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Passion, People and Principles

Are We ON The Same Side?

post # 242 — November 17, 2006 — a Managing post

What follows began as a piece that I wrote for PSVillage.com (a great location for IT professionals), and I plan to expand it into a longer article if you all find it interesting and worth commenting on. Here it is:

In the November 6 issue of The Wall Street Journal (page B1) there was an article by Erin White and Gregory Zuckerman entitled The Private Equity CEO, which explored how life for a CEO changed when a company went from being publicly-held to being owned by private equity investors.

What caught my attention was this excerpt:

“Mr. Bilborough (the CEO of privately-held Generation Brands) says one of his biggest challenges is motivating employees amid uncertainty. Most companies controlled by private equity are sold within three to seven years. Senior executives receive equity, which can be lucrative. But middle managers and lower-level staffers typically don’t get stock. ‘You’re trying to lead an organization where everybody knows we’re going to be sold, said Mr. Bilborough. ‘It just hangs over them like a cloud as a constant distraction for people.’”


When management and employees have very different vested interests and incentives, employees really begin to question whether everyone’s on the same side. They begin to ask “Is management doing this because it’s good for the company, or because it’s good for them?” People begin to wonder: “Are we in this together or not?”

By the way, before you get too far in reading this, don’t think I’m only talking about “THEM” — the top people in large companies. These tensions apply to all of us, even if we manage only a small project team — or even if we don’t manage anybody, but just have to collaborate with others on a project or across departments.

People will always be asking:

a) What time-frame are you using for your decisions; and

b) Are we in this together or not?

We are all tempted by (and seek) immediate gratification, and doing things that pay-off in the short term. Underinvesting in our future is something we all due as individuals and human beings, not just as organizations. And we’ve all probably done something, sometime, where we were seen as looking out for ourselves rather than the team.

The timeframe issue is crucial, because it’s hard to get your team to accomplish things that take time if they think that you, their manager, is acting with a shorter —term horizon.

This is not a matter of morality (like some Animal Farm chant of “long-term good, short-term bad”). It’s OK to be either at different times, but you need to be honest and self-aware about which game you’re playing. Managers need to learn that they rarely fool anyone else about their timeframe, and it’s dangerous to try and fool yourself!

So, putting all this together, there could be four outcomes of how people view you:

  1. You’re in it for yourself and want a quick payback for your efforts.
  2. You’ll ‘play ball’ as a team player as long as the team is working, but will bail out if it stops working for you.
  3. You’re in it for the longer term, but you’re still primarily focused on yourself.
  4. You’re both a team player and in it for the long haul.

Which way do your people see you?

Note that these questions don’t necessarily have to have permanent answers. People will come to a judgement about which game you are playing THIS TIME.

In my latest article called “Accountability: Effective Managers Go First” I argued that the best managers work hard to remove the distance between themselves and those they manage. By this phrase, I don’t mean you have to get “buddy, buddy” with those you manage, but, if you DO want them to pull out all the stops on behalf of you team, then those being managed need to feel that the manager is part of the team, not separate from it. Managers and managed need to be “on the same side.” All too often they are not.

If the people you are trying to manage think you’re not on their side, or are only trying to meet short-term goals, you’ll have a lot less ability to influence them. You’ll be able to manage them because they (temporarily) want to keep their job, but its unlikely they are going to put their hearts and minds into your team’s activities. You’ll get today’s sausages made and shipped, but you won’t be going anywhere new as an organization.

So, those are my thoughts. Your reactions, please?


David Ferrabee said:


There are quite a few interesting themes that would be drawn out of this for discussion. Like how organisational culture affects management style. How good managers can manage short and long-term AND self and team. (Does anyone really believe their manager is only in it for the team?)

But I have a question for you: What do you make of the semantics of “hearts and minds”? We recently banned it from our consultancy work. It dawned on us that it comes from LBJ’s Vietnam communications.

I am a fan of LBJ in a lot of his communications pronouncements, but not so much this.

Problem is, we haven’t really found anything to replace it.


posted on November 19, 2006

Charles H. Green said:

Though you [David] caution in your article, “don’t think this is only about THEM…” nonetheless the presence of THEM conditions what people hear when YOU [all of us] speak.

Private equity is a very hot item in the financial community now, taking over the lead in the hype game from hedge funds, big among the MBA crowd, and what investment bankers now aspire to.

So that built-in contradiction between ownership’s 3-7 year horizon and those employees who would look longer is not just food for thought for those of us who believe in a healthy management/client/employee relationship—it is negatively conditioning the reality in which we all have to work.

Which says to me anyone interested in seriously managing a long-term organization with long-term customer and employee relationships has got to be vigilant in dealing explicitly with a hostile environment. That kind of viewpoint is under tacit assault every time we use language like “human capital,” because it objectifies people; or when we use inherently short-term metrics like payback (instead of, say, lifetime customer value); or when we easily cut training to save the last quarter’s budget; or when we use layoffs as a short-term tactic; or when we start evaluating client profitability in a transactional or short-time-frame base.

The trend you point to is in the air; to deal with it half-way is to to risk being untrusted by an increasingly cynical population. It’s not enough to just do the right thing; it’s got to be clearly shown to be right, by clearly distinguishing from what it isn’t.

posted on November 19, 2006