognizing his full customer chain
A while back I worked for a company that was purchased by Monsanto. Monsanto meant business when they purchased our admittedly small little outfit in downtown San Francisco. They wanted everyone to feel like they were special and to know they purchased us because they had no idea how to do what we did and thus had no interest in telling us how to do what we do or interfere in any other manner. They purchased us because they wanted us and our data and our data models all to themselves. They spared no expense instilling the impression that both we were still going to be us but that we were also now in the “big boy pants” leagues. They chartered a jet and flew all of us out to three different facilities throughout the middle parts of the United States. We were given access to top research scientists, laboratories, executives, and even had an intimate dinner with the C-level executives and several board members. I got to meet men and women in one day who did everything from build Maker Faire sort of wild machines designed to strip genetic information from seeds without destroying them to people who advised Presidents and Prime Ministers on issues of national importance. Everyone I met on this magical mystery tour was very nice. They were to a person cheerful and helpful but most of all every single person from the assistants to the front desk personnel to the geneticists were all passionately committed to the idea of solving the world’s current and looming hunger crises. These were not Jurassic Park scientists playing with expensive toys. These were dedicated botanists, geneticists, engineers, and explorers who sought out, cataloged, studied, and genomed every single variety of crops like corn and wheat in existence looking for answers to complicated problems. When they couldn’t find answers in the species they realized they had to look outside the species. That’s when GMOs came on the scene.
Since I had what was essentially a captive audience who claimed to be willing to talk about anything, I asked the President of Monsanto directly why he thought his company’s public image was so wildly divergent with what I personally experienced just chatting with everyone. He told me it was one thing they completely screwed up a long time ago and didn’t even try to correct until lately. They didn’t look into anyone except the farmer’s buying their seeds and herbicides. The stopped at the primary connection in their value chain.
You see as much as a lot of people hate Monsanto, farmers around the world love love love them. Monsanto has done an amazing job of working with farmers, listening to their problems, and rapidly (in terms of seed) changed course several times to address their pain points. In most ways their movement into GMOs was a direct request from farmer’s who’s crops were being destroyed by climate change, water contamination, rapidly evolving pests & diseases, and the regulation of most herbicides out of existence. For decades Monsanto thought that was enough. When the suddenly felt the pain of people reacting emotionally to the idea of consuming what to them felt like “Franken-food” Monsanto reacted like the scientists and engineers they are by simply telling people to look at the science and research. To which what seemed like an entire planet replied with the phrase “Nuts.” Monsanto got hammered and is still being hammered. They’ve become the symbol of everything people don’t like about our current society and a repository for all the fears we have for what seems to be looking more and more like a bleak future. They ended up trying to enter a very pernicious and embedded opinion based on a decade or more of rumor armed only with facts.
Looking back at his now I wish I’d learned it years ago and had remembered it recently.
When you’re a manager (and especially a senior manager) you are responsible for a lot of things. Your team can feel like the most important thing that need concern you. You have reports and meetings with your direct manager who may be a director, vice president, or even chief officer of some sort. You have customers you need to keep happy be they external to your organization or internal to it. You can fall into the trap of making sure you do the best job possible, your team is chugging along fantastically, and your customers think you’re amazing. You want to believe that is more than enough to secure your reputation. Every company says it’s a “no drama zone” or something like it. Technology companies in particular like to say they’re data driven and that the rely on things they can measure. The reality is while you’re intensely focused on your primary relationships you are neglecting your secondary and tertiary relationships. These relationships are vitally important for the long term health and opinion of you and your team.
There is a tool consultants use called an influencer map. They use it to rapidly assess everyone on a project who has some sort of influence over the success or failure of that project and how they perceive it. People with direct influence are given priority but importantly people with indirect or even outlier influence are also mapped. The different people are mapped around who they can influence rather than where they occur in an org chart. Your job as a consultant is to be aware of people with influence who can have an effect on your outcome. You then turn around the ones you can to be supporters or even interested in your work. If you can’t change their stance you try and isolate them so they can’t scuttle your work through their attitude. As a manager you need to be aware of everyone in your organization in the same manner. it’s not something you need to address all the time but you don’t do it at the risk of how people perceive your work.
You see perception is often completely at odds with facts. People don’t trust facts or they selectively pick the ones that will support their perception. If a manager or director or a vice president forms a negative or even questionable perception/opinion of you or your team they will start to notice things supporting that viewpoint. You can present them with lots of Key Process Indicators (KPIs) showing you are doing great but they’ll come away remembering the one thing that may not have been awesome. At that point you are fighting a losing battle since you are actively working against an opinion formed from nothing. If you have enough time you can mitigate this issue with personal intervention and salesmanship but it’s a holding action until the opinion changes. If something like a re-organization or change in management happens before you’re turned that around you will find yourself on the list to be changed.
The best way to avoid The Monsanto Challenge is to never find yourself in it. Your first month as a manager should be spent personally meeting every other manager in your organization and every upper level manager in the company. You need to meet with them regularly and let them form their own impression of you, an impression you can hopefully control. Take the time to talk about the great things your team is doing and showcase their success. Ask them for advice or go to them with intelligent questions they can answer. Controlling your image in this manner provides some inoculation against other influencers who may be spreading a message you don’t want spread. It won’t prevent you from having your budget cut or being laid off or having your project shut down. These things happen all the time even in large companies.
It will remove one of the ways things like lay offs can happen in spite of success.
It’s a lesson I’ve paid the price for not following now at least twice and perhaps three times. I did not get on a plane and go meet with people face to face (the value of which I will talk about in another blog post). I didn’t control the message about myself and my team. In all of these occasions there was a price to pay; sometimes it was a very dear price indeed.