I received an early indoctrination from my father on volunteering and management. He had a sort of pragmatic wisdom from having served in the Maine Corp and the Merchant Marine. He’d say that ” the conventional wisdom says don’t ever volunteer. However, sergeants and bosuns Mates know this and will “volunteer” you for the duty. Protesting too much can get you extra duty later on. Volunteer smart. Keep the bosun happy, get your buddy off hard duty occasionally, and gain credit from your shipmates.” My father’s take was this was a wheel; you had to keep it spinning.

The spinning wheel only works when everyone pitches in once in a while. In other words, you don’t wait for an appointment to do your part. And in a pinch, everyone gets together to keep things working. The time to argue about the duty roster was not while the ship was in danger of sinking in the storm.

As my father used to say, all this was in a perfect world; but the world is not perfect. He maintained that you needed sergeants, bosun mates, and officers because some people are lazy and won’t contribute their energy, effort, or money to keep things working. So you have to have people who manage things, and that’s where the real skill comes in; just the right amount of encouragement, the correct amount of discipline, and a knowledge of the personalities involved.

When we had the final conversations about this, my father was a maintenance supervisor for a large real estate company in New York City. He had to oversee several crews, contracts, and sites. His attitude had not changed. After a while, he stated you knew from a historical view how things might not work. He understood that the one person in the crew who shirked his share torpedoed the team’s efforts. So he managed lightly, but diligently and kept an out for who was slacking.

Without thinking much about it, I’ve adopted my father’s methods and thoughts on management. However, over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to view others. The worst is a system sometimes called ” management by ambush.” In this system, you ambush unsuspecting workers even if they’ve done nothing. The thought behind this is that they’ll never know when you are watching and will always be working hard. But, of course, what happens is that they game your system, resent you, and try to derail things in revenge.

In discussions I’ve had with adherents of the management by ambush method, they maintain that my lazy system allows smart slackers to control the system. I respond that spending your energy where needed leaves most of the crew alone to finish the job. They understand that you are watching, but know that if they do their part, you will leave them alone- in other words, treat them as adults.

Well, not everyone can be left alone and treated as an adult. But if you want to be a manager, you should invest in learning enough about the people you supervise to know who needs mentoring, who you leave alone, and who you manage closely.

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