Fiefdoms and Politics

It’s surprising at how fiefdoms and politics try and sneak in as the company grows from a startup to a 100 person company.  Every entrepreneur I know confirms this experience.  Understand I don’t like measuring a company by employees.  I’d rather have a ten person company that generates and delivers $20M of value/sales than a 100 person company that only generates and delivers $10M of value/sales.  However, the number of employees is what matters when it comes to office management.

When you are small: sales-gal comes back and tells developer-guy hey we need to do this!  Support-person overhears and says wait that is going to affect this customer!  Operations-dude steps in and says we need to think about this in order to scale.  Leader says lets work this out right now. Two minutes later a solution is set and everybody is back to work solving the problem that is going to bring the Lighthouse account onboard and keep everyone happy.  That is why you need an office where people physically come and why management just happens with good people.

Politics are a non issue because there just isn’t any room to be political.  You literally can’t talk behind someone’s back when you are sitting back to back and you can’t make coalitions with yourself.

Now when each of those departments has ten people, it just can’t work that way.  So you start to bring in management.  You’ve already laid down a commitment system where commitments are made and delivered so departments aren’t working in a vacuum and people aren’t doing whatever they feel like/think is fun, but now you’ve got to start hiring outside talent.

Hopefully you’ve remembered the important fact that you need to pay the top producer more than the manager and everybody knows everybody’s salary.

Now fiefdoms and politics are going to try to happen.  There are a couple of factors at play:

Many people think that the number of people reporting to them is a measure of their worth and work to that goal.  It comes from the fact that is the way a lot of the world works.  If you work in a consulting company you basically take a bit of the difference between what you charge out a junior employee and what you pay her.  More people working for you, more money for you.

Not at a technology company.  It’s all about leverage.  You need to hammer home the point it’s the value you deliver with as few people as possible.  You aren’t about billable hours you are about building a piece of code that’s worth ten thousand times more than it cost to build over the span of your customer base.  I want to know the throttle’s been at the floor for months before we hire a new person.  Having too many people in your department is a scourge, something that is to be punished.

Another challenge is the “it’s in the budget”.  At many places you get a budget and you spend to it.  If you are a company at this stage I don’t think there is any way in the world you can accurately forecast out a year.  It doesn’t mean you don’t try, but it means you make changes as soon as they are needed.  This does drive big company people nuts.  Hell, in the government you get in trouble for under-spending your yearly budget.  Hiring people because it’s a line in a spreadsheet does not work at companies this size.  Again you have to really work at this because many managers will feel like if their budget is cut it reflects on them.  No!!  The budget is cut because that is the right thing to do right now given the current market/company conditions.

There is also the status symbol issue.  Many people see it as a status symbol having somebody do your work or even worse that certain things are “beneath them”.  Yes there are high value and low value uses of your time, but no person at a company this size needs somebody scheduling their contact with employees.  Nobody needs to be traveling first class or staying in a hotel better than any other employee.  Nobody needs to be worrying about their office.  Nobody is above rolling up their sleeves and lending a hand.

The final challenge on fiefdoms is that some managers see it as an affront on their power or authority if people outside the department talk to members of the department.  It’s going around their back.  Now understand it is if you are letting people bitch or gossip behind the persons back, we’ll get to that in a moment.  I always want to know what is going on at the feet on the street level.  I will never tolerate having to “go thorough someone” ever.  In addition its fine if sales-gal happens to go talk to developer-guy.  Hell that is an advantage of being nimble.  Taking that away is like saying well even though we can turn on a dime we need to turn like an ocean liner because that’s what it’s like at BigCo.  It has to be clear that sales-gal can’t make a commitment for developer-guy and if developer-guy doesn’t deliver on his commitments it’s never, ever an excuse to say it was because sales-gal was bothering me or I did something for her.  But if something extra gets done because sales-gal and developer guy remember the old days and just get something done….we’re all better off.

Office politics.  Boy this an ugly one.  I hate this one.  Probably because I’m not good at it and just don’t understand it.  It’s going to be a competitive place if you hired right, that’s ok.  You can channel that into positive results.  You can’t channel office politics, you’re already resource constrained, it is a killer.  I see two roots of politics:

The first is gossip.  You talk about somebody behind their back in a negative way.  You really have to root this one out, anytime someone does it or you see it done you need to squash it.  Attitudes do come from the top.  People have to understand that it better be a dire case, somebody better be doing something really wrong.  For some people it can be a coping mechanism a way to let off steam and frustration.  The problem is that it is super unproductive.  For some it’s a way to try and get ahead.  Those people need to go.  I don’t let it occur about people that left or we fired.  Not allowed, squashed hard.  It’s like a weed you can’t let it take root at all.

The other form is coalitions.  This is where a group of people get together and work against either a person or group.  Ironically it’s what you are doing against your competitor.  Again this is very old human behavior, so it’s hard to stop.  When you see it happening again you have to stop it, people have to realize that the result for them is going to be much more negative than the other side.  People need to realize that we are all on one team, and that splintering the team eventually weakens everybody including themselves.

This is why you can’t just sit in your office or sit in meetings all day.  Getting out and walking around really gives you a sense of these things and allows you lead from the top.

  • Rohan

    Leadership by walking :)  

    Great post. Practical and true. 

    It’s in our nature to form ‘gangs’. And it takes a very high level of candor and spirit to get past this and form a real team. 

  • Donna Brewington White

    Thanks for writing this, Phil.  Great post.  I was really captivated by the ideas “It’s all about leverage…the value you deliver with as few people as possible…” and that the work environment is going to be competitive if you hire right (and the implications of this from a leadership/management standpoint).  Many other provocative thoughts here as well with real pragmatic advice — love that combination.

    You have offered some effective politics killers here.  I think politics have room to take root in environments where culture is weak and there are voids,  discrepancies and lack of clarity in terms of expectations, values, measurements of success, mission, etc.  

  • RichardF

    Spot on Phil