What kind of manager are you, anyway?

It's often said that there are two types of managers: those who manage things and those who manage people. And a great divide of misunderstanding lies between them, rarely to be crossed or reconciled.

The managers of things are those who see the world through the lens of stuff. They focus their attention on production, processes, projects, materials, milestones, methods, deliverables and details. They share an orientation with engineers who tend to focus on the what and how of life more than on the who.

On the other hand, the managers of people see things though the lens of relationships. Where managers of things see matter, managers of people see humans who happen to be working with matter. They focus their attention on culture, politics, leadership, teamwork and organizational designs.

In this conception, the people orientation is usually represented by senior executives, and everyone below them falls into the category of managers of things. The divide is often cited as one of the key reasons for difficulty with business/IT alignment. CIOs and CEOs talk past each other; they view the same world through different lenses, and each is unable to understand the other's perspective.

So which kind of manager are you? Be honest. You might pay attention to both perspectives, but most people have a primary and secondary orientation. We seem to come prewired with a bias toward one or the other.

If you honestly can't answer this question, you may fall into a third category. Over the past decade, we in IT have created jobs that call for an orientation distinct from either things or people. I call the people who naturally fit into these jobs the managers of abstractions.

Managers of abstractions see things through the lens of theory. Where most of us see projects and people, they see examples of theories almost as expressions of pure Platonic forms. (The Greek philosopher Plato believed that physical things drew their characteristics from abstract categories or forms in which they participated. So, for example, a horse was a physical thing that participated in the form of horseness and expressed the features of the form.) These managers are most comfortable with the world of the conceptual, with ideas disassociated from specifics.

They have titles like "director of project management," "chief security officer," "czar of quality" or "overlord of strategy." Where most managers are focused on ends, these managers are responsible for particular features of the means to those ends. Their jobs are to oversee the adjectives and adverbs, rather than the nouns and verbs of IT. While most managers are responsible for delivering products and services, abstraction managers work to ensure that other managers deliver efficiently, effectively, securely, consistently and appropriately.

Abstraction managers have hard jobs. They're responsible for developing and interpreting theory and applying policy to projects. They are always in danger of being viewed and -- perhaps more dangerously, of viewing themselves -- as a priesthood, as mediators between the temporal and spiritual realms. Their relationships with both the managers of people and the managers of things are frequently strained. Without the power to produce, they're frequently viewed as having only the power to obstruct on ideological grounds. That's why many project management offices are viewed as the process police and not considered the midwives of progress and productivity.

Can you find yourself now in this tripartite taxonomy of managerial orientation? Is your natural interest in people, things or theory? There is no right or wrong answer, but there may be better or worse assignments for individuals of each perspective.

As IT has become pervasive in business organizations, it has become increasingly important that technical managers appreciate the different outlooks. Working effectively with stakeholders of IT at all levels requires the following skills:

  • Knowledge of your own natural perspective.
  • Awareness of other managers' perspectives.
  • The flexibility to view reality through all three lenses.
  • The wisdom to reconcile the issues and options that differ between them.

If you develop the ability to recognize and reconcile all three perspectives, everyone will know exactly what kind of manager you are -- a good one.

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