The Hard Work of Being a Soft Manager

No executive can forge a successful career without volunteering for high-risk assignments. But some risky jobs seem to promise only disaster, not advancement. Consider William Peace's decision, against the advice of his closest aides, to meet alone with 15 people he had just laid off. The encounter was emotionally bruising, just as Peace knew it would be. He sat and listened as his former employees poured out their grief, anger, and bewilderment. When they were through, he patiently explained why the survival of the business required that he let them go, even though there was nothing wrong with their performance. And then he explained again.

The meeting had a surprising denouement, which you can discover for yourself in the pages that follow. But it's giving nothing away to point out that Peace's display of vulnerability and accessibility was seen for what it was: a sign of strength, not weakness.

The 1991 article that Peace crafted out of his experiences added a new dimension to the portrait of the leader. Quietly but thoroughly, he smashed the icon of the armor-plated hero and replaced it with a flesh-and-blood human being-fallible, vulnerable, and for those very reasons, credible and effective.
I AM A SOFT MANAGER. Unlike the classic leaders of business legend with their towering serf-confidence, their unflinching tenacity, their hard, lonely lives at the top, I try to be vulnerable to criticism, I do my best to be tentative, and I cherish my own fair share of human frailty. But like them, I too have worked hard to master my management style, and on the whole I think it compares favorably with theirs.
In my vocabulary, soft management does not mean weak management. A tentative approach to a critical decision in an unfamiliar environment is not a sign of indecision but of common sense. Criticism from your subordinates is not necessarily a sign of disrespect; they may be offering the wisdom and experience of a different perspective.
Conversely, tough management does not necessarily mean effective management. Self-confidence can be a cover for arrogance or fear, "resolute" can be a code word for autocratic, and "hardnosed" can mean thick-skinned
I believe that openness is a productive management technique and that intentional vulnerability is an effective management style. The soft management I believe in and do my best to practice is a matter of making hard choices and of accepting personal responsibility for decisions. I have a couple of stories that illustrate what I mean.
In the early 1980s, I was general manager of the Synthetic Fuels Division of Westinghouse. Unfortunately, the decline in oil prices that followed the second oil shock in 1979 had led Westinghouse top management to decide to get out of the synthetic fuels business, so my staff and I had to find a buyer and consummate a sale within a few months or face the prospect of seeing our division dismantled and liquidated.
In an effort to make ourselves attractive, we had already trimmed the workforce from 240 to about 130, most of them engaged in the design, testing, and marketing of a coal gasification process that we were confident would one day produce electric power from coal efficiently, cleanly, and economically. While we believed in the technology, we realized that, in the midst of a recession, there weren't many buyers for energy businesses that could offer only future profits.
For the employees in the division, closure would mean more than unemployment. It would mean shattering the dream of building a great new business, a dream many of us had been working toward for more than five years. Unfortunately, even with the reduced workforce, we had a dilemma. The continuing financial drain we represented tended to shorten the corporation's patience, but if we cut employment too much, we would have nothing left to sell. Moreover, as winter approached, my staff and I became concerned that Westinghouse was about to set an absolute deadline for selling the division.
My senior managers and I approached this dilemma as gingerly as we could, with much discussion and no foregone conclusions. We decided that a further reduction in force of 15 people was both necessary to sustain the corporation's goodwill and tolerable, perhaps even desirable, from the point of view of selling the business. We then examined various alternatives for selecting the people to lay off. We agreed that our criteria would not include performance as such. Instead, we decided to choose jobs with the lowest probable value to a potential buyer, provided only they were not essential to the task of selling the business. For example, we decided that we could get along with two technicians in the chemistry lab instead of three.
After about an hour of give-and-take, some of it heated, we agreed to a list of 15 names, and as the meeting drew to a close, one department head said to the others, "Well, let's go tell them." It had been our practice in past layoffs to choose an hour when all managers with people on the reduction list would call them in and give them the bad news.
"No," I said, "I'm going to tell them myself."
"But that's not necessary," someone replied.
"I think it is necessary," I said.
I was concerned that a further reduction in force might lead the remaining employees to conclude that management had given up on selling the business and that it was only a matter of time before we laid off everyone else as well and closed the business down. If they were to draw that conclusion, many of our most valuable people would leave. During months of uncertainty about the future of the division, our best engineering and marketing people had located opportunities with other companies, and they were now sitting on those offers waiting to see what would happen to Synthetic Fuels. They needed to hear the real reasons for the layoffs from me-personally.
