The 2 Dumbest Mistakes a Boss Can Make

The dumbest mistake a boss can make is to hire experienced professionals and then to tell them HOW to do their job rather than WHAT the boss wants accomplished.

The second dumbest mistake a boss can make is to hire novices and tell them WHAT they're expected to accomplish but not provide any guidance about HOW to accomplish it.

I've experienced both situations, and they're both frustrating as hell.

I'll start with an example of the second dumb mistake, because it happened first in my career.

When I took my first job in marketing, I was fresh out of engineering. I'd worked with salespeople and marketers, but had no formal training in the subject whatsoever. When I reported to work (on the opposite coast), my boss dropped off a one-foot-high stack of product specifications and marketing materials and said: "Your number one goal for the next three months is a rationalized product segmentation." That was it.

I spent a year spinning my wheels, pouring through documents, attending dozens of meetings, flying around the world, reviewing budgets, and so forth, trying to untie a corporate Gordian knot. It was miserable, frustrating work, because I continued to approach the problem like an engineer, which is where my training had been.

Then (Thank God!) I got a different boss, who explained to me that the issue wasn't digging around and comparing features and functions, but instead coming up with an over-arching marketing message that made all the different groups want to become part of the parade. Then he jotted down a three slide presentation concept and said: "try starting your pitch like this."

That brief bit of coaching changed everything. Suddenly my job became easy, and the Byzantine complexity gradually fell away as people throughout the organization began to line up behind the concept. My old manager had just demanded the WHAT; my new manager showed me the HOW.

Which is exactly what I, as a marketing novice, needed right then.

Now for the other side of the coin.

I was recently hired by a fairly famous sales trainer to help him and his partner develop a book. While the trainer had written a couple of books (with a co-author), the partner had little or no writing experience, so having a professional journalist on the project was crucial to its success.

As a seasoned professional, I immediately focused on understanding WHAT they wanted the book to say. I reviewed their materials, wrote an outline and a sample chapter and got approval for the basic concept. I also had them take a video their seminar, so that I could see how they rolled out their training.

Once I'd defined the basic WHAT, as a seasoned professional, I took over the HOW and built a writing and review process that would have resulted a manuscript under the agreed-upon deadline. As each segment of the project was complete, I would send it for review of the WHAT.

However, rather than focusing on the WHAT, these two guys kept weirdly focusing on the HOW. Rather than reviewing the material and suggesting changes, they kept pressuring me to attend one of their seminars in person, and spend more time on the phone with them.

They were convinced that if I would only follow their HOW, the WHAT would fall into place.

But that was a silly idea, because the seminar was the same seminar I had on video and the phone calls were monotonous and repetitive. Eventually I became sick of being told HOW to do my job, rather than getting the support I needed to close on the WHAT they wanted.

When it finally became clear that they were unable to focus on the WHAT, I withdrew from the project.

I don't know whether they've gotten another writer involved, but I'll bet, if so, they're driving that writer crazy by focusing on the HOW rather than the WHAT.

Needless to say, I'm aware that there are psychological motivations that drive these two dumb mistakes.

Bosses who don't coach novices are lazy, while bosses who micromanage seasoned professionals are insecure. But that's no excuse. The job of the boss is to to help the team achieve the goal, not to pander to his or her own psychological failings.

In any case, these two mistakes are, in my view, the most common that bosses make, and therefore are the dumbest. BTW, the reason that telling a seasoned professional HOW is dumber than only telling a novice WHAT, is that it's a lot more costly to hire a seasoned professional and then misuse his talent.

READERS: Anyone have similar stories to share?

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Note: Enjoy this post? Then you'll probably enjoy my new book How to Say It: Business to Business Selling available for purchase here.

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