The Art Of Assigning Seats

Anthony Guerra, Editor-in-Chief,

Anthony Guerra, Editor-in-Chief,

I was frustrated.

I had just been promoted to my first management position overseeing other editors, and I simply could not get the kind of results from one in particular (Fred) whom I knew was capable of great things. Unfortunately, as an inexperienced leader, I was in the, “Why won’t he just do what I tell him to do!?” mode.

It took a while to understand that power on paper — the power represented by a line leading from one person to another — means about as little as the paper it is printed on. It takes a while to realize that people follow folks they respect, and that respect is given only after it is received, and that one of the main ways a leader shows respect for his folks is to genuinely give a damn whether they are happy or not.

Now, “giving a damn” can translate into the following approach: “You seem not to be currently happy or fully engaged with your work, so perhaps there are other things you can focus on that will still be very valuable to the team, but might suit your strengths a little bit more.”

Truth be told, we, as leaders, only embark on such “reassignment” efforts for two reasons: either the individual in question is truly talented, just not engaged, and thus we are loath to throw the baby out with the bathwater (a truly terrible but apt expression), or we know that going to HR and proposing a fire/hire is as likely to work out as planned as, well, one accidentally throwing out a baby with bathwater. For in corporate America, when a manager shows the slightest inclination he can do without a head (as in headcount) — even in the sense that, “I could survive a month or two until we get a new person hired” — the jig is up, and it’s almost certain the hire will never follow the fire.

So, as managers, we must learn to get the best out of those on the team, for, as the above dynamic describes, changing folks on the bus is not as easy as Jim Collins’ theories might suggest.

Therefore, I went to work trying to divine a new, yet still valuable, role for Fred. It took a while, as Fred was a handful, but we got there. As a result, the team was having an important function carried out with skill, and Fred was happier and more engaged than ever.

I got to thinking about the importance of proper engagement recently, as I’m listening to “The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy” by David Nasaw, an excellent book, both in terms of its writing and narration.

One of the instructive episodes in the book is Franklin Roosevelt’s misusing of Kennedy as ambassador to Great Britain. Interestingly, Roosevelt knew it was a bad fit, along with just about everyone else except Kennedy, who wanted the post to boost his family’s reputation for the benefit of his children’s future careers. And so rather than using his judgment as to whether Kennedy would actually be any good at the job, Roosevelt focused on the fact that he would be repaying a favor to a man whose support was critical to his multiple election efforts (and who could be useful in the future).

You see, ambassadors are not to be free agents, promoting their own opinions and suggested policies, but rather faithful mouthpieces for the administration back in Washington, and to the degree they fill that role, their power grows both at home and abroad. Kennedy was a true executive, type A personality, a great CEO, leader or president (someone in total control) and, thus, a faithful mouthpiece only for himself.

He was a true free agent, resulting in his alienation from both Washington and his British hosts. He was in the wrong seat on the bus, and was not only useless but harmful. Unfortunately so much damage had been done to his relationship with Roosevelt as a result that the president never really had much interest in getting him back on the bus in the right seat, even though he could have been a priceless asset in galvanizing the nation’s war effort.

Ironically, Roosevelt’s misuse of Kennedy made me think of his son’s misuse of Lyndon Johnson, after he had become vice president, 20 years later.

As a leader in your organization, you have to do better (yes, better than the President of the United States), for you cannot afford to fritter away even the smallest amount of talent on your team. Make sure everyone is well suited for their roles and you will have gone a long way to being the type of leader your organization, and patients, deserve.


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