I asked my senior managers to send all employees on the reduction-in-force list to a conference room early the following morning. I wanted to explain as truthfully as I could what it was we were doing and why.
Walking into the conference room the next morning was like walking into a funeral home. The 15 employees sat around the table in mourning. Most of the women were crying. Most of the men, stunned and dejected, were staring at the table-top. Their managers sat in chairs against the wall, clearly wishing they were somewhere else. I had not expected my staff to announce the purpose of the meeting, but, obviously, people knew.
I summoned my courage and took the chair that was at the head of the table. I told the employees we were going to lay them off and that all of us, I in particular, felt very bad about it. I went through our reasoning on the reduction in force, putting particular emphasis on our belief that this RIF would improve our chances of selling the division-as opposed to closing it. I told them we were, in effect, sacrificing a few for the benefit of many. I explained the criteria we had used and observed that while we felt our thinking was sound and believed we had matched people to the criteria in good faith, we understood that they might well disagree. I said we were doing the best we could-imperfect as that might be-to save the business. I asked them not to blame their managers. I ordered them not to blame themselves-our decision was in no way a value judgment on them as individuals, I said. If they wanted someone to blame, I urged them to blame me.
These remarks took about 15 minutes, and then I asked for questions. The initial responses were all attempts to discredit the selection process. "But why aren't you taking performance into account?" one woman asked. "My supervisor has told me my performance is excellent. What's the point of doing a good job if you only get laid off?"
"I've been here for 11 years," said a male technician. "Why shouldn't I get more consideration than someone who was hired only a couple of years ago?"
I responded by repeating that under the circumstances, we believed only two criteria were relevant: first, that the position be nonessential to the selling process and, second, that it be one that prospective buyers would see as having relatively little value to them in the short term.
The questions kept coming, and for a time the tearful, funereal mood persisted, but eventually other sorts of questions began to surface. Did we really think the division could be sold? Did we think there really was a future for synthetic fuels? Why couldn't Westinghouse wait a little longer? The question period went on for a good 45 minutes and was without doubt one of the most painful I've ever attended. And yet, as it ended, I felt a certain new closeness to those 15 people. I shook hands with each of them and wished them good luck. I thought I sensed that most of them understood, and even respected, what we were trying to do, however much they might object to our final choice of sacrificial lambs.
For weeks the meeting stayed fresh in my mind. We'd hear, for example, that now Nancy's husband had been laid off from his job, and I would remember Nancy sitting at the conference table with tears streaming down her face, and the memory would be so bleak that I'd think, "Why did I insist on meeting with all of them myself? Why didn't I just let their bosses break the news?"
At the same time, however, I was beginning to notice a change I hadn't expected: The remaining employees seemed to have a renewed determination to hold the business together. For example, tests on the pilot plant continued with a new optimism; whenever I was in the test structure, the technicians seemed cheerful, positive, and entirely focused on the task at hand. And at a meeting to discuss the status of another project we wanted to hold onto, not only was the lead engineer still with us-pockets undoubtedly filled with attractive offers from oil companies-but he was explaining his ideas for reducing the project's capital costs.
A couple of months later, we did finally sell the business, and what happened next was even more gratifying. The new owner gave us funds for some additional work, and we suddenly had the chance to rehire about half of the 15 people we'd laid off. Without exception, they accepted our offers to return. One or two even gave up other jobs they'd found in the meantime. One secretary gave up a good position with a very stable and reputable local company to rejoin her friends at our still somewhat risky operation with all its grand dreams.
It gradually became apparent to me that my very painful meeting with those 15 employees had been a kind of turning point for Synthetic Fuels. Clearly, this was due in part to the two messages I sent in that meeting on behalf of senior management-first, that we would do everything in our power to keep the business alive and salable and, second, that we saw layoffs as an extremely regrettable last resort. But as time goes by, I am more and more convinced that the "success" of that meeting was also due in part to the fact that it made me vulnerable to the criticism, disapproval, and anger of the people we were laying off. If that sounds cryptic, let me explain by telling another story, a story I remembered only later, when I began to analyze what had happened at Synthetic Fuels.
