Cool interview with Jack and Suzy Welch on Wharton’s website here. If you’re unfamiliar, Jack ran GE for about 21 years. (Big deal.) Suzy was an editor of Harvard Business Review. (Also a big deal to many.) Now they have a school they’re working with — shifting the model of who can get MBA-type educations, essentially — and some books and a book tour and all that. They’re basically very rich, and probably doing the weekend in Mexico all the time, but in between they’re trying to pay it forward in terms of business education, and that’s cool and valuable. People need that, because we’re pretty far off the rails in terms of how we think about business these days.
The whole article is very interesting (there’s a podcast embedded there too), and this might be the most interesting section (to me, at least):
But in the last 10 years, there’s been three different kinds of worker groups that have really emerged. And geniuses — what we mean by that is people whose work you don’t understand. I mean, it used to be you rose up through the ranks, and by the time you got a job as a boss, you had done the work of everybody beneath you. As a reporter, I became an editor. I’d done the work when I was running a magazine, done the work of everybody who worked for me.
But now, you can come in from business school or whatever, and you could be running a business with a hundred coders and have absolutely no idea what those coders do. Or the financial geniuses. But it’s really important that you are able to manage them, because otherwise the inmates can start to run the asylum, and the customer will suffer, and the company would suffer.
This is interesting, and semi-personally-relevant to me.
My wife was working for about four years at various jobs that didn’t align with her background or interests, for various reasons (some of which are my bad). Now she works at a job that does, and part of the reason she chose that specific job is that her boss is someone who’s held tons of different jobs in the organization. So, in sum, the boss has direct knowledge of what my wife does — because she used to do it as well.
My situation is typically pretty different. Most bosses I’ve had have been print journalism people and I’ve worked in digital. (That’s the case now as well.) The core tenets are the same, obviously — writing and editing and photo selection — but some ideas about the cycle of production, the need for total polish, etc. are very different. If you’ve worked in print vs. digital, you probably kind of understand what I mean.
So my wife has a boss where she’s like “Oh, I can learn from this, because she’s done this!” I have bosses where I’m like, “Well, I can learn some things, but I also might know a bunch of stuff the other person doesn’t know!”
See how there’s a difference there?
The second paragraph of the pull quote is particularly relevant. I can’t tell you how many businesses hire a kid out of b-school and put them in charge of some “project management” or “business development” role where they have a lot of interaction with coders/back-end people. Coders often (and yes, this is a generalization) have no ties to the business needs of an org. They just want to work on their cool shit and release it. A “business development” guy has to live and breathe the “business needs” of the org, because that’s what his bosses are grilling him about.
You see that disconnect? You’ve got a guy focused on one thing, potentially never a manager before, now managing these other guys — focused on something else entirely — and probably using the wrong language with ’em too. He’s never held their job. He can’t relate to them. And maybe he’s working directly with their boss (senior engineer guy) and they can’t relate it.
The point is, we often structure work like this, which makes no sense. At base human condition, people aren’t going to accept a manager whose background is totally different than theirs. You’ll always have that ability to say, “Well, I know this a little better than you do…” even if he/she is an amazing manager. And yet, every day in workplaces around the world, people become managers without the contextually relevant experience to do so. That’s awkward, right?
We should start thinking about promoting people differently, in all likelihood.