December 8, 2022

On managing teams

By Babbage

As a team here at Ballistic Ventures, we’ve observed during our long careers that popular styles of management tend to change from one generation to the next. This is normal, and it’s the fuel that drives sales of the latest and greatest management books.

Management by wandering around, matrix management, one-minute management, and on and on… These are all examples of management styles and fads that certainly have merit, but they can and will change as new generations of managers find methods that better resonate.

Unlike shifting styles, however, the basic underlying principles of how to effectively manage people – especially in a startup – generally stay the same. It’s helpful for startup founders and their management teams to understand the difference between styles and principles.

Let’s go back a few decades to a time long before anyone reading this article would have begun their own career (or even life). One of the prototypical and successful managers of that time was the legendary Hal Geneen, CEO of the ITT Corporation.

In just nine years, from 1961 to 1970, Geneen grew his company from a modest $750M in sales to roughly $17B. During this time, he turned ITT from a sleepy equipment manufacturer into a major conglomerate. Even by today’s standards, he would be viewed as a spectacular success.

In 1984, Geneen wrote a book called Managing in which he laid out his philosophy of managing people. And it was pretty clear how he viewed the task: “Facts and hard work,” he told a book reviewer after his retirement, citing that many managers of the time (1984) were just lazy.

The purpose of managing, according to Geneen, was to manage. And that he did, spending his years as a well-recognized workaholic, never slowing down to worry much about criticism. Working for Geneen was a tough process of gathering facts – and being super driven. 

When we look at a manager like Geneen from a modern lens, at Ballistic we see two things: First, we recognize that the style of building and running a conglomerate has come and gone. Few successful modern businesses work that way today. It’s a style that has shifted.

But second, we must grudgingly accept that gathering facts (now called being “data driven”) and hard work (still called “hard work”) remain solid principles of management. Whether you run a tiny startup or a large, growing tech company, these remain important foundations. 

We know that startup managers have access to the best thinking on the softer skills – namely, showing empathy, fostering diversity, and managing by the golden rule of how one would expect to be treated by others. These are principles that cannot be replaced – ever.

But we’ve also observed that the current WeWork generation of managers tends to focus too much on current styles of dealing with people. Metaphorically, they are reclined on soft coaches sharing lattes, when they should be seated at hard desks analyzing data.

This message might seem harsh, but it’s offered in the spirit of coaching. Successful startup management is a tough task, and the competition is fierce. You will need to balance your desire to follow current styles with the unavoidable task of following strict management principles.

Let us know what you think.