Does the Problem Look at You in the Mirror?


Roy Lobenhofer


I started writing this a few years ago. It irritated me when the Chicago Bulls management let Coach Thibodeau go. I thought he was doing his job better than the people who fired him were doing theirs and I wanted to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard) to say so. I only got so far before I developed writers block. (I generally find writer’s block hits me when I’m attacking something from the wrong angle or I’m wrong about my premise. I “knew” I was not wrong about my premise.)


I was confident talking about management from a sports team wasn’t the problem. Using sport teams to talk about management is a natural. Not only has just about every successful coach and manager written a book about how to manage effectively, but sports provide easy measurements of management effectiveness. At the end of each season, the results are there for all to see.


I suppose approaching topics from the negative side is a natural for a Chicago sports fan. I’m not real proud to admit it, but I’m a North Side Chicago sports fan. That means through my life I’ve spent far too much time watching the travails of the Chicago Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Cubs. That’s a lot of negative examples to work from, but there are usually a lot more ways of doing something wrong than there are of doing something right. I think the negativity was the problem.


A couple things changed in Chicago sports appearing to allow a positive spin on management. Everyone in the world now knows the Cubs finally seemed to have turned the franchise around after losing for over a century. I don’t think as many people noticed the change that happened to the Blackhawks about 10 years ago. We now have some winners to look at!


What changed? In both cases there were changes at the very top. Again, the changes in the Cub management were far more visible. They were sold and the new owners brought in a new management team with a plan and they stuck with the plan through some tough times, but it finally paid off. There wasn’t as much hoopla with the Blackhawks. Partially because hockey doesn’t have the same fan base and news coverage as baseball, but also because the change in top management stayed in the family. Bill Wirtz died in 2007 and the Blackhawks were taken over by his son Rocky. In the 10 years prior to his death the Hawks had made the playoffs once. Since then they have made the playoffs 7 of the 9 years and won 3 Stanley Cups.  


Two changes at the top and two winning teams. Life is simple! All we have to do to get a winner is to fire the boss. That’s certainly not as easy as it sounds. Let’s face it; firing the owner usually isn’t going to happen. The Cubs did get a new owner but the Blackhawks kept it in the family. Fortunately for the Blackhawk fans, Rocky didn’t believe everything his father told him about running a hockey team. Of course, I’m sure examples of firing the boss and bringing in new management and not being any better can be found. The Wrigleys sold the Cubs to the Tribune and the winning didn’t happen, but then again the management didn’t really change. All that changed in management was who signed the checks.


That brings up an excellent point: Watch what you are calling new management! Sports teams have been getting new managers forever. How many managers had the Cubs gone through in their years of futility? I can even remember a time when the Cubs tried rotating managers.


Let’s face it, no matter how much we see Joe Maddon, Joel Quenneville, or John Fox as the management of their respective teams, they are middle managers at best. In fact, they are the ones most likely to be fired if things go wrong. Changing middle managers isn’t usually the answer. (It always seemed surprising to me how many winning managers the Cubs brought in that became incompetent once they donned the Cubbie blue.)


Unfortunately, this problem isn’t limited to Chicago sport teams. I’ve seen it happen again and again in foundries. One of the companies I worked for early in my career went through general managers on a 2 year cycle. The place was a mess. They priced their products strictly on what they thought the customers would pay for them, had no idea of what their costs were, and had the same labor force for about two eons. But, if the new general manager didn’t turn things around in two years, he was gone. It didn’t seem logical to me, but that’s the way the game was played.


It’s interesting to me while it was one of the poorest run foundries I’d ever seen and many foundries I believe were better run went under, it’s still operating. Why? I can’t site the timing exactly because it was a number of years after I left the organization, but there was a change at the real top. The last I heard the general manager had been there for over 20 years. Did they finally get a smart one?


Okay, the problem is the top management, but what are you going to do about it. Unless you face top management when you shave, you aren’t going to do much. You can look for work at someplace with better top management, but usually you can’t tell that when interviewing – at least I couldn’t.


If you do look at top management in a mirror and things aren’t going the way you’d like, you have a very tough job. The first thing you have to ask is how “things” are not going the right way. It seems to me top management usually “knows” things are not going well, but frequently cannot quantify what the problem is/are.


The next step is to decide why things aren’t going right. Is it because the top management in the mirror isn’t devoting enough time to the problem, or is the image of someone who doesn’t excel in that area.


We all have weaknesses and don’t like to admit to them. In looking over my career, one of my biggest weaknesses was interviewing potential employees. I never trusted anything a salesman told me without proof and then I’d question the proof. On the other hand, if I was interviewing you for a position and you told me you’d walk across the pond for the 4th of July picnic, I’d most likely believe you. (Well, Maybe I wasn’t that bad.) I have no idea what the difference was, but I was terrible at interviewing. I couldn’t believe people would lie in an interview. I helped hire some real losers.


I have many other weaknesses I could cite and examples of how they affected progress, but let’s keep this a reasonable length.


Once the weakness is recognized, the next step is only slightly easier. The top management in the mirror has to decide what is going to be done about it. Usually that means assigning someone that responsibility; however, even that comes with some precautions.


1)    Pick someone with a proven track record in the area to handle it. (Don’t be like me and believe what they say just because they say it,)

2)    Get a plan of what is going to happen from the person. (When reviewing the plan, remember this is an area of weakness currently. The plan will require doing things differently than you have been doing them.)

3)    Establish a time line for the plan but don’t expect immediate changes. (The situation took time to get to the point it was recognized. It is only reasonable to assume it will take some time to remedy the problem.

4)    Follow up on the plan’s progress. (The person assigned to correct the situation may be the nicest person in the world and the plan may have seemed logical, but if the plan isn’t yielding the desired results …)


Certainly not an easy task, but if you keep on changing middle managers and getting the same results, it’s time for a different change.


As always, I welcome your thoughts/comments on this or any other essay.


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