The Key to Management: Removing Obstacles

Being a manager is not about telling people what to do — it’s about solving problems up and down the ladder

Theory X and Y

The traditional notion of management is Theory X, a top-down model often used in the military. Indeed, we refer to modern business in this way — we are a company, we have a target market, some of our employees are on the front line, we slice our organizations into divisions, we use a chain of command, you might have a war room, and sometimes refer to senior executives as lieutenants. It’s very easy to slip into this mode because it has become simplified for maximum efficiency.

Theory Y, on the other hand, relies on internal motivations where you delegate authority entirely to your direct reports and try to be friends with them. There is more emotional involvement and less direct teaching. Asking questions to get employees to figure out the answer on their own is a key component of Theory Y.

In the world of business, the answer is somewhere in the middle; time is money. Especially now, with the balance of labor and capital in flux, it’s critical that we understand the purpose of management.

Being in charge

Being the boss simply means you solve bigger and more complex problems. The higher you go in an organization, and the bigger the organization gets, the more difficult the “right” answer will be. Elon Musk famously stated, “You should be paid in proportion to the size of problems you solve.” Whatever you feel about the billionaire class or outrageous CEO compensation, this notion is still correct — entry-level positions are reserved for the smallest and simplest of the company’s problems. The CEO needs to solve the biggest problems. Every layer in between solves a problem of varying complexity.

The false notion of management is that you exist to order people around. This is where new managers always stumble, and the door is left open for narcissists, toxicity, and abuse. The best form of management is to push authority down as far as possible and remove obstacles for your team so they can function at maximum efficiency. Help them do their job and get out of the way. Some might call it servant leadership.

Six vs. nine

(Image courtesy Pinterest)

There is a famous image of two people staring at a number from opposite sides. One says it’s six and the other says it’s nine. In the context of the image (pictured left), both are correct. It’s a matter of perspective. A generic rule such as “take care of the customer” has a lot of room for maneuverability. Like various legal precedents, you “know it when you see it,” but that doesn’t help your team members execute efficiently without you.

In the world of business, somebody needs to figure out what it is now and have some evidence to back it up because the business needs to move forward.

For example: Does an important customer or investor want it to be nine? Done — it’s now nine. Unfortunately, it isn’t always that simple. This is where you earn your title.

Mediation and adjudication

Fancy legal terms, perhaps, but also a requisite for managing people. Your direct reports are going to bring you problems they can’t or won’t solve on their own. Whether or not you take direct ownership of a problem, it is your responsibility to return the solution to your people. It’s perfectly fine to put policies in place for automation or to give guidance on less complex tasks, but eventually, you will get to a point where the rule is open for interpretation, and maybe should be.

The inevitable argument

In the case where you have two or more team members who adamantly disagree on the interpretation of a policy (this is a good thing), you will need to step in. It is very tempting, and certainly easier, to delegate back to your people and say, “You need to figure this out yourselves.”

Here’s the problem with that solution: They won’t. For team members who are convinced of their interpretation, trying to hand the problem back to them will lead to two scenarios:

  1. They will continue to fight over it, building coalitions and tearing your team apart.
  2. One — or both — of them will lose confidence in you and quit. Either they physically leave the company, or worse they R.I.P. — Retire in Place.

Neither of these options makes for good morale or a high-performing team, but this scenario happens all the time. In the worst-case scenario, they will actively undermine you and the business. This is a recipe for disaster.

Remove obstacles

When there are no easy answers, you will know you have made it. If you own the business, you have been dealing with this since day one. For those of you entering the ranks of management, buckle up — you are in for a ride. Welcome to management.

The next time you come across a problem that does not have an easy answer, you will be forced to decide; and decide, you must.

Dana Curtis

Dana Curtis


Dana Curtis is the founder and CEO of Biztools, a strategic consulting firm that helps small businesses multiply revenue through improved customer experience and pivot to new markets.

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