Keil Hubert: A Tale of Two Managers

Being a subject matter expert in a technical field isn’t always a strength. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses how technical expertise can inadvertently alienate some co-workers… and can turn some superiors into vengeful enemies.

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When you work in the technology arm of modern business, it’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself working for someone with no tech chops whatsoever. The higher up the structure you climb, the more likely it becomes. That’s not a bad thing (in and of itself); the entire point of taking on increasingly higher tech leadership roles is to eventually ascend to the top spot in the organization (e.g., CIO, IT Director, etc.) where your primary organizational function is to translate your peers’ business problems into technical solutions. That’s what we do.

Working with less technically-illiterate folks is often a very good thing: you get to leverage your technical skills and vision to bring great things to life for a grateful audience. Often, you get to teach tech concepts to people such that it improves their competitiveness, which then helps to cement those people you help as long-term allies. Most of the time, it’s good to be the subject matter expert in a technical discipline within your company.

Not always, though. Not at all.

Even in entry-level tech jobs, it often seems like it’d be great to be the SME in something. Your knowledge and experience makes you economically valuable. If the company had to look outside for a firewall programmer or a  Ruby-on-Rails developer because they didn’t have one in-house, and they then hire you to fill that critical void, you’d expect people to be happy that you came aboard to fill the gap. There should be a great deal of appreciation, and maybe even some admiration for the talent that you bring to the ranks, right? Sometimes, but not always. People being what they are, some folks are going to resent the hell out of you for possessing an ability that they themselves do not. Some people will be bitter, hateful, fearful, and even vindictive towards you. It rarely has anything to do with who you are; it has everything to do with the notional threat that you pose to the less-powerful person (real or imagined).

Let me illustrate this point with a tale of two technically inept managers that I served under. They were very different people who rose to positions of power via very different backgrounds. What they shared was that they each had inherited a technical department that they didn’t understand, and had to manage people with skill-sets wildly beyond their ability to grasp. What made the two men different was how they reacted to the situation.

Spolier! Neither of these examples includes a promotion, a raise, or a heartfelt expression of praise.

Spolier! Neither of these examples includes a promotion, a raise, or a heartfelt expression of praise.

Let’s call the first fellow ‘Andy.’ [1] Andy was fresh out of university. The only entry on his CV was a one-year post as a help desk call centre shift supervisor. On his own, he didn’t have the training or experience to manage a light switch – and that wasn’t his fault; he was an entry-level employee who needed to start on the ground floor somewhere. Unfortunately, Andy’s parents were friends with the founders of a local Dot Com company, and used their connections to get their son a sinecure within the new start-up so that he could harvest a snot-load of stock options (thereby setting him and his new family up for life) and leapfrog all the entry-level positions so that the word ‘manager’ appeared on his CV when he moved on to his next gig.

Andy found himself ‘managing’ the Engineering Services Department, a completely made-up team of senior data centre engineers, pre-sales support experts, and systems integration consultants. The most junior team member of ESD had a hundred times the technical chops of the wide-eye department manager; the cynical old techs needed a manager like the moon needs a valet parking attendant. Andy couldn’t understand what ‘his’ people were doing during the day, let alone contribute anywhere.

On balance, Andy was pretty inoffensive. He managed to make some serious blunders out of simple ignorance, but the rest of the team shrugged them off and didn’t hold them against the kid. Andy never once gave us performance standards, advice, mentoring, encouragement, coaching, or anything else that a decent line-level manager is expected to deliver. The one time that I went to him with a request for more resources, he listened to why I needed them and signed off on the purchase on the spot. He didn’t understand, but he didn’t act like a git about it.

All in all, Andy wasn’t gormless; he was simply out of his depth. We all recognized that. Yes, there was some mild resentment within the team over having been saddled with a feckless manager. The key word there is ‘mild.’ Discontent never exceeded a few gentle japes in the company canteen. Andy was tolerable, because he didn’t try to insinuate himself into the experts’ business. He wasn’t willing to learn, but he also wasn’t inclined to cause trouble. Good enough.

Andy contributed best to the team dynamic when he fell asleep in his cubicle. No one minded.

Andy contributed best to the team dynamic when he fell asleep in his cubicle. No one minded.

Let’s call the second fellow ‘Bertrand.’ Bertand was a seasoned corporate campaigner who had climbed his way up the career ladder over a Hyborian-sized pile of his competitors’ bodies. His winning attributes were his youthful charm, his good looks, and his utter ruthlessness. When Bertrand took over the logistics arm of our company, all of the department heads grew deeply morose. We’d all spent time in staff meetings with Bertrand when he was the warehouse manager, and no one trusted him. It was well known that he’d shiv you if he thought he could get away with it, just because the opportunity presented itself.

This example ought to give you a good feel for how Bertrand operated. Back in those days, we had a professional development program for the company’s upper managers. Once a year, you could apply to be put on a paid sabbatical to attend a graduate school program at a prestigious national university. Bertrand himself was a graduate of this programme, having gone to a California-based school for nearly a year and a half. You’d think, then, that Bertrand would be the strongest advocate for the programme, since it helped him to best all of his rivals and allowed him to take over the division. Not so much. We quickly learned that whatever was good for Bertrand could never be good for anyone else.

