CWB April 2004


At Arm's Length

It's tough to be a tough manager. Wanting to be everybody's buddy makes it next to impossible.

By Anthony Noel


As our series "Fatal Mistakes" rolls on, this month we close out our first group of "illnesses." As you'll recall, we've been studying the operational area of Communication, and we've covered two maladies thus far: Deafness and Muteness. This month we finish up with Communication by taking a look at the causes and cures for Terminal Friendliness.

A very close friend of mine is the long-time owner of one of the most successful, respected custom shops in his region of the country. For well over 20 years he has painstakingly built a rock-solid reputation as one of the area's most knowledgeable, innovative designers, and he has surrounded himself with a shop full of bright, dedicated employees.

Speaking with me a few months ago about employee management, he said, "It's just so hard to say, 'Look, this is how it's going to be, take it or leave it.' I've never been any good at it, and it never seems to get any easier."

This from a man who, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the most determined managers I've ever met - and about whom, I'd wager, his employees would say the same thing. A successful manager for years; a tough but fair leader.

Yet despite all his success, he still harbors doubts about his own effectiveness; a small measure of disdain for the necessity of keeping his employees in line; and, since he is a hugely outgoing person, probably a little disappointment that he can't be more of a friend to his people.

At first I was surprised. Then I remembered that old business truism: "It's lonely at the top." No matter how experienced they may be or how successful they become, good managers share a common practice: They're always questioning whether they could be doing a better job. But if, like this man, you're taking a serious, professional approach, you'll wonder about that a lot less often than someone afflicted with Terminal Friendliness.

So just what is Terminal Friendliness, and how does it undermine a manager's ability to manage?

By its very nature, the decision to go into business for oneself demands a strong reserve of self-confidence. Not just a will, but a penchant, for reaching out to others. When bitten by the business bug, a person wants to spread the word. They want everybody to see their vision, to share their vision - and most of all, to like and agree with their vision. It's just human nature.

The truth is, when you tell your friends about your business plans, they will like and agree with them. Even if they don't have a lot of faith that you'll pull it off, they probably won't tell you that. They'll encourage you. They'll support you. That's why they're your friends!

Employees certainly aren't the enemy. But they aren't your friends, either. They're working for you because they want something from you, and it's not your vision. They want to make money. The sooner you accept this - the sooner you stop trying to be your employees' friend and stop hoping they'll be yours - the better. Because in the end, you want to make money, too!

There are some touchy-feely types out there who espouse the notion that they can be both a friend and a manager to their people. Without exception, they espouse this lovely notion right up until the moment they realize they're losing their shirts. Don't fall into the same trap.

In discussing Muteness last month, we listed a lack of regular meetings as a symptom of that malady. We also said it's important that you speak your mind consistently and encourage employees to do the same. But whether we're talking about meetings or less formal discussions on the shop floor, it is important to draw a distinction between consistent communication and constant communication.

Consistent communication means regular opportunities to discuss concrete issues affecting a project or the overall health of the company. A weekly production meeting with your lead people on the shop floor, for example; a monthly pow-wow with office administrators; semi-annual or annual performance reviews with employees done in concert with their immediate superiors.

Constant communication, on the other hand, is a symptom of Terminal Friendliness, which when unchecked leads only to meetings for the sake of meeting, endless hours of pointless discussion, a warm fuzzy feeling among the whole staff - and always, always, always an abysmal bottom line.

Communication in a business environment is really a pretty simple proposition. It is establishing realistic, clearly stated goals, then holding people accountable for reaching them.

Your ability to hold people accountable is dependent upon the respect your people have for you; not as a friend or fellow human being, but as a manager. Only you can choose to squander the mantle of authority that your position as owner or manager grants you. One of the quickest ways to do that is by holding yourself out as a friend to your employees. That simply is not your job.

On the contrary, your job is to ensure the company's success. To be sure your people are doing the best job possible. To praise them when they succeed and to hold them accountable when they don't. Your ability to be taken seriously is heavily compromised if you're treating them like friends.

Your duty as a manager is to see the big picture and figure out how to paint it. Maintain the respect required to get the performances you need out of your people. There's nothing friendly about it. You can be courteous, you can (and should) maintain an air of cooperation, and you should by all means lead by example, so employees know you would never expect them to do something you either (1) have not already done, or (2) would be unwilling to do yourself.

But if you're looking to make friends, prepare yourself for a long, hard and ultimately bad experience.

Instead, cultivate professional, arm's-length relationships with each of your employees - it's your best shot at success.

The finest cure I've found for Terminal Friendliness is a little book called "The One Minute Manager" by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson. There's no better source of real-world strategies for establishing and maintaining the sort of professional, business-focused, goals-oriented relationships success demands.



Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.