Columns / Systems Thinking

You’ve been promoted to manage, now what?

Once they like you, the cats you herd are good companions

January 2, 2014
Clients and students of mine ask what they need to do to one day be chosen for the ES&H vice president role. Job one:  learn how your business makes money. Then learn how your ES&H department contributes to or detracts from your business making money.  Remember that ES&H has been called the “company money pit.”

The next step is to ask operations and maintenance what and how they do their work and how ES&H interferes or complements their work routine.  To build a level of trust with these folks before they offer candid opinions will take time, but in the long run the view is definitely worth the climb.

Invest the time, because should you be chosen to become an ES&H vice president, these folks will remember your interest in their work and how you tried to help them accomplish their goals without harming themselves, others, or the environment.

How would you like to be managed?

Next, focus on the peers you work with. Would you micromanage, or would you be comfortable simply telling them what they need to do and why?  Think about how you would like to be managed. Think about those who you’ve respected as managers.

Allow your staff to make mistakes. Often ES&H professionals can’t let go of their obsession with the details of ES&H work because they want to retain past skills and, on the other hand, they fear one of their employees will make a mistake, which will reflect negatively on them as managers.  Remember, you’ve been promoted to tackle strategic issues; don’t waste too much time on the tactical matters.

Herding cats

ES&H professionals are typically intelligent, opinionated, independent, and frequently difficult people to manage. A recent addition to the management literature by Graeme Davies and Geoff Garrett provides a wealth of insight into managing professionals. “Herding Cats” can certainly apply to managing ES&H professionals in more ways than one.

Davies and Garrett present their ‘twelve Cs’ of managing and leading professionals under four main themes – Understanding the Culture, Getting the Job Done, Managing People, and Leading Strategically. I highly recommend “Herding Professional Cats” for you and your colleagues.

Understanding the culture

First, understand the various aspects of the culture.  Think about the systemic culture landscape in which you work, not just the ES&H culture.  Be mindful of history because it can remain embedded in the minds of your professionals for both positive and negative reasons. 

Integral to culture is the expression of conflict. Look for circumstances where your professionals are outside of their comfort zone, particularly when remuneration is involved.  Lack of clarity in articulating your goals can lead to conflict.  Conflict often leads to your having to make difficult, unpopular decisions.

Collaboration with professionals is rare due in part to their strong self-interests.  Corporate cultures unknowingly allow ‘Chinese Walls’ to be built around areas of responsibility or expertise.2  A true business model of collaboration is needed to overcome the “Chinese Walls.”

Getting the job done

As Davies and Garrett affirm, leadership is all about getting results. In your new role, focus on taking charge.  You never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Expect your people to believe they know more about their job than you, so ask questions. Learn their issues by listening.  Learn people’s names.  You manage by rank or title, you lead by permission.

To obtain results, hone your capacity to maintain composure.  To sustain your composure, anticipate the suspected and unsuspected outcomes your staff may encounter in their work.  Sweat the details, but don’t micromanage.  Select metrics that allow you to track progress.  Be patient.

Committees are the next “C” under getting results. Committees must have a reason for being.  They must have real work to do and clear reporting lines.3  Meetings should only occur when a decision needs to be made. 

Last in getting results is managing cash.  Most ES&H professionals are not tasked with managing cash, but as an executive you will. This is one skill set you must master to survive.  Learn how to do more with less and promote projects that bring returns on investment.  Ask help from your company’s financial group.

Managing the people

View your people as your colleagues as opposed to your subordinates.  Unleash what they “can do”’ versus listening to what they “can’t do.” Never fill a position with a mere warm body.  Seek individuals who can produce and have the capacity to stretch.  Look for opportunities to say “Thank you”; it can make a world of difference during tough times.  Articulate where you want to take the organization and take ownership of dispensing with inadequate people.4

Never stop trying to communicate better, both to groups and individuals.  Learn how to actively listen instead of planning your next point. Davies and Garrett use a powerful quote to stress the point of actions versus words, “I communicate behaviors every day.  Sometimes I use words.”  Remember, your colleagues are watching.

Give credit where credit is due.  Recognize and celebrate a job done well.  Be sincere about your praise, because ES&H cats can spot a phony very quickly.

Leading strategically

Ground yourself in where you are and communicate an optimistic story of where you are headed.   Davies and Garrett advocate rolling backwards from the future, not extrapolating forward from the present.  From a systems thinking perspective, I would add a slight twist and suggest thinking about where you want to be now and plan backwards to where you are now.

Change is inevitable, but to struggle is an option.  Figure out how to encourage your colleagues to accept change.  Listen carefully to your colleagues; think carefully because change takes a lot of energy. Avoid instant change, but realize slow change can result in paralysis by analysis. Enlist colleagues who see the need for change; engage a full-time lead agent to facilitate the process; and communicate, communicate, communicate.

Once they decide they like you, cats make good companions.6


1  Davies, G. and G. Garrett. 2013. Herding Professional Cats – Being advice to aspiring leaders in the professions.  Triarchy Press. Devon, United Kingdom.

2  Ibid. pp. 36.

3  Ibid. pp. 68.

4  Ibid. pp. 100.

5  Ibid. pp. 121.

6  Ibid. pp. 141.

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