How to Run a Department That People Mostly Don’t Hate.


Today we’re going to talk about one of the most important lessons I know about how to position teams for success within an organization. But first, we need to have a chat about Bruce.

Very early on in my career, I was The IT Guy at a Silicon Valley startup. And I was the total caricature: the scruffy know-it-all kid in t-shirts and Docs who oozed disdain while asking folks if they “turned it off and back on again”. Folks tolerated me because I was buddies with the CTO and because nobody else was foolish enough to do an entire department’s work for as little as I did.

About a year in, we hired Bruce. The son of an Admiral, he was brought in to instill some discipline and professionalism. He was a different sort of caricature: crisp dress shirts, immaculately immobile blond hair, and the expensive, ever-present smile all too common at car dealerships and realtor offices. I met him one early Monday morning when he showed up at my desk, demanding the root password to our email server. No “Hi, I’m Bruce” or “I’m having a problem”; just some stranger looming over me making demands. I (politely) refused and watched Bruce turn various shades of red. Eventually, I coaxed out of him that the VP of Sales was having a problem with his email. Apparently, Bruce wanted to be the hero on his first day.

Later that day I learned that Bruce was my new boss.

I bring up Bruce because despite how much we despised one another, he did give me one snippet of great advice:

Photo by Piret Ilver on Unsplash

Alone, this concept of internal customers is useful. It (slowly) got me to provide better technical support and it’s a good lever to shift the mindset of people towards the non-functional or unspoken requirements of their jobs.

But over the decades, I’ve found it to be far more valuable when applied to teams and departments. The best departments I’ve seen and worked in had a clear, constructive understanding of who their customers were. They understood what their customers needed, and they understood what made their work valuable. The most dysfunctional and destructive organizations misunderstood who their customers were, or were more focused on cornering their market-making themselves indispensable rather than invaluable.

Let’s take a second look at that startup IT department above. You might think that an organization that treated its customers with disdain would be the worst I’ve ever encountered. This idea that departments need to work for their customers isn’t just customer service. Sure, we were really bad at customer service at that little startup, but people got the computers, phones, printers, and networking they needed to do their jobs. Stuff rarely broke, and when it did we got it fixed promptly. We sold people stuff they wanted.

No, the worst IT department I’ve seen was one where individual programmers had to submit a change request to unblock StackOverflow. Laptops were six years old on average, and email was literally inaccessible if you weren’t on the wired office network. Users were the vector for viruses and outages. The change was to be feared and avoided. Everyone in the company hated that IT department except perhaps the lawyers and the accountants.

What happened? Salespeople needed connectivity on the road, so turned to a dozen different providers with questionable security. They became a vector for viruses and a huge burden on support staff. Programmers tunneled a few different VPNs to circumvent site blocks, draining productivity more than StackOverflow ever could. The IT department’s self-fulfilling prophecies came true, letting them sell more of their lock-down to executives while the company slowly spiraled towards bankruptcy.

It has become in vogue to do away with Quality Assurance as a dedicated department and role. I certainly agree that we rarely need the old-school approach where a room full of manual testers follow a script to certify every release of code. What is useful though is an internal consultancy. In this model, QA provides specialized services that the rest of the company lacks.

Sure, most engineers can cobble together some automated load or UI tests. Yes, most designers have a rough understanding of user experience, accessibility, and internationalization. It’s rarely done well though since it is a secondary responsibility at best. In its best form, a QA department provides that expert guidance where it’s needed, coaching people towards competence while setting up scaffolding, process, and culture so that they “fall towards success”.

They also get called into work on high-value projects. When other parts of the company realize that they can’t do the work themselves (even with help), they can call in the experts to make sure it’s done well. QA becomes a department that is selling people valuable services rather than the gatekeepers of production or a necessary evil in the process.

“Human Resources” has never been a particularly popular name. Understandably so — the idea that people are here to be mined and exploited is so 19th century. Over the past few decades, we’ve seen companies shift to “Talent Management”, “Employee Success”, “People Ops”, and other more friendly names. Few companies have truly changed their HR away from the tedious meat mining operation that their original name implied. They minimize costs while trying to provide just enough benefits to keep every chair warm.

The best HR department I’ve worked with was downright entrepreneurial in their approach. They ran the numbers and found that the company could triple the number of great candidates available if they just learned one missing skill. The skill varied from person to person and role to role, but they consistently saw candidates who were great in most of the things they needed while completely missing something.

Like any entrepreneur who spotted a market gap, they drew up a business plan and pitched the idea (internally) to raise some money. A few years later the HR department had doubled in size to accommodate their new training and coaching division. Being able to hire candidates that weren’t exactly what we were looking for because we knew we could fill in the gaps gave the entire company a competitive advantage. Better yet, the training helped current employees grow into roles and improved retention rates.

Training is a big example, but the customer-driven approach helped that HR group in everything they did. They found that customized sites for things like PTO requests and onboarding cut down on the number of communications (meetings/support calls) while improving employee happiness, so hired their own dedicated programmers. Instead of bare-bones benefits, they did (internal) market research to figure out what employees actually wanted. They were no longer a commodity indistinguishable from any other company’s.

As for Bruce, well… Bruce didn’t take his own advice. For months his focus was trying to be a hero for executives. Everything was big splashy projects, under budget, and by some arbitrary deadline. All the while, his reports suffered. They left or transferred to other departments or disengaged from work that only enriched their boss. After a bit of political maneuvering, the CEO got involved and Bruce was let go.

A manager’s staff are their customers.

Too many managers approach their job like a cable company. They think that their customers have no other option so spend little time making themselves a better option. They don’t provide much value, and they’re certainly not looking to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. And just like cable companies, they’re facing an uncomfortable truth as people find themselves with more and more options.

The best managers I have worked with knew this well. They did their market research to find out what their reports needed from a manager. Then they sold their reports something they valued. Sometimes it is coordination, sometimes it is a cohesive culture, sometimes it is a translation layer with the rest of the business. Always it is some service that helps the manager’s staff more effectively provide value to their customers.

The job becomes a lot easier when people want you to do it. Nobody likes a bossy manager. Nobody likes an IT department that views users as a security threat to be minimized. Nobody likes HR that treats them as a commodity. Nobody likes QA that takes forever to assure quality. By selling people what they value you’ll naturally focus on what really matters and be more effective in the process.

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