“Average managers play checkers, while great managers play chess.”
– Marcus Buckingham.
(“What Great Managers Do“, Harvard Business Review, Apr05)
Buckingham goes on to explain that in checkers the pieces are uniform and interchangeable. While in chess, each piece is unique (more or less) and the player who wins is the one who can tap onto the strengths of each.
Without going into details, let me narrate a situation I faced long time ago – I had to lead a team (to clarify any possible misunderstandings – this was not a part of my professional life, but was outside of work) of 50 people, of whom 8 reported directly to me. My direct team of 8 had almost an equal split of people of Indian and Chinese origin . Now, I know racial generalisations are inaccurate, wrong, unethical and what not, but blame it on my youth, the pressure I was under or just plain lack of experience – but I learnt early on that these two groups of people worked very differently – Group C liked to have things planned – they liked deadlines and targets, and the assurance that came with it that I wont be frantically calling their mobile at odd hours. While with Group I, they really liked to play it by the ear – Getting them to sit though a monthly planning meeting often used to be an achievement in itself. But if I had an emergency at midnight, I knew I could knock at their doors and they would pitch in without complaints and sometimes, even with relish. Now, I continued with this strategy for one full year – I had my share of regular chores, which my group C accomplished immaculately. I also had my share of midnight crises – for which I had my “emergency swat” team. Everyone was happy and alls well that ends well, or so I like to think.
As I got older and wiser – I began to wonder if I was really fair and is this something I would do again? While it is rather heady to have HBS recommend what I had crudely chanced upon, that is no reason for me not to critically evaluate what I did. In effect, I gave equal credit to people who had the same job scopes, but essentially did very different things, in very different ways. To me, the excitement of unexpected jobs was important – but I had a set of people who were never given the opportunity to do these (mind you, nobody asked to change their responsibilities – because thats one thing I believe in – if someone really WANTS to do something, they should get to do it – the desire to do something outweighs talent or even knowledge – in its correlation to success). Anyways, back to point – and I had a group of people who never knew what they were gonna do next, which may have been unsettling to some.
Things never get to this exaggerated state in a real world corporation – there are structures to prevent that from happening – appraisals, feedbacks, developmental plans yada yada. But despite all these, pigeon holing people happens in most organisations to some extent or the other. In my first job as a lowly intern, there was a super duper coder in the company. He had been in the job for several years and knew the systems inside out – he was the “helpdesk” – everyone went to him with problems and he solved them. The catch was that he was the only one who had never moved. People came in, and left – either laterally or vertically. He was so good at his job he had become indispensable and was doomed to do just what he did best.
Now, back to Marcus Buckingham – as a manager, one should understand one’s chess pieces. So, if you decide you are going to play each one to its strengths – you could be accomplishing exemplary results – but is that what is best for your employees? Is it fair never to let them take the risk of doing something that they may fail at? Can a team of specialists work as cohesively as a team of generalists who squabble over the same jobs? A strategy of building on individual strengths where people get better and better at what they are good at and more and more alienated from what they are not good at – Is it sustainable in the long run?
..The never ending search for answers.