Business-focused vs. People-focused managers


No matter whether your focus is Test or Dev or some other discipline, most managers will approach situations with a focus on the business or a focus on the people.  Which manager are you?  As a Test Manager, my business would be testing the features or product my team owns and my deliverable is a product with high quality.  I have found that the best way to determine where I fall on the spectrum between business-focused and people-focused is by watching how I handle re-organization or other big changes.  Let's focus on the two extreme ends of this spectrum. 


A business-focused manager restructures the team according to business needs and doesn't focus as much attention on the career growth and specific skill sets of the individuals.  They don't worry about what perception the individuals will have of them by making these changes.  These managers make changes to improve the business without thinking through the details around how to roll out these changes to the people.  Re-orgs done through email or without most of the details known are usually done by managers focusing on the business.  Individuals may perceive this manager as one that doesn't care about their careers.  The benefits of managers who focus on business is that projects have less of a chance of failing or getting cancelled.  They focus on what is getting delivered, whether the customers like it, and whether there's enough money to keep the business moving forward.  They focus on long-term strategies for the future of the business, they know the competition, and they review all aspects of the business from engineering, to support, to marketing, etc.  A manager focused on business may not know everyone on the team, but they will know how to run the business.


People managers follow the motto of 'hire good people and the work will get done'.  For the most part, this is true, but this thinking can also become cumbersome when the business needs outweigh the needs of the team members.  A Test Manager who is people-focused may have a team of testers who are critical thinkers and know how to find bugs and write solid automation.  Because of this, the team is very likely to succeed and the product will ship with good quality.  These managers are focused on growing their team members into leaders or better testers, they add value to the team by their attention on training, they create solid successor plans, they have strong interpersonal awareness skills and can anticipate personality conflicts, and their management style revolves around coaching and giving upfront feedback.  If there is a re-org, they focus on who is affected, how they are affected, how to message this change to them, and the logistics of rolling it out in order to show respect and help everyone adapt to the change.  The downside is that managers only focused on people won't make the hard calls that may be the right things to do for the business.  They may not prioritize and cut projects in order to allow other projects to succeed.  They may spend more cycles thinking about how to align the desires of the people on the team than to align the needs of the business, the customers, or the deliverables.


Neither of these approaches, business or people focused, is wrong or right.  In moderation, they both add value.  Your goal should be to be a little of both, to understand when to be more of a business-focused manager and when to be a people-focused manager.  Watch other managers and see if you can determine what they are.


An example and great learning experience for me was a few years ago when one of the teams that I managed was doing work similar to a sister team, both reporting to my boss.  These two teams didn't get along due to varying personalities.  I spent a lot of effort working on building a better relationship between these two teams.  I hired many of the people on my team and wanted to see them be successful with me as their manager.  Eventually, my boss merged the two teams under one of my peers.  In hindsight, my boss was focused on the business which wasn't working well with these two conflicting teams.  His decision forced the teams to work together because they became one team.  My focus was on working to build careers and doing what was good for my team.  I didn't realize what was good for the business.  They truly did belong in a larger team that was doing similar work.   


When I first stepped into a lead and then a test manage role, much of the training and skills I learned was around being a people manager.  At the time, this was a general Microsoft focus for all managers at the company.  My attitude around putting my team members first continues to be apparent to me in regular communications I have with my team.  It's natural for me to look out for the well-being of my team.  Recently I had a team member even comment about how he likes that I "work for the people".  But I also understand the value of a business-focused approach and with the recent economic downturns, I can appreciate this approach even more.  I myself am continuing to learn how to better manage the business including recently suggesting to cut a project from my team.  I've learned a lot from many experiences and as I think about people-focused vs. business-focused, many decisions have become more clear to me.  My goal is not to fall on either end of this spectrum, but instead fall somewhere in the middle.