I assembled my application package two months before the summer deadline and handed it in to Bertrand. I asked him if he’d support me in the endeavour. It wouldn’t cost him any political capital; all he had to do was sign one form and kick it up to the board of directors for evaluation. He said yes, as if it was a brilliant idea. I reminded him that if I got selected for the Harvard Business School program, I’d be out of his hair for a year. Bertrand flashed me with his ‘little boy smile’ and said ‘That’s a great idea! I’m due in a meeting, though so let’s talk about this later.’

A month later, having heard precisely nothing about the status of my application, I scheduled an appointment with the man specifically to ask whether or not he’d signed and forwarded on my application up the line. When I got to his office, I could see the folder sitting – untouched – on the corner of his desk. I asked if there was a problem. Bertrand smiled coyly and said ‘We’ll talk about it later.’

I made the same appointment three more times in the month leading up to the deadline and always received the same response. On the day that the application was due to upper management, he kept me waiting outside his office for two hours after our scheduled appointment time. I was still there when he opened his door to leave for the day. I insisted on a straight answer since we’d effectively run out of time. Bertrand just smirked and said ‘We’ll talk about it later.’

The next day, I was summoned to Bertrand’s office to be chewed out over something trivial. As soon as I entered his palatial suite, I saw my application package sitting – still untouched – on his desk. I raised an eyebrow in inquiry. Bertrand sneered at me and said (with a mocking tone) ‘It looks like you missed your deadline to apply. That’s too bad …’ He then picked up the folder and tossed it into his waste bin.

That is the heart of what separated the two managers: Andy was benign, while Bertrand was malevolent.

On the plus side, you knew exactly where your career was going so long as you worked under him.

On the plus side, you knew exactly where your career was going so long as you worked under him.

My point is that many of the people you come across during your career in business tech will be put off by the gap in technical sophistication between the two of you. That’s inevitable – the more expertise you have in a given field, the larger the gap will be between you and most anyone else in the company. That’s why they hired you, after all. That gap will potentially irritate some of the folks that you work with – or for.

The trick is, most people may be mildly intimidated by your area of expertise but they’ll only be unsettled by it to some degree. A few will actually convert that sense of inadequacy into venomous loathing. Very few of the latter actually act on that spiteful hate. Those few do exist, though, and they tend to make our lives a living hell through whatever elements of power they have at their disposal. Some humans are deaf to the better angels of their nature.

The best technique that I’ve found for neutralizing the threat that some of these hateful people present is to strike early: not with bitterness, but with pre-emptive disarming admiration. I’ve learned to make it a habit to learn about my peers’ and potential rivals’ interests and accomplishments early on, so that I can make a concerted effort to express how much I hold their unique strengths in regard. You’re good at shell scripting? You rebuild vintage Harleys on the weekends? You studied economics at uni? That’s very interesting – I’ve never done that, and I’m quite impressed. Please tell me about it!

To be clear, I don’t advocate using a fawning lickspittle tactic. I’ve long held the opinion that anything I don’t know is probably quite interesting. If someone is passionate about a subject that I don’t understand, there must be an intriguing reason for it. It’s usually enlightening to learn more about it. Even if it isn’t, it never hurts to validate another person’s life choices. If you can find some aspect of your rival’s life that brings them great pride, ask about it. Show some genuine interest in what they’re interested in – and, thereby, salve their wounded pride at being second-best to you in some technical area. I’ve managed to convert a bunch of potential adversaries into allies with this technique. Made a few long-term friends that way, too.

It doesn’t always work. Some people are simply saturated with hate and can’t be brought around no matter what you do. If one of these people is your immediate superior, there’s very little that you can do to protect yourself against them. For those (thankfully rare) situations, I suggest abandoning the battlefield with good grace as swiftly as possible. Go work somewhere else – before your Bertrand can make your life a living hell.

If you feel that you have to stay and fight, go all-in. A conflict with a true office bully is likely to be a fight to the (career) death, so there's no point in holding anything back.

If you feel that you have to stay and fight, go all-in. A conflict with a true office bully is likely to be a fight to the (career) death, so there’s no point in holding anything back.

Perhaps that was the other key difference between the two managers: Andy might have grown into a decent junior manager with a little help. Bertrand was wholly irredeemable. Not that anyone was inclined to offer him a second chance.

Americans have a lot to learn from the English cultural tradition of being disarmingly humble about one’s accomplishments and strengths. Self-deprecating humour and a little gentlemanly discretion can go a long way towards diffusing potential rivalries in the workplace. Unfortunately, the American cultural tradition of competing with everyone, all the time, is often the worst possible way to inflame a co-worker’s or manager’s deep-seated fear of coming out second best.

[1] As I pointed out during my presentation at TEISS last month, I prefer to not use real names for people or companies if there’s any way to avoid it. I’m a storyteller, not a gossipmonger.

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own).

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His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.

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