Leading Your Team: Be the ‘Human Crapshield’

By Mike Figliuolo

“So, what exactly do you do, Mike?”

The question was posited by the snarkiest of my direct reports during my staff meeting (a subject I’ll opine on some time in the future). My job was to direct “the business.” Theirs was to run their respective business units.

“Well, I set direction for you guys, set aggressive goals, coach, recruit, and mentor team members. Most importantly though, I act as a Human Crapshield for you guys.” Puzzled looks all around.

“A Human Crapshield? Give me a break.”

“Look — you really never want to know the volume of crap I shield you guys from so you can focus on your job rather than dealing with the crap.”

“Yeah, I’m sure the crap is unbearable. Sounds to me like you’re justifying your role as useless corporate overhead.” Ouch. I’d hate to know what it would be like if my team members didn’t like me…

Middle managers and junior executives often find themselves in a pickle. They’re no longer the front-line “doers,” nor are they the high up muckety mucks who make the big decisions and the big bucks. They find themselves in the purgatory between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in an uncomfortably undefined role.

Yes, they’re responsible for all the items I list above (and then some) — but the one role they might be unaware of and underestimate the importance of is the role of Human Crapshield.

A Human Crapshield? What exactly does that mean?

I’m glad you asked. I had a great company commander back when I was a young platoon leader (which was 15 years and 15 pounds ago). I had a penchant for running slightly amok on the “battlefield” in training sessions. I would occasionally change the plan and do something different for, as they say in the army, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Needless to say, I sometimes made boo-boos during my overly zealous charges into the jaws of “enemy” forces.

What my commander taught me was that no matter how badly I messed up (unless it was an issue of safety or ethics), he would take the heat from “higher.” He thought it best to learn from mistakes and he understood he was ultimately responsible for everything that happened or failed to happen in his unit. After witnessing him suffer a blistering dressing down for one of my “battlefield decisions,” I asked him why he didn’t implicate me.

“Because your job is to fight the best fight you know how. My job is to create the environment where you feel safe doing that and taking appropriate risks to win. Think of me as your Human Crapshield. I shield you from the crap raining down from above so you can do your job.”

That gem stuck with me and I resolved to do the same for my people regardless of the organization I belonged to. In my view, being a good Human Crapshield means:

  • Forcing “higher” to prioritize work and initiatives so my team doesn’t get overloaded or run into the ground.
  • Eliminating worthless meetings, e-mail threads and reporting requests (if the answer to the question doesn’t change what we’re doing, don’t answer the question — just get back to work).
  • Minimizing flip-flopping of strategic direction or hasty focus on short-term metrics to buffet my team from getting whipsawed due to knee-jerk overreactions.
  • Saying “no” to requests from higher if they won’t meaningfully affect business performance (everyone knows when they’re doing “busy work” — my job is to kill busy work before it happens).
  • Protecting my people by accurately and objectively representing them in discussions with senior personnel (senior folks get far fewer interactions with my team than I do and sometimes can come to hasty or inaccurate conclusions about a person’s performance based on limited data). My job is to present a balanced case for my people to ensure they’re not harmed by inaccurate perceptions about their performance.

Sure — you can’t put “be a good Human Crapshield” on your annual goal-setting form. It’s hard to measure. It’s one of those “you know it when you see it” things. But it’s one of those leadership “intangibles” people always talk about but never explain. Hopefully the role is somewhat clearer now.

As a post-script, I had occasion to take a two-week vacation shortly after the aforementioned staff meeting. During that time, my direct reports attended my boss’ staff meetings in my stead. When I returned sporting a wonderful tan, my snarky subordinate commented, “I’m so glad you’re back. I had no idea the amount of crap you protect us from. Thanks. I’m going to go get some work done now …”

Mike Figliuolo is the author of “One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership.” He’s the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC — a leadership development firm. An honor graduate from West Point, he served in the U.S. Army as a combat arms officer. Before founding his own company, he was an assistant professor at Duke University, a consultant at McKinsey & Co., and an executive at Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog, read the full original post here.
Originally published: Dec 12, 2011

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