Jul 282011

Management by Chameleon

Management by Chameleon

When I first became a manager, back in the MovieFone days, I had the good fortune to have an extreme case of “first time manager”– I went from managing nobody to managing 1 person to managing something like 20 people inside 6 months.  As a result, I feel like I learned a couple lessons more quickly than I might otherwise have learned them.  One was around micromanagement and delegation.  When I went from 0 to 1 direct report, I micromanaged (I still feel bad about that, Alissa).  But when I went from 1 to 20, I just couldn’t micromanage any more, and I couldn’t do it all myself.  I had to learn how to delegate, though I’m sure I was clumsy at it at first.

The larger lesson I learned when I went from 1 direct report to 5 (each of whom had a team underneath her) is that different people and different teams require different management styles and approaches.  This is what I call management by chameleon.  As a chameleon has the same body but shows it differently as situations warrant, you can have a consistent management philosophy but show it differently when you are with different direct reports or teams.

On my original team at MovieFone, I had one person who was incredibly quantitative and detail/process oriented and who indirectly managed a lot of products and processes outside our group.  I had another who was a complete newbie to the company and to an operating role (she was a former management consultant) with a large number of entry level employees in the field.  I had another who was an insanely creative insomniac trying to blaze new trails and create editorial content inside a technology company.  A fourth was a very broad thinking generalist, one of those great corporate athletes, who managed whatever fell between the cracks.  And the last was a commercial banker turning herself into a relationship management specialist working with an unorthodox business model and partners who half the time felt threatened by us.

In short, I had five incredibly different people to manage with five incredibly different functions and team types/employees under them.

And I learned over time — I like to think I learned it in a hurry, but I’m sure it took a couple of years, and I’m probably still working on it — that trying to manage those people and the second-level identically was counterproductive.  A small example:  8 a.m. meetings for the insomniac never worked well.  A bigger example:  diving into strategic topics with the former consultant who just joined the team and had never managed anyone before was a little bit of focusing on the forest and forgetting about the trees.

At the end of the day, you are who you are as a manager.  You are hard-charging, you are great at developing individuals, you seek consensus.  But how you show these traits to your team, and how you get your team to do the work you need them to do, can differ greatly person by person.