When the Candy Man Can’t (Or Won’t) Make the World Taste Good

At this point in my life, I’m not exactly old, but I’m no spring chicken.

No spring chicken. I’ve heard a lot of people use that metaphor, but what exactly is a spring chicken? Hey, let’s ask The Free Dictionary by Farlex:

spring chicken
1. A young chicken, especially one from two to ten months old, having tender meat.
2. Slang A young person.

So it is accurate (my meat is not tender).

Actually (Akshually) I’m posting chicken pictures and trying to avoid diving into the topic of this post because this feels a little bit like juggling sweaty dynamite or playing Russian roulette with three bullets. The Web is rife with stories of people who Facebooked themselves out of a job or relationship by writing about something that would have been better kept tucked into one of those little paper-based diaries with a tiny lock and key.

But my no-spring-chicken status does afford me some insight into a particular management style I’ve witnessed at almost every place I’ve worked throughout my IT career. And given the prevalence of this burnout-inducing, morale-destroying “leadership” style, I think it might be worth the personal risk if at least a few managers read this post and then did a quick self-check to see if they fall into this category. Roughly 75% of employees who voluntarily leave a position do so because of a manager. This kind of employee turnover creates unnecessary and costly headaches for the employee, the manager and the customers.

So let’s create a new term, one that succinctly describes this management style at first glance:

The Pass-through Manager

Since this is a neologism (as far as I know) it needs a formal definition.

pass-through manager
1. A manager or other administrator who, by indifference, incompetence or malice, fails to provide any meaningful assistance to subordinates and merely serves as a two-way conduit for task assignments from customers / higher management and status reports from workers.
synonyms, slang, n.
Pixy stick or Wonka stick, AKA a plastic tube whose contents have no nutritional value.

Let’s knock out a quick paragraph using our new word:

“After Jill resigned, Bob cemented his reputation as a pass-through manager by assigning her unfinished project to Evan–who already supported four active projects–because he would, ‘get it done.’ From that point forward, Bob was referred to by the development staff as Lead Wonka Stick.”

And here are a couple of real-world examples:

  • An engineering lead/manager hired a junior developer, tasked him to develop a custom application by himself because staffing was tight, then failed to assign a mentor or check-up on his progress or even review his code during eight months of development. The junior developer (wisely) quit three days before the application went live. A senior developer (ahem) was tasked with the Herculean task of getting the train wreck functional in three days (it was). But it took another month of unpaid nights and weekends by the senior developer to further stabilize the application.
  • A program manager, who happened to also be a part-time developer for the company, over-committed himself at a remote customer site. Rather than tell the customer he didn’t have the bandwidth to work on a critical application and “risk the contract”, he held the customer at bay for a year by implying someone was working on it at another site. A senior developer (ahem) was hired and both he and the manager traveled to the remote site for the first time. Upon arrival, the manager assembled the customer stakeholders, stated, “Here’s the guy working on it,” and vanished.

To be entirely fair, I’ve worked in a partial management capacity before and I’m not minimizing how difficult the job of a manager is. The bulk of a true management position revolves around managing people, and in most offices that’s a tough hoe to row (wait a minute…strike that…reverse it). There are plenty of workers that compete with each other in their daily Worthless Olympics to see how little they can accomplish. These workers and the pass-through managers sit on opposite sides of the same cubicle.

A manager is not your therapist. A manager is not a Tom Cruise to your Rain Man. A manager should not have to sit next to you, hands duct-taped to your own, helping you to two-finger type out the Hello World application you’ve been working on for the last three weeks.

But I’m veering into another post so back to the point.

Given my work experience, here is the number one characteristic a competent, effective manager should have:

A Remover of Obstacles

I feel this is the most important character trait for any manager. Most workplace studies confirm that the closest thing to a formula for success is to hire (and retain–and that’s yet another post) the most talented people possible and then get out of their way. This includes getting other things out of their way, like those annoying, deadbeat gatekeepers, broken processes (i.e. work for work’s sake) and inadequate resources. And if you’re able to score free bagels once and a while and some up-front parking for your team members, hey, that counts, too. Be creative.

Regardless of your personal religious beliefs, all managers should strive to emulate the Hindu deity Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles. Ganesha, with his distinctive elephant head and pot-belly, is a kick-ass supreme being with the authority and agency to clear all paths and ensure success in any endeavor. He also serves a secondary role by putting the brakes on and creating obstacles when unbridled ambition begins to outpace morality and becomes destructive, like when the office “genius” wants to design a custom ORM layer for every application but keeps changing frameworks.

Be. Like. Ganesha.

Your employees will worship you, or at least not key your car.

Oh, and I’m kick-starting a stylish WWGD (What Would Ganesha Do?) bracelet. At only $19.95, it makes a great gift for that special manager in your life.

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