OK, Mini-Microsoft specifically and pointedly called me out for not having my "boots on the ground" and giving a Pollyana view of Microsoft that is disconnected from reality.
I realize there is almost nothing I can say in my own defense that will convince the skeptics... but I'm going to try anyway, because as a manager at Microsoft who tries super hard to practice what I preach, this is a personal insult that gets me very worked up.
I'm not a perfect manager. I know that. But I have a conscience, and I bring it in to work every day and apply it to what I do in the office. My team, and my boss, let me know when they think I'm doing a good job or a bad one, and I try to do more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff.
News flash: I don't stack-rank my team. I have about 50 people working for me, covering a wide diversity of disciplines, and there are so few people in any apples-to-apples comparison that it simply doesn't make sense. So I don't do it. Nevertheless, as I've said previously in my posts about stack-ranking and the curve, those things aren't evil, when used as appropriate diagnostic tools. I do compare my group to the expected curve, and while I never hit it exactly, it always comes as close as you would expect for a group of 50 people. Why? Because in the review process I talk through with my direct reports pretty much everyone in my team, ask the hard questions, and make sure that we've got the right expectations for everyone. Then I turn around and do the same thing for my boss, in a meeting where I have to personally defend every 3.0 and below, and every 4.0 and above. If forced to, I COULD write down a stack ranking for my team; in practice, I don't. HR has never demanded one from me, and neither has my boss.
Are there bad managers at Microsoft? Yes. I've met some, so I know they're out there. Some are just new to being managers and don't know better. Some honestly don't care. Some have just never been told that they're a bad manager. Bad managers drive me crazy. As an employee of Microsoft and a shareholder, I view this as my problem as much as anyone else's. And let's not forget: there are Good Managers too; a lot of them, who like me, care a great deal and bring that to work every day.
I try very hard to be an example of a Good Manager. I try to be very visible, and very approachable to my team. At the same time, having the General Manager title scares off people who might otherwise want to talk to me, so I have to be very careful and cognizant of what I ask people to do. I totally agree that there are far too many meetings at Microsoft, and I've been part of the problem, so I've been working hard to make that better. I have less staff meetings now, and I went from weekly one-hour 1:1's with all of my direct reports to weekly 30-minute 1:1's or bi-weekly 1-hour 1:1's (I left that up to my directs to decide which they preferred). In giving back that time, I have encouraged all of my directs to meet with my boss once a month -- without me. I realize that's a relationship that needs to exist independent of me for a number of reasons, and I trust them completely. Coming back to the "scary General Manager title" I know that people tend to over-prepare for meetings that I ask for, so I try to be specific about how much prep time I want people to spend before they meet with me. This is all a lot of work, and I understand why other managers don't want to do it, but in my mind it's required to be a Good Manager.
Speaking of which, a while back on Mini-Microsoft there was a discussion of middle management, and the number of reports that any manager should have -- the thinking being that the more the better because it shrinks layers of management between the top and the bottom. There's a flip side to this that's worth bringing up: whether we expect managers to do some "individual contributor" work themselves. My belief is that once someone gets to 5-6 direct reports, they are effectively a full-time manager, because being a Good Manager for someone requires that much time. The more direct reports, the less time someone has to understand what the day-to-day work is like, because they don't get to do any of it themselves. So you have to balance a very delicate tradeoff: managers who are engaged with the day-to-day work vs. few layers of middle management vs. Good Managers. You don't get to have all three.
One thing that isn't highly visible outside the company is how much effort has been put into improving manager training over the last couple of years. Apart from some mandatory training that all managers are required to do, they have also introduced a set of additional classes and training opportunities to help create Good Managers. One of my favorites is a class called "Management Essentials" which is a week-long program where many of the more difficult topics related to beign a Good Manager are presented, dscussed, and argued about. The class culminates with a case study exercise on a particularly difficult management problem, and teams are required to formulate a recommendation and present it to a panel of seasoned MS senior managers. Two or three times a year, I'll spend a morning helping out the class by sitting on the panel; I did this last Friday. What heartens me is that I get to see firsthand a group of MS managers who are really working hard to learn to be better managers. We do a large-group discussion at the end, and I always make a point to say that managers should feel a strong sense of "ownership" for what happens in their team, including owning the solutions to whatever ails their team.
I want to take issue with something else that Mini-Microsoft has said, that I completely and utterly disagree with: he said that HR's one and only job is to stop Microsoft from getting sued. That is ABSOLUTELY FALSE. Further, it's an incredible insult to some great, hard-working people in HR who try super hard to support managers and groups. HR is a service organization to groups, and they give you the service that you ask for. If all you ever do is ask them "am I going to get sued if I do this?" then you begin to believe that's the only thing they do. I work with my HR team to think through hiring needs, to plan career development for individuals in my group, to organize special trianing for my team, and all sorts of other things. When someone in my group gets sick or hurt, HR is my first call -- because they can make sure that the person is well taken care of (and they do). Now, there have been times where there was someone in my group who just needed to go; a low performer dragging down the team, poisoning morale, or just simply in the wrong job. And, on occasion, I've had to do a re-org where existing jobs went away. In the end, those are business decisions and I own them; but HR and Legal work with me to give me the best information they can to make sure I make the right decision. Beleive it or not, there have been times when Legal told me "If you fire this person, there's a very high risk MS will get sued" and HR actually came to my defense and insisted that it was the right business decision because the damage the person was doing to the team outweighed the risk of a lawsuit. So the bottom line is: HR is not evil. HR is what you ask of them. I'm a better manager, and my team is stronger, for the time I've spent working with HR.
OK, that's my rebuttal. As I've said before, I don't think everything is just swell at Microsoft. There are problems. There are good people trying to make things better. There are bad managers who aren't. Each one of us owns trying to make our part better and to influence the rest of the company to a higher standard. I'm trying to do my part, and I always want to hear from people who have ideas for what I can be doing better. But there's still a lot that I love about this company, and I'm working hard to make Microsoft successful.