Business 101: Cross Managing or How do I manage an Equal?
Last updated: 7/6/2002; 1:13:58 PM
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Business 101: Cross Managing or How do I manage an Equal?

We've all heard of the idea of managing up i.e. when you manage your own boss.  And then there's the normal concept of managing down when you manage people that report to you.  This article introduces the idea of "cross managing" or managing people that are your equals, generally your business partner.  So how do you manage an equal?  Simple:

You don't

Let me clarify.  I'm actually not certain that, at least for really smart, people, that they are even manageable.  And, when they are your equals, it's a lot harder.  This essay talks about the issues and draws from two experiences of mine:

  • My first partner, Brian in NTERGAID
  • My current partner, Gretchen, in The FuzzyGroup and our work with eVectors

Given my belief that partners need to be equal, this is something that I have had quite a bit of experience with; perhaps these tips will be useful to someone.

My Background

NOTE: If you are a long time reader, you probably know this and feel free to, quite joyously, skip ahead.

I've been managing people either my whole life, since I grew up as the boss' son in a family corporation, or since I was 19 when I founded my first real company (actually my 2nd business) in 1987.  That company, NTERGAID, we took from nothing, with no capital, to just under $1 million in sales and then sold it successfully to a publicly traded company in Cambridge, MA, Dataware.  After that I failed at a startup and then joined a  dot com, Mascot, worked my way up to VP of Engineering within 5 months and then left in abject and total disgust.  Here are the numbers of staff that I have managed:

  • NTERGAID - 15 by the end
  • Dataware - My team was about 25 people in size, 5 locations, 2 continents, at least 2 time zones.  Less than fun.
  • Mascot - Overall Company > 175 at the end, my engineering group was between 35 and 45 depending on how you count consultants

So I have some background in management (and a degree in it) and people seem to like how I do things.  But managing people who are subordinates, at least in a work context, is very, very different from managing people who are your equals.

So… How Do You Manage an Equal?

The first thing to understand is that the very concept of "managing your equal" is just bizarre.  Your equal shouldn't be managed.  Perhaps guided is a better term.  The way I look at it is that I report to Gretchen and she reports to me – but do I manage her?  No.  Not at all.  She manages herself and I give input into the process.

So here's how I do it currently and have honed over 10 years of being in this situation:

  1. Respect Thy Partner.  In every single way possible.  At all times.  I mean this very seriously.  The only way that equals can work together is by respecting each other.

  2. Never Lose Your Temper.  When you come right down to it there just aren't a lot of things worth getting tremendously upset about – and, when you do, it rarely, if ever, helps.

  3. Apologize.  When you do, inevitably, lose your temper, apologize as soon as possible.

  4. Let Them Make Their Own Decisions – But Give Them All The Data.  Here's an example – we just had the July 4th holiday here in the states.  Gretchen previously had plans but when something interesting, and potentially very significant, popped up at the last minute, I didn't tell her what to do.  I didn't even ask her to skip her plans.  I gave her the facts and let her make the decision (she chose to work).  If it had been an absolute emergency then I probably would have asked; Not Required - asked.  If your partner is a responsible person then they will almost always do the right thing when needed.  If they aren't responsible then perhaps you have an issue.

  5. Make All Information Public.  In my opinion, the single best way to manage a partner is very, very simple – you make everything public.  Here's another example – I recently mentioned that I was rebuilding our internal task system.  What I have been doing is moving everything off to the web so that we're not just stuffing things into Outlook or some other system where Person A can't see Person B's tasks.  Why?  Well, if everything is public then it's a lot easier for Person A to make their own decisions or "Oh I see that Gretchen has 40 tasks remaining for the BLN project.  Maybe I ought to be more available so she can get those done since I'm down to 14". 

  6. Let Them Know Your Committment.  I'm not at all a fan of when someone keeps telling me "Oh I was working last night until midnight".  When someone does it repeatedly, it always feels to me like they are blowing their own horn.  I do believe, however, that you can do this in a more subtle fashion so that your partner knows how hard (or NOT hard) that you have been working.  This is a really useful technique because it can set up a subtle competitive effect where Partner A tries to match Partner B.  You should bear in mind, however, that people working an equal number of hours isn't necessarily required.  People are different – and they have different motivations at different times in their lives.  Sometimes additional work is a very deliberate choice by one of the partners and it doesn't have to be matched.

  7. Put it in Writing.   As anyone who has ever worked with me knows, I send lots of email.  Lots.  Why?  Because putting things in writing, if you can write even slightly well, tends to eliminate confusion.  It also makes it so that people can go back to things (sure we all remember stuff – often incorrectly).  One of the nicest things about email is that it gives a record.  And, one of the reasons why people love Outlook, warts, flaws, the RAM pig that it is, silly design choices and all, is Sent Items.  By default Outlook never throws anything away.  I have every email I've ever sent back to August of 1996.  This has been invaluable more times than I can recount.  I try never to do it in a "I told you so" sort of way, but in a "what did we agree on sort of way" or a "here's what we discussed way".

  8. Talk.  Although at different times in my past I've been accused of being a poor communicator, this isn't the case in this context.  I'm a firm believer in putting all issues out on the table and getting them addressed in real time or near real time.  I try to never walk away angry or with something unresolved.  Sure this can make some of the times we have an issue "talky".  Big deal.  This is part and parcel of what you need to do to "manage" a partner.


I guess the summary of all this would be:

You don't manage a partner. 
You set the circumstances up so that they can manage themselves with input from you.

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