My motivation for writing this particular article comes from years of observing — and personally experiencing — both the good and the bad elements of the management-staff relationship. I begin with the players and note that the distinction between them is important.
Managers are those in an organization who carry titles that distinguish them as “DESIGNATED AUTHORITIES”, thus rendering them the responsible and accountable individuals empowered to make decisions on behalf of their organization. Staff personnel, on the other hand, though they support and work closely with managers in the performance of their duties, are not empowered to make decisions on behalf of their organization and are thus not responsible or accountable for the actions of their boss. As simple as this distinction may sound, in my experience, the line between these two roles is often blurred in practice.
Good managers — senior enough to warrant a staff — generally select staff personnel for their brains, talents, specific expertise, and reputation for hard work; a great combination that generally produces excellent support. Notice I did not include loyalty and reputation as yes people; only poor managers want that. Excellent staff personnel can assist with budget matters, external communication, strategic planning, meeting agendas, decision tracking, scheduling, and a range of other administrative necessities.
But the larger and more layered the staff and the broader their responsibility portfolio, the more difficult it is for a manager to keep track of what is actually being done in their name. Staff personnel derive their authority solely as extensions of their boss. Their actions can serve a manager well and — outside one’s cognizance — they can also seriously undermine a manager’s reputation and authority, often raising questions about “who is at the helm of the ship”. Moreover the larger a manager’s staff, the greater the potential — humans being what they are — that rivalries and competition will spring up among staffers as they seek to establish their pre-eminence in the boss’s eye.
Especially at the more senior levels of management, staff specialists are indispensable talent a manager needs to discharge the wide range of responsibility inherent in their jobs. The trick is to insure that as the boss, your staff works for you — that is, does your bidding and serves your agenda, not the other way around. To assume that one’s staff may not have agendas of their own which they will push and act on given sufficient chance, is a serious misreading of the talented people one generally selects for staff jobs. Staffs, poorly managed, will take on a life of their own.
The best managers in my experience have succeeded in successfully maintaining the proper balance between their authority and their staff’s responsibilities by following a few simple rules.
1. Keep your staff as small as possible. Staffs can grow like a bad weed. Keeping them small significantly improves your chances of staying in touch with — and managing — what is going on at your behest.
2. Do not allow your staff to shield you from the rest of your organization. Staffs are often very protective of the boss and her or his time. Remember you’re the boss and that it is you, not your staff, your organization wants to engage.
3. Fix clearly in your mind those matters where you must have the last word. While you may seek ideas, suggestions, and input from staff: answer your own emails; be the final craftier of your own speeches, talking points and presentations; determine the agendas for truly important meetings yourself; decide for yourself how to respond to questions and tasks from above; determine and act on your own core objectives for your tenure in your job; play an active not a passive role in determining your daily agenda; remember that final managerial decisions are yours and yours alone to make; and have the courage to do what you think best no matter what individual staff members may think.
4. Manage your organization via your subordinate component managers, not your staff or support organizations. This allows your staff and support organizations to play their appropriate role and maintains responsibility and accountability where it belongs; inside the management chain.
5. Finally, never lose sight of the fact that ultimately only you bear responsibility and accountability for actions taken whether you took them yourself, or others took them in your name.