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Is it really a matter of checkers and chess?

“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.

Posted in Management on June 10, 2005

8 Responses

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  1. Pramod says

    I too had read that article. I think in a sense I agree with the thinking of Marcus.

    The job of managers is not an easy one – especially when it comes to managing talents. But before that – dont you think what you did while managing your team was precisely what Marcus was talking about? You played to the group’s strengths. In that particular situation you had two groups – for whatever reasons based on nationality! In a sense it would be lucky for any manager to find such easy grouping – how ever it works out. (You can see this happening very often in training sessions, where the trainers just let the naturally forming groups stay together – not necessarily getting the best results.)

    I don’t think there is much doubt as to what is best from a team-performance perspective – play to people’s strengths.

    But is that in the best interest of the employees? At one extreme this I think depends on the personality of each individual. Now I don’t want to get into the complexity of personalities, let me do it in a simpler way. (For now thinking as a manager, my own perspective – as to what is best for me – will come to that hopefully later)

    We could divide employees of any corporation into three groups – high performers, average performers or the daily grinders and the lower quartile – irrespective of what function they do.

    Depending upon the type of industry you are in – there could be different approaches to deal with each of these groups. In a service industry – highly HR intensive – like consulting – they normally weed out the last quartile (don’t take that literally as 25% – but something often close to that – much higher at McKinsey’s than say at Infosys. Heard of the famous McKinsey statement – up or out – you either get promoted or you move out – but they manage that beautifully though unlike most other consulting firms!)

    In more traditional manufacturing company – this is not practical. In a plant making widgets – you need someone to keep hitting the liver every time to get a widget out. Unless salary is too rigidly linked to age, there is often not much reason to keep moving people up. So in fact for a smooth operation of plant – the need might be to weed out the so called high performers.

    Now most companies as they exist today requires a combination of the above two extremes. For many corporate functions they will need to behave like a consulting firm, while for majority of their employees, they will have to have a rather un-sophisticated approach.

    What I know is that most companies identify key talents early on and manage their careers very closely while letting open the career management of most others. This doesn’t often mean that those who are not key-talents are excluded from opportunities. But those who are key-talents get treated in line of what you were thinking – their career interests being looked into as much as the companies interests – very much being consistently groomed to move from being a smart pawn all the way to being a queen or a king. As you can imagine no company can afford to treat each and every employee this way – it will be too expensive and in a way not very meaningful for them. I think on an average every company looks after around 1 – 2% of their employees in this fashion. Incidentally if you read most biographies of successful managers – Lee Iacocca to Jack Welch, they all were identified as key talent early on in their career.

    The key talent process is not widely publicized in most companies because of the implications and the debate it can start – which very often are not helpful.

    Now looking at it from a different perspective – my own, I personally would like to move from being a pawn to being the king or the queen (queen and then the king perhaps – prior to retirement J.) Today each of us need to manage our career on our own – mainly because of two reasons – one, companies no longer have the long term view that is required for long term career management of their employees, and secondly because today there are so many opportunities that if one decides to manage ones own career then the breadth of opportunities are much wider – beyond the limits of ones current employer, industry or region.

    The ideal situation would be to get into that 1% club and also keep self management of career option open if needed – simple things like keeping abreast of changes in the market place, concepts, technology etc. etc. But then this is not very helpful as often there isn’t much we can do to get into the 1% club. I think each of us need to work out what we need to keep moving – depends on priorities, objectives, purpose and so on.

  2. Surya says

    Thanks for the insightful comment.

    Its a pity that companies would manage the careers of only their top 1-2% of employees. Forgetting the employee perspective for a moment, even from the employers perspective, in terms of knowledge transfers and contingency plans, and possibly even employee moral – it is not sustainable in the long run. Not every employee needs to be nurtured like a star performer, but its sad when some people get pigeonholed – esp in roles such as data entry or other mundane jobs.

  3. Pramod says

    Well, it indeed is a pity. Until mid 90s most of the leading companies had long term career planning as part of the performance management processes. Atleast I am aware of that in most EUropean companies – looking ahead around 5 years. But I think the Anglo-Saxon approach to look at performance on a quarterly basis has made it almost impossible to keep this activity up and going.

    But on the other hand, if someone is taking personal interest in upskilling and updating – and of course is a performer, I don’t think any company will restrict him or her.

    Last weekend there was an article in FT by John Kay. Was interesting – not directly realted to our discussion here – but in a sense part of the bigger picture as he tries to tell whats wrong with the Anglo-Saxon approach. And I agree with him (and that’s one of the reasons I decided not to pursue a career in Finance :-) ).

  4. Anjali says

    Nice topic…something I ponder about often.