In the early 1970s, I worked for the vice president of the Westinghouse Steam Turbine Division, which was located just south of the Philadelphia airport in a sprawling complex of factories that had employed more than 10,000 people during World War II and was still a union stronghold. My boss, Gene Cattabiani, then in his 40s, had a reputation as a good engineer and a "people person." In fact, his success in previous assignments had had much to do with his ability to get along with the people above and below him.
One of the most difficult issues facing Gene at Steam Turbine was an extremely hostile labor relations environment. Back in the 1950s, the Union of Electrical Workers represented the entire hourly workforce. It was a tough, unfriendly union, so much so that the McCarthy hearings had labeled it Communist.
I had seen two faces of this union. On the one hand, its leaders were as stubborn as mules at the negotiating table, and its strikes were daunting. Several men once threatened to throw a small boulder through my windshield when I tried to cross a picket line to get to work. In 1956, the violent, confrontational mood of one nine-month strike led to a shooting death outside the plant.
On the other hand, I had also seen thoughtfulness and warmth. One year when I was chairman of the United Way campaign, we asked the union leaders to serve with me on the organizing committee. It was a very successful campaign, partly because they worked so hard to get the hourly workforce to contribute, though few had ever given in the past.
By and large, however, attitudes were polarized. Most managers viewed shop floor workers as lazy and greedy, a distinct business liability. On their side, most union members viewed management as incompetent, overpaid, and more or less unnecessary.
When Gene took over, the Steam Turbine Division was not particularly profitable. There was a compelling need to cut costs and improve productivity, and it was clear that much of the opportunity for improvement was on the shop floor. Yet the historic animosities between labor and management made it seem unlikely that any fruitful negotiation could take place.
Gene decided it was up to him to break this impasse and begin to change attitudes on both sides by treating union leaders and the workforce with respect, honesty, and openness. To me this made a great deal of sense. If managers began treating union members as human beings, with dignity and worth, they might just respond by treating us the same way.
But it was not just a matter of style. The business was in trouble, and unless the union understood the extent of the problem, it would have little incentive to cooperate. Historically, union leaders had assumed that the business was very profitable. They believed their people deserved a thick slice of what was in their view a large pie. By the time Gene arrived, however, the pie had become pretty skimpy and was threatening to vanish altogether. Gene decided it was essential to inform the union of the real state of the business.
In the past when there was any informing to be done, the labor relations vice president would call a meeting with the union leadership and tell them what he wanted them to know. Not surprisingly, since they saw everything management said as entirely self-serving, union leaders had always viewed these meetings with disdain. This time, however, Gene decided he would do it differently. He would give a presentation on the state of the business to the entire hourly workforce, a thing that had never been done in the long history of the division.
Many of us wondered if this was really necessary. We knew the rank and file saw the vice president and general manager-Gene-as the ultimate enemy. Wouldn't it be easier, we wondered, and maybe more effective, to have someone else make the presentation? Maybe they would listen to the financial manager. But Gene clung- stubbornly, I thought-to his decision.
To reach the entire workforce, Gene would have to repeat the presentation several times to groups of hundreds of workers. The format was a slide presentation, simple but complete and clear, followed by questions from the floor.
The initial presentation was a nightmare. Gene wanted the workforce to see that the business was in trouble, real trouble, and that their jobs depended on a different kind of relationship with management But the workers assumed that management was up to its usual self-serving tricks, and there on stage, for the first time, they had the enemy in person. They heckled him mercilessly all through the slide show. Then, during the question-and-answer period, they shouted abuse and threats. As far as I could tell, they weren't hearing Gene's message-or even listening. I felt sure he had made a mistake in deciding to give the presentation himself.
But Gene persisted. With obvious dread but with grim determination, he made the full series of presentations. While I could see no evidence that people even understood his state-of-the-business message, much less believed it, I did begin to see an important change. When Gene went out on the factory floor for a look around (which his predecessors never did unless they were giving customers a tour), people began to offer a nod of recognition-a radical change from the way they used to spit on the floor as he walked by.
Even more remarkable was his interaction with hecklers. Whenever he spotted one, he would walk over and say something like, "You really gave me a hard time last week," to which the response was usually something like, "Well, you deserved it, trying to pass off all that bull -- !" Such exchanges invariably led to brief but very open dialogues, and I noticed that the lathe operators or blading mechanics he talked to would really listen to what Gene said.
Suddenly, Gene was credible. He had ceased to be an ordinary useless manager and had become a creature of flesh and blood, someone whose opinions had some value. Gene was my boss, and I liked him for his sense of humor, honesty, and warmth. But I knew it had to be more than personality that won him respect in the eyes of that hard-bitten, cynical workforce.
