The Blame Game

Using corporate as a crutch is just bad leadership

How do I protect my entrepreneurial team from corporate? It's always trying to micromanage us from above, handing down everything from the marketing spend to inventory targets. The interference really hurts our speed and morale. —Anonymous, San FranciscoYou'd think the cliché about corporate stiffs showing up and smarmily announcing, "We're here to help you," would be dead by now, but it still happens all the time, and it's still god-awful. When you're on the front lines, fighting for customers, wrestling with suppliers and distributors, and all the while deflecting competition from every direction, the last thing you need is senior management stuffing you with pie-in-the-sky targets. It's enough to make you turn to your great little entrepreneurial team and scream.And that is exactly what you cannot do. Ever, ever, ever.Look, corporate is not the enemy, even though it can too often seem that way, with outsize demands or out-of-touch targets. It's just that corporate has a job to do, and sometimes it actually knows some things you don't. On its best days, then, corporate is not trying to micromanage you. It's trying to balance your needs with the needs of other parts of the organization. It's trying to manage short-term results and long-term investments. It's trying, basically, to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, a worthy cause underneath it all.

But even if corporate's intentions are good—beware. You as a leader must relentlessly shield your team from its interference. To do otherwise is a fast track to losing your team's confidence and respect. Every time you groan that "Jim says we have to cut 10% of inventory," or complain that "Helen is forcing me to get rid of Steve because he's so bad at meetings," you make yourself look like a marionette. In fact, you actually make yourself a marionette. That's career suicide for you and not much better for your team. Very soon, instead of looking to you for direction, your people will be looking around you, searching for signs from the "real boss." If you think speed and morale are taking a hit now, watch out.

So, back to your problem—which happens to be extremely common. Obviously, we're not going to suggest you become a corporate apologist, trying to sell every edict to your people as if it were ice cream. By all means, push back hard on behalf of your business. Challenge nonsense targets. Negotiate for resources. But keep that process behind closed doors, and when it is over, whether you've made gains or not, own corporate's final decision as your own. Take it to your people as your plan.

Remember Jim's inventory cut? Say he won't budge, even after you've made the case that it's stupid in your business' high-demand environment. At that point, you need to buck up and move on. Get with your team and figure out a way to deliver the additional net income or cash that corporate wants without whacking inventory levels and disappointing customers.

As for poor Steve, whom Helen wants fired—that's another case for you to own. If Steve's a solid contributor, instead of pulling the trigger while blaming Helen, quietly work your tail off to improve his presentation skills. In other words, make it your job to manage the interface between corporate and your team. And when corporate makes that interface thorny, don't share your pain—absorb it.

If that sounds a bit unnatural, that's because it is. It is perfectly human for managers to want to blame "up there" for how hard it is "down here." But real leaders can't do that. And they don't.

I just said no to an excellent business opportunity because I didn't trust the person in charge, even after he doubled the salary to keep me from walking. I'm still having pangs of regret because I was passionately in love with the product. Did I do the right thing? — Wendy Garfield, New York

Double the money is very nice, we'll give you that. But the facts are you just cannot work long with people you don't trust, because trust is the foundation for everything good that happens in organizations, like candor, collaboration, feedback, debate, and creativity.

Now, there certainly are times when you will join a company not because you particularly like the people but because you love the product so passionately, to use your phrase, or because it just offers so much career opportunity. But trust is different from like, and the boss is different from people in general. You saw a red flag and you heeded it. Stop feeling those pangs and feel good about your call.

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