    I think there is nothing wrong in tapping into the strengths of each employee. In fact, to be able to do that is the sign of a good manager. At the same time, it is also the manager’s responsibility to ensure that the employee is provided opportunities to develop other skills – skills that will help her/him move ahead in the organization. This might mean moving a person out of his comfort zone, which in turn means disruption at work. But, if the ultimate goal is to do what is good for the employee and for the company.

    In most companies, diversity in people’s approaches to work is respected as long as the business goals are achieved. So, in your example, if Group C and Group I both achieve the same results using different approaches, then i think it’s totally fine. However, if either approach is actually harming their careers, then i think there is nothing wrong if the manager gradually coaches them out of that behaviour. In my experience, most organizations desire a combination of these two behaviours i.e., someone who is organized and planned but also willing to be flexible. So, the problem comes only when employees are not willing to move out of the comfort zones.

    Now, switching to your comment about only rewarding top performers….we recently got this HBS paper at work called “Let’s Hear It for the B Players” (old article – published in June 2003, but relevant for our org right now), that talks about how companies need to pay attention to the Mid 70% performers as well, since they sometimes form the backbone of the company. The article talks about different kinds of “B” performers – those who are not super ambitious (but very smart/skilled), those who were previously A performers but have decided to take the back seat for some time, and others who are truly B players – just getting along types. The article explores the different ways to motivate these people and keep them going – recognize they are different, give them time, offer them other choices etc. So, if you are managing a team of A and B players, you first need to accept that they are different and have different potentials, and then provide them the opportunities that will make them realize their potential.

    I agree with Pramod that top performers need to be rewarded and kept going, because after all, they are the ones keeping the company going. However, I also subscribe to the view that not everyone can be an A performer and hence you need to tap into whatever strength a B performer can offer.

    The thing that I do worry about though is switching from being an A to a B performer. What if tomorrow I decide to become a B player? Does my company have a plan for me or do I suddenly become useless now that I am not willing to kill myself for the company (to clarify – i am not willing to kill myself even now). In my experience, most companies don’t have a well defined career plan for B players. Particularly in the US, where 70% of the company aims to be a top performer, the one who wants to slow down is seen as the slacker. In my compaby, I have seen some people being indirectly told they will not be able to move up unless they put in 80 hour weeks. I find that things are a bit more balanced in Europe. Companies do seem to respect people’s need to have a life. Unfortunately for me, US expats don’t have the same benefits!! I have to make up for my team’s slack after all!! :)

  5. Surya says

    Your comment from switching from an A to B is very interesting – I think its a very tough thing to do, especially within the same company. People have certain expectations and when you decide to change it one fine day, it is very hard for everyone to swallow. I think when people want to make such a shift, they often move companies too. And then they start with a fresh slate. Could be also that they seek out companies that reward B performers too. Because sad as it may, very few companies take care of the “B” peformers – they are usually left to get along. Hopefully the HBS paper makes its way across many more organisations.

    You are right, Europe is definitely better when it comes to work life balance. At least here I get to have a life that I can balance.

  6. Surya says

    Thanks, Pramod, for the link. Interesting article. Though I fail to see why you had to leave finance coz of that =)

  7. Anjali says

    Yep, so true, it is difficult to change gears within the same company. At the same time, which company will want to hire a person who is “not willing to give it all” …what i mean is, you can’t really say in the interview that i am looking to slow down. Companies are not looking to hire “B” performers; everyone is looking for exceptional employees!

    I wonder how one goes about finding companies that reward “B” performers…..wonder if there is a list somewhere. :-)

  8. Pramod says

    Interesting that you talk about switching from A to B and perhaps vice-versa. I just had a discussion with one of our senior managers. He was telling me about the complexness of the performance management process – how it is not just for ones boss to give a 1,2 or 3 grading.
    He was mentioning precisely this. One of the in thing these days, coming mainly from the consulting world is to force distribute performance grades. So some companies might say 20% gets 1, 60% 2 and the remining 20% 3. Interesting – and with lots of pros and cons. Let me not get into that now.

    But the idea is that managers will manage who gets into each of these grades. They want to put some top performers for sure in 1 – but they also want to put some of them in 2. Kind of in line with Anjali’s talk of move from A to B. Some of the criteria he mentioned include someone who needs a bit more experience, or those who are rather too old and so on. And also they want to forcefully move some of the 2s to 1 so that they get a push in their career. Now I don’t know how much of this is really practical – but I do know that they do spend lot of time discussing about this in our company :-)

    In fact I need to get hold of this paper and show it to this colleague of mine.

    Ah, about this article and the connection between my leaving finance – its pretty simple actually – I knew that one day we need to move from having shareholder value as the end to business activity to other forms. And since sooner than later I will be heading a business ……..(ok now stop laughing and continue reading!) I said I wanted to find out what those areas might be! If I wasnt convinced about finance being the key, I had to know what else it could be, so I switched out of finance.

    You might find the discussion on my site on this topic interesting

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