April 1, 2011

Up Managers and Down Managers

Tags: Software Project Management

I read articles on the Habits Of Highly Effective Google Managers with some interest. Empowering, coaching, communicating - sounds like they want classic “Down” managers. Down managers are those who focus on the employees working for them. I have had a few good Down managers and they create a great working environment (and often a sense of loyalty). Google apparently focuses on retaining employees and keeping them happy, but is this all that is required? In any large organisation, politics plays a major role, especially with setting priorities and allocating budgets. This is the realm of the “Up” manager. Up managers focus on the people above them in the management hierarchy and navigate company bureaucracy. A good Up manager will ensure their projects get recognition and resources.

Many developers lack respect for Up managers. When starting my career, I considered them parasites more interested in their own success than the success of the team. However, after being caught in the crossfire of senior management politics a few times with no Up manager for protection, I now think they are vital. At one investment bank, I was in a very successful development team with a good Down person as team leader and an Up person as team manager. I didn’t think we needed the manager and then he left. Problems immediately began to trickle down from up the hierarchy. It seems various senior managers wanted our responsibilities and budget, some managers I had never heard about before even claimed our success as their own. For two years, our old Up manager had kept them all at bay. With him gone the team was torn apart within months and I left (along with most of the team). Similar events have occurred at two other employers.

The best management combines both Up and Down styles. Unfortunately this combination is rarely found with any competence in one person. People seem to naturally gravitate to one style of management or the other based on personal preference or ability. Trying to do both normally ends up in both being done badly. I have seen many try (usually under duress or desperate circumstances), but only one succeed. More realistically two managers working in conjunction is best - one Up and one Down. That, or work in an organisation so small there is no up to manage!