Recently, I was reading an Inc magazine column by Joel Spolsky on Servant Leadership. The first page of the article made sense to me. Other than thinking, “Yuck–toilet cleaning,” and then, “Okay; way too much info on bolts and plaster dust,” the first page made sense to me, because it talked about leading by example. Clicking over to page two, however, is where the article hit a couple of discordant notes.
First odd note: Joel pulled his CFO off of an important customer-facing project in order to hang blinds and demonstrate to his staff that it’s management’s job to help their employees get work done. Is that management’s job? Absolutely. Was pulling the CFO off a customer project in order to demonstrate a point a good idea? Not so much. In pulling the CFO, Joel told his staff, “What happens inside this office is more important than customers or making money.”
My problem with this is that it shows an inherent lack of balance. I firmly believe that staff, customers, and revenues need to all balance each other out in order to keep morale up, keep people working, keep customers happy, and stay in business. Is it tricky to maintain this balance? Yes. Does it look to me like Joel knows about and maintains this balance? Certainly not from his actions with the CFO.
Second odd note: You want to run your company like a research university? Really? The goals of a company (create value for the shareholders; don’t go under) are really not the same as the goals of a research university (education, research, scholarship). In a university, there’s also a wide divide between the “haves” (the research faculty) and the “have nots” (the administrative staff who “gets stuff done)–do you really want to create such a culture divide in a company. Especially in a start-up?
It’s hard enough sometimes to be part of the non-legal staff in a law firm (although my current firm’s attorneys do an excellent job of treating IT with respect and like human beings). Once upon a time, however, I was a medical secretary at a university. Let me tell you, the class divide was gigantic, and it was quite clear that I wasn’t empowered to do a thing other than file, schedule, answer phones, and gossip in the lunch room.
Once I got through those two giant issues in the article, I found myself wondering about Joel’s two management trainee examples. It looks, to me, like he was looking for lead engineers or architects, and probably missed true management potential. Good managers and leaders don’t necessarily have the greatest ideas; they just know how to enable others to get the job done Joel said this at the beginning of the column, but his management examples don’t support his statement. The “good” example was of someone who decided that his way was the best way,and dragged everyone along for the ride. Not my style. Effective sometimes, but also not servant leadership.
So I had to wonder about the “bad” trainee. Was he truly waiting for the title, or was he busy building relationships with the developers in order to get stuff done in the future? Was he not “thinking about new features we should develop” because he already identified that the developers already had great ideas? Was he working with the developers to flesh out the benefits of those ideas, thereby winning the developers’ trust behind the scenes? Was he building a stable foundation such that he could step into a true leadership role upon getting the title?
We may not know the answers to these questions, and each leader has a different style and idea of leadership and management. I can tell you, however, that I won’t be modeling my style on Joel Spolsky’s. I want to work for the business, inspire my team, and recognize good background work in my staff.