I’m playing cleanup for one of my clients this week. They’re dealing with one of the most common management challenges I see – lack of redundancy for key positions or functions.
Due to some leadership personality issues, individual contributors were allowed to become “experts” on a variety of topics without any thought to backup, collaboration, or shared responsibility. When issues came up, it placed the experts in a position of being able to swoop in and solve the problem using their sacred knowledge, further solidifying the idea that only the rescuer had full command of the information. Instead of raising appropriate red flags about why only one person could solve a problem, previous leadership continued to groom these expert resources.
In reality, what some of the experts were doing was front line customer support, but because no one else had visibility into what they were doing, it appeared that they were doing a lot more than was actually going on. Now that a couple of them have left the organization, it has become apparent that some of them were doing very little, and others were doing work that could have been handled by appropriately training the practice call center employees who interact with the internal customers on a daily basis.
When I came into the situation, the organization was in a tailspin trying to figure out how they could possibly replace these people. The reality was that we were able to outsource it pretty quickly, along with selling them some consulting services to document the process, educate others, and prevent this from happening in the future.
In looking at the broader structure of the organization, however, there are much larger cultural factors at play that allowed this behavior to continue. There is a history of promoting individual contributors to management positions because there was no other career path for them. When you take people with no management experience and plop them into a management role, it often feels very uncomfortable. That can lead to the new manager withdrawing from those responsibilities and instead to try to create new individual responsibilities that are more in their comfort zones. Couple that with upper management that is too crisis-oriented and doesn’t budget adequate time to develop these new managers and you have a recipe for a mess.
My task with these folks now is to evaluate the depth and breadth of the experts and figure out what they were actually doing. Some of them have been doing obscenely little given their titles and pay grade. Others were trying to do more than anyone could possibly do well because of wheel-spinning and inefficiency. Once we identify the core body of knowledge and the tasks that need to be completed, I assign an external resource to first cover the acute needs, but second, to document everything and create a training plan to build out multiple resources to cover the needs moving forward. I’m unfortunately seeing a lot of resistance as members of the organization figure out that the emperor has no clothes and begin to worry that they might be next in being exposed.
This fear of being exposed leads to all kinds of bad behavior: information hoarding, siloing, manipulation, maneuvering, and more. People feel threatened when they’re worried others will figure out they have been operating outside accepted boundaries and will do anything to protect themselves.
My favorite strategy is blaming the consultant, who has clearly been brought in by the leadership to fix something that has been identified as a problem. There’s a certain level of trust (and money on the line) when you bring in an outsider and give them carte blanche to realign resources and shift roles and responsibilities. Complaining about it or pitching a fit only makes you look bad and potentially tees you up to be “realigned” outside the company if you are uncooperative enough. Couple that with the fact that the consultant was able to replicate your job duties at a fraction of your cost, and it might just be better to keep your head down and cooperate.
I’m on site this week doing stakeholder interviews, trying to sort out what people think about their role in the project and how the project is going overall, vs. what others have to say and what the leadership thinks is going on. It’s not looking good for some members of the management team who are behaving like cornered animals. Although downsizing was not an original goal of this consulting engagement, how they’re handling it is making it seem like losing a few people might be a good idea.
I enjoy doing stakeholder interviews and organizational assessments. Sometimes they can be enlightening, but often they’re fascinating journeys into the underlying psychological baggage that people carry around with them. Some of my standard interview questions involve the team, its goals, what people think about their participation, the overall health of the project, and how they think they’re contributing.
I conducted one interview this morning where the participant raved on and on about a colleague and how helpful she is, how much of an asset to the team, how she enjoyed working with her, etc. A few hours later, I met with the subject of the glowing commentary, who went on and on about how she thinks my previous interview subject hates her and is trying to undermine her within the company. This client has a fair number of “you can’t make this up” scenarios that I have to figure out how to deal with. I’m thinking I need to bring in a therapist in addition to subject matter expert consultants.
The leadership is not without blame here. Although they’re relatively new and inherited the bulk of the mess, they’ve been complicit in allowing some of the craziness to continue without stepping in earlier. They’ve allowed the process of making people managers because there’s no way to promote people in various job classes, which has compromised people’s effectiveness and weakened the organization.
Members of the leadership also project the air of being too busy to help the little people sort it out, which is going to be a long-term issue. They’d be much better served by at least appearing that they’re willing to roll up their sleeves and dig in to build the organization rather than making it clear that their main goal is to continue acquiring physician practices and everything else is secondary. Adding more practices (many of which are distressed when they’re acquired) when they’re struggling to support their existing practices doesn’t seem like the best strategy, so I’ll continue to work on that piece as well.
What’s your current project? Does it make you want to crawl back in bed every morning? Email me.
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