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In Advocacy for More Support Staff

Allan Kelly, in his second post about servant-leaders, makes the argument that for increased efficiency, more support staff is required.

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Sharp eyed readers of my management mini-series will have noticed I referred to managers doing administration several times. Peter Hilton mailed me to ask me more about this. Let me imagine such a manager, let me imagine the worst possible scenario…

This manager spends a lot of time involved in admin. Finance forms a lot of this, juggling a budget, allocating “resources” (people to you and me), calculating totals, staying within limits. Some of this is straight admin, it could be done by anyone semi-competent with spreadsheet but some of this work demands knowledge of what the organization is trying to do and importantly it demands authority. Would you like your team composition to be determined by a finance clerk?

While the manipulation of the spreadsheet could be done by a finance clerk, the result would not have the same authority. At the very least, the clerk would to work under the direction of someone with authority.

Some of the work requires authority too because the organization has put a number of checks in place which require authority to overcome. Purchase orders need to be raised, but to raise them statement of works need to be raised, and once raised these artifacts require authority to approve them. The approval authority rests several steps up the management chain, but it is not possible to jump to the top—the higher levels only give authority when the lower levels have.

And sometimes the machine breaks down and someone needs to use chase, and sometimes chasing requires authority.

In fact, it appears the more the organization has tried to streamline its internal processes, the more authority is needed to make anything happen. A finance clerk breaking rules and pushing senior staff for authorization wouldn’t get far, they may even be viewed as a fraud problem.

This hypothetical manager spends a chunk of his day in discussing seating plans. Such work could be devolved to teams but why disturb busy programmers and testers with seating plans of little interest to them?

Such work could he given to an office administrator or a personal assistance (if he had one). But who would like their desk decided by a secretary?

And if you have several self-organizing teams who is going to resolve conflicts? Who is going to represent the teams when they need to ask for more space?

Our hypothetical manager spends a lot of time on the phone, to colleagues, to some managers, and to some non-managers who require updates on what is happening. Not just about software progress but about budgets, seating, recruitment and all the rest. Anyone could answer the phone but, again, who wants to be interrupted? And who wants to speak to the office secretary? How do you know the secretary has the most up-to-date information?

Sure, in an ideal company, there would be little or no hierarchy and people would happily ask questions of those with knowledge rather than those with status, but you only need a few people who stand on status, on hierarchy, and it spreads. A director expects to speak to a fellow director—not to an NCO team lead. And if the director wants to know about several teams, who does he call?

Many of those phone calls involve recruitment, in particular recruitment agents, resources, head hunters, call them what you will. Job descriptions go out, CVs (resumes) come in, even if this manager does review them (and he does some) who is going to communicate with the agents?

If you’ve ever tried to hire someone via recruitment agents you will know: These guys don’t let go. If they get a whisper that you are recruiting, they will call you. Once you have a CV from them for a candidate, they will call you day-and-night until they know whether you will interview them. And if you say "no" they will try and change your mind.

Sure good personnel and staff can help, but very few IT staff trust HR, many HR people do not feel competent to hire IT staff, and recruitment agents will find a way around HR staff if they possibly can, and they usually can.

Who wants to be interrupted by these people?

I could go on but my point is made.

Now an organization could seek to remove a lot of this work from such a manager. After all, you could have an office admin person, a finance specialist, a recruitment person, you could move a lot of this work to specialists. But...

In a small company, this often doesn’t make sense. You don’t do enough recruitment to have a specialist and you don’t have the money often enough to have a clerk.

Sometimes these issues are interlocking: Recruitment effects the budget, the budget effects office desk space and so on. There may be a logic to bringing it together.

Then there is the question of authority. If we delegate the office seating plan to an administrator and an architect doesn’t like it, will they go running to the manager to have it changed? Or maybe they will talk to the admin directly.

To complicate matters, many companies have actually stripped out these supporting roles over the last 20 or 30 years. Secretaries are increasingly rare but they can be the oil that makes things work efficiently.

In stripping these people out, they may have been replaced by machines executing business processes. That may be fine when things work but what when things don’t? Like in code exceptions don’t happen very often but they do take up a lot of energy and effort. In a corporation, handling such an exception may also require authority.

Coincidentally, I saw Mike Burrows talk the other night about servant-leaders. It occurs to me that we don’t actually need servant-leaders so much as we need more support staff to help things work efficiently: Secretaries, office admin, finance clerks and recruitment people to name a few.

We need these people embedded with the teams were they can address issues first hand. Putting them offshore or outsourced to another company may make them cheaper by the hour but it will increase the number of hours that are needed.

Not all work can be delegated in this way but much of it can. If our hypothetical manager was supported by a good assistant, a great deal of the admin work could be lifted off his shoulders. This would then allow the manager to devote more time to the important things. In time such a change might even remove the need for a manager altogether.

Now, I’ve seen teams with embedded support. A company I worked for in California had a development assistant. She was personal assistant to the whole team. If we needed stationary or a white board she’d get it, if we needed lunch brought in she did it, if we had a problem with expenses or accounts she’d have the first shot at addressing it, and so on.

Before we rush for more servant-leaders, let's get more support staff.

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Published at DZone with permission of Allan Kelly, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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