Now, years later, as I thought about those presentations to the hourly workers and about Gene's daily interactions with subordinates and peers as well, I realized that he often set up encounters in such a way that the people he met felt free to complain or argue, even to attack. Gene made himself vulnerable to people, and it was this deliberate vulnerability that seemed to draw people to him. Because he avoided defensiveness and opened himself to criticism, people were much more inclined to believe that the strength and force of his position were not merely contrived and rhetorical but real.
But there was more to it than that. By making the presentations himself, Gene took the heat for his own point of view. Had he let someone else deliver the message, he would have avoided some of the most unpleasant consequences of his position-not the business consequences, which he would have suffered in any case, but the personal consequences, the face-to-face consequences of conveying bad news. People want to confront the source of their difficulties. Gene gave them the chance, and they respected him for it.
From those presentations on, union-management relations Wok a sharp turn for the better, and Gene rapidly built credibility with the workforce. He made important changes in Steam Turbine's work rules and gave individual employees broader, more flexible assignments. He also imposed layoffs, and he raised standards with respect to both throughput and error-free performance. With each change, Gene continued to open himself to arguments, complaints, and anger-all of which gradually diminished as results continued to improve and as Gene's vulnerability and courage continued to disarm opponents.
Combined with many other changes that reached well beyond the factory floor, the division's increased productivity powered Steam Turbine to greatly improved financial performance, and before long Gene became an executive vice president. More important, from my point of view, Gene became a role model for me-more of a role model than I realized at the time. He taught me how important it is to be a flesh-and-blood human being as well as a manager. He taught me that soft qualities like openness, sensitivity, and thoughtful intelligence are at least as critical to management success as harder qualities like charisma, aggressiveness, and always being right- Most important of all in the light of what happened at Synthetic Fuels, he taught me the value of vulnerability and the benefits of taking the beat for your own acts and policies.
What I had done in my meeting with the 15 employees at Synthetic Fuels was to repeat, in a smaller format, Gene's experience at Steam Turbine. As a result, it was a turning point not only for the division but for me as well. I went well beyond anything I had done previously in opening myself to others. On the surface, I was motivated by what I saw as a business need and didn't give much thought to how vulnerable the meeting would make me. Deep down, I think I was also motivated by Gene's example, by an internalized picture of the soft manager succeeding in the face of hard challenges.
Being a soft manager is no job for the fainthearted. On the contrary, it takes a certain courage to be open-minded, well-informed, and responsible, to walk straight into adversity rather than seek to avoid it. Staying open to different possibilities can, of course, lead to vacillation, but it can also lead to tougher, better decisions drawn from among a wider range of choices. The object of soft management is certainly not to be lax or indecisive.
By the same token, whenever I'm tempted to insulate myself from the painful emotional consequences of some business decision, Gene's experience reminds me that it's more productive to listen to objections and complaints, to understand what subordinates are thinking and feeling, to open up to their arguments and their displeasure. It was this kind of vulnerability that made Gene credible to the people whose help he most needed in order to succeed.
Unfortunately, openness and vulnerability are anathema to some people. I've worked with at least two men who found my management style upsetting. Both were supremely bright, self-confident, and articulate, the kind of men who take charge of situations and of other human beings. I'm sure it's very uncomfortable (at an unconscious level, perhaps even frightening) for people who like to feel they're in absolute control of their surroundings to see someone like me stand so close to what they must view as a precipice of indignity and lost authority.
In any case, they didn't like me, and I didn't like them. I believe they saw my vulnerability as exactly what they wanted to be rid of in themselves. I know I saw their exaggerated self-assurance as arrogance and insensitivity-something that I wanted no part of in myself.
My position on soft management comes down to this: Proponents of all management styles will probably agree that to manage other people effectively, a person needs a battery of qualities that are not easily acquired. These include intelligence, energy, confidence, and responsibility. Where I differ from a lot of my colleagues is in believing that candor, sensitivity, and a certain willingness to suffer the painful consequences of unpopular decisions belong on the list. Being vulnerable to the give-and-take of ordinary emotional cross fire and intellectual disagreement makes us more human, credible, and open to change.
The stereotypical leader is a solitary tough guy, never in doubt and immune to criticism. Real leaders break that mold. They invite candid feedback and even admit they don't have all the answers

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