Friday, October 2, 2009

Supertrain: Lessons From a Failed TV Show

A few weeks ago, I watched an episode of Make or Break TV that told the story of Supertrain, a show that is regarded as one of the biggest TV flops of all time (it almost sunk NBC).  I won't get into the whole story (which was pretty interesting), but a few things stuck out from an HR/recruiting standpoint*.

Fred Silverman was brought in to rescue NBC.  He was a successful TV exec, who was a part of such shows as Charlie's Angels, The Love Boat and Three's Company (all of which were favourites when I was growing up).  He was some sort of TV Midas, bringing success to all his endeavours.  He was a natural choice to save the peacock.  (Actually, NBC had gotten so off track that they'd abandoned the peacock.  Silverman brought it back; for that alone he should be lauded.)

Unfortunately, Silverman had never been in a position where he had complete authority.  In previous roles, he was always answerable to someone else.  From the way the episode told it, Silverman was finally free to have the final say, and that final say included Supertrain.  This is not an uncommon occurrence, at least if my experience is at all representative.  People are rightfully elevated to new positions based on merit, but you can't always know how someone will react to new found powers.  In such situations, oversight from some other authority is invaluable.  Taking the whiz kid and setting him loose on your organization can have dramatic effects.  This is not to suggest that companies should never take such chances - they certainly should - but some form of risk management (say in the form of an experienced consultant or mentor who can sit back and keep an eye on things) is prudent, lest you want your own "Supertrain".

Further, merit-based promotion is good (and certainly better than seniority-based promotion), but when judging the merit of various candidates, one must keep in mind not just the job that the candidates have done, but the job they will be asked to do.  A mid-level manager who excels as a mid-level manager will not necessarily excel as a senior manager.  The respective skills of each position could be quite different.

As an example, at a web company for which I used to work, the Vice President of development was promoted into the role (as the company expanded and required a VP of development) because he was the ranking (and best) developer the company had.  He had the best programming chops, and he had a very good eye for new technologies that were about to blow up.  Unfortunately, in his capacity as VP, his main role was to build the development team and make sure they stayed on track.  His technical expertise was a minor aspect (both in terms of the time spent doing it, and the importance to the company).  This man was not great at building or leading a team.  From what I could tell, he had little leadership or managerial experience and, at times, it really showed.  As the visionary VP, he was great.  As the day to day team leader, he wasn't.

[As a post script, by the time I left that company they had laid off more than 50% of their employees (myself included) and were on the verge of insolvency (though they have since turned that around).  The lack of a strong development team was a big factor.]

Finally, the importance of delegation was on display in the story of Supertrain - and this has nothing to do with Fred Silverman (and I feel bad that it seemed like I was picking on him; that wasn't my intent).  One of the creators of the show (I can't remember his name) was a driving force behind everything to do with Supertrain.  He was writing scripts (or re-writing them).  He was directing episodes.  He was dealing with casting, production matters and set design.  This one man had his hand in just about everything.

Years ago when I was managing a wine store, our district managers asked all store managers to draw a pie chart depicting how much of their time was dedicated to work.  I thought to myself, well a 40 hour work week, divided by 168 hours, equals about 25%.  I thought this would be a little low considering all the unofficial hours I put in, so I upped to 30%.  I figured I'd have one of the lowest numbers, knowing how dedicated/controlling some other managers were, but I thought I was in the right ballpark.

Wow, was I wrong.

Two other managers had numbers around 33% and 35%.  Everyone else was over 50% (there were probably about 12 of us).  One woman was at 75% (she was a great manager) - she was a workaholic and, apparently, was always thinking about her store no matter what she was doing.

Here's the thing, the two other managers with low numbers were probably the best managers we had.  They had the best sales numbers, and their staffs adored them.  The more we discussed this situation, the more we learned that most of the managers with really high numbers just didn't trust their employees with any responsibility.  They also never challenged their employees with new tasks.  Their stores suffered.  Their employees suffered.  Their personal lives suffered.

I was new to managing at the time, but I had already learned that the strength of my stores (most of us managed two stores) was always going to be my staff.  Further, I knew that I could consider myself a good manager when I had multiple people at each store who could step in and do my job at a moment's notice.  Where other managers were threatened by successful subordinates, I yearned for it.  I wanted to seem redundant in my stores.

I was trained by the guy who noted 33% of his time was spent working.  He was a big believer in delegation.  He knew that it made his staff better, and he knew that it made his store more successful.  As he mentored me, he made sure that I understood how important delegation was.  It wasn't that he was lazy (he most certainly wasn't); it was that he could see the big picture.  Further, he knew that his staff was a reflection of him, and that if his supervisors saw a strong and determined team, they would know that it was because he was a very capable leader.

Poor managers try to belittle their staff.  They want everyone to know that they are the competent ones and their staff would be lost without them.  They don't understand that this stance (and it is little more than posturing) will bring them little success in the long run and expose them for the inferior managers that they are.

Who says you can't learn anything from TV?

*ED NOTE:  I am responding to claims that were made on the program; I am not commenting on the veracity of those claims.

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