The Last Word Dirty Work Required

By John Hollon

Nov. 12, 2009

If you’re a manager and still gainfully employed as 2009 winds down, please accept my sincere congratulations. You are on the verge of actually making it through one of the single worst years ever to be a manager.

Think that’s just a bit of hyperbole? I think it’s hard to imagine another year—at least in the last 60—where so many had to deal with so much that was so bad so often.

In case you’ve tried to block all this out, let me refresh your memory: salary freezes and pay cuts; layoffs, buyouts, cutbacks and furloughs; fewer workers but a bigger workload; more worries, more stress, more pressure.

Amid all the bad stuff this year, there’s one more thing: 2009 will surely be a year that many managers look back on as the one in which they really had to step up and lead. That’s because it’s in handling the hard, difficult things that managers really show what they’re made of.

I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating: Managers who can’t do the tough stuff—like having to let people go—really aren’t managers at all. I once had a boss who always spoke in an over-the-top, prideful way about how he had never, ever had to fire a person. This guy was a terrible manager and an insufferable egomaniac to boot, but the fact of the matter was that he never had to fire a person because he simply dumped the task on someone else.

That’s a giant cop-out, of course. (This former manager of mine was all about cop-outs.) Every manager worth his or her salt eventually has to shoulder the unpleasant and unavoidable task of letting workers go. It’s just an essential and basic part of the job that you get, like it or not, when you become a manager.

And that’s why taking a close look at Graydon Carter, a well-known editor (and, one would think, manager), is so instructive.

Carter works for publishing giant Condé Nast as editor of Vanity Fair, and Condé Nast has been going though a terribly difficult round of layoffs and cutbacks. Vanity Fair wasn’t immune from these staff cuts, of course, but when they hit the magazine, editor/manager Carter was nowhere to be found. According to the New York Post, he was jetting off to Bermuda on vacation while his workers were getting their pink slips.

“I think it is extraordinary that he let this happen,” one Condé Nast insider said to the Post about Carter’s vacation. “It says he is not a leader. That he is not in the trenches, that he is profoundly out of touch.”

There is a debate over whether Carter approved of these cuts. “Graydon looks bad, but it’s not really his call,” one Vanity Fair staffer told the Post. “How the cuts are made is the work of the [human resources] department and they have been terribly inefficient throughout, and that’s why these things occur.”

Besides taking an opportunity to bash the HR staff, this anonymous Vanity Fair editorial staffer inadvertently hit on something that all too many clueless managers seem to believe—that they can pick and choose what they’re responsible for.

Real managers know that leadership isn’t like a cafeteria where you can simply pick out the things you like and pass on the ones you don’t. If you get paid the big bucks to be a manager, you’ve got to be able to handle both good and bad. And that means handling the stuff that you may not necessarily agree with, but that you must carry out for the greater good of the entire operation.

It was the late, great Peter Drucker who once said that “management is doing things right, [while] leadership is doing the right things.” Graydon Carter is a great example of how sometimes people in cushy, high-paying leadership positions do neither.

If you can’t handle the tough work of being a manager—like layoffs and staff cuts—you have no business being a manager at all. Yes, you may work in management or flatter yourself with a management title, but if you can’t look your co-workers in the eye and do the dirty deed when it needs to be done, you’re just a manager wannabe. And in these tough economic times, those are the very first people who should be shown the door.

If I were an executive at Condé Nast, that’s something I would be seriously considering when a certain “manager” returns from his vacation. Now more than ever, you need leaders who are willing to do the tough stuff to get you through tough times.

Workforce Management, November 16, 2009, p. 34Subscribe Now!

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