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Please learn this: “Noses in; fingers out!”

Many of us have someone who reports directly to us and who supervises others in return. If that fits, well then, this one is for you. And it is one of the most important lessons you can learn as a manager or board member of a company or a non-profit enterprise.

I first heard this expression in a governance seminar for a non-profit higher educational board upon which I sit, years ago.  It made an impact and stuck with me through the years.  I have repeated it often to boards deliberating action, to individual board members seeking to get their hands dirty inside the corporation by giving advice and helping at levels beneath the CEO, and to senior executives or managers as well.

The problem this addresses cannot be overstated. Once a person of higher authority reaches beyond their direct report in an organization, especially without the approval of that direct report, incurable damage will have been done to that person’s ability to manage.  Even if not the intent, there is an instant change in dynamic once this line has been crossed.  Sound overstated? It is not, and that is the lesson here.

[Email readers, continue here…]  Here is an example, even where your presence without speaking can do harm.  Once again, it is a personal story where I had to relearn this mantra first hand. As chairman of a company in an industry where I have extensive experience, I elected to attend a regular meeting of the management team with its middle managers on a Monday morning, a practice I had not done in the past.

I found the meeting to be unusually quiet and tame to say the least. The CEO spoke, shared metrics, spoke of issues to be addressed during the coming week, and did a fine job of pointing the assembled troops in the right direction. I could not have been more pleased.  After returning to my office, I received a call from the CEO. ‘Would I please (oh, don’t take this wrong, Dave) not attend these meetings anymore?’

What I took for unusual silence was a complete disruption of the normal give and take of the management group because of my presence.  My chairmanship carried unstated power even if not overtly demonstrated, since the CEO reports to and is accountable to the board, and of course its chair.

I learned from this that there are times when members of the board are appropriately brought into an operating group, and certainly times when the board should hear from vice presidents presenting their issues in a board meeting.  But the position of CEO is absolutely to be reinforced at all costs, never to be undermined by any member or by the board as an entity.

Now insert your position, no matter how low or high in the organization.  How would you feel if a more senior person stepped into your meeting, instructed your direct reports without your permission, or generally took over a process you controlled?  Yup. I thought so.

Sure, it is appropriate for the senior person present to ask the tough questions, request help in understanding issues, seek permission from you interview others.  But that senior person should never react to statements heard by issuing directions or hints of action in return.  It is appropriate to state that you understand much more after the briefing and will better be able to address the problem with others.  It is not appropriate for you to promise any action to anyone beneath that person at the next level.

So, let’s repeat the lesson. Noses in; fingers OUT.

  • Very wise—and something well intentioned people overstep without realizing. Thanks Dave

  • Sonny Romano

    When I was an outside sales rep for Sprint, I went over my direct sales manager and called the main accountant directly at the corporate office in another state…..I had a dispute over the 55% taxes taken out of a $10,000 commission check. I knew my direct sales manager would have taken her time and maybe not get back to me for a week or so. I got lucky and the main corporate accountant in the executive office answered his phone. I explained my situation and the guy was as nice as can be and answered my questions in about a 10 minute conversation. I was happy with his answers till about 10 minutes later I get a call from my sales manager requesting I see her immediately in her office. She was angry about what I did going “over her head”….I told her why and she turned red and I believed she was about to fire me….She didn’t because I was the top sales rep in the branch but our relationship soured and was never the same again…..It still felt fantastic doing it!

  • I too have stories similar to yours… this particularly happens to those of us who are passionate about execution. If you feel the managers are not effective by interjecting you make them even less effective… and by interjecting repeatedly you make the manager exponentially less effective.

  • gene Konstant

    You are absolutely right on the money and
    this is a frequent and typical issue in many
    smaller businesses – especially employing
    family members.

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