If you're an engineering manager or hope to be one someday, take it from a CEO: managing well doesn't always make you popular. If it did, every weekend would be three days long, every company would be a democracy, and every cubicle a corner office.
Managers need to be decisive and capable of separating the popular decision from the right decision.
Never was this principle more vividly illustrated than in the seventh game of the Red Sox-Yankees showdown for the 2003 American League pennant, a subject still talked about in Boston. The Sox were struggling mightily to exorcise the Curse of the Bambino. Perennial Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez was on the mound for the Sox. He had thrown a good game—71/3 innings and just over 100 pitches, by most accounts his limit. Now Martinez was getting hit around. Grady Little, the team's now ex-manager, ambled out of the dugout to consult his ace. Red Sox Nation expected Little to pull Martinez. Instead, Little kept him in the game, probably because Martinez, as a true competitor, wanted to stay in.
You can imagine that the conversation went something like this:
Little: "How are you feeling?"
Martinez: "Fine, I can continue."
Little: "Then, go for it."
In fact, Martinez admitted that the conversation was very much similar to that. He said he never willingly gives up the ball.
Having appeased Pedro, Little retired to the dugout. Martinez—"running on the fumes of his fumes," in one writer's words—kept going. He gave up four straight hits that inning, three runs, the lead in the ballgame, and a chance at getting his team to the World Series. In the other dugout sat no-nonsense Yankee skipper and perennial World Series winner Joe Torre. He had yanked his ace, fiery Roger Clemens, several innings earlier in what could have been the final game of Clemens' spectacular career.
Guess which team won the pennant? The team with the decisive manager.
The lesson should be clear. Do what you have to do to advance your business, not your short-term approval ratings.
In engineering (as in baseball), this means daring to select the right people for the right job. Hiring is the most critical function a manager performs. Although an employee's personality is important, the nicest person isn't always the best performer, and the best performers often have flaws. Your most popular engineer may be the least productive. The best project leader may be the third-best engineer. A good manager dares to make any personnel decision that is good for the business.
Doing what's good for the business also means daring to enforce change.
For example, everyone may be comfortable with ten-year-old technology and resist upgrading to something that would make them more productive. But, if you the manager think change is right for the business, move employees out of their comfort zone and let them discover for themselves the value of up-dated technology. In other words, if it's good for the business, just do it.
But if being liked is paramount for you, remember that you can't be liked if you're not respected, and no one respects a person who tries too hard to be liked. What's more, every employee worth his or her salt would rather work for a winner than a pushover. Just ask Grady Little.