by Suzanne Robertson

March 2007

The Project Manager as a Nanny

A good manager is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of his staff. He assigns responsibilities and makes plans according to the best match between skills available and the nature of the task. But I have observed that the smartest managers go one step further. Smart managers make sure the working environment – both technical and sociological – maximizes peoples’ abilities to use their skills and to improve them. These managers ensure their staff have the tools they need to do the job; they encourage questions; ensure each person faces appropriate challenges; that people expect and welcome criticism; that people are enjoying their work; they monitor the day to day changes and make the adjustments necessary to keep things running smoothly.

A nanny is employed by a household to take care of the children. The nanny, usually trained in teaching, nursing and cooking, is responsible for the physical, emotional, social, creative and intellectual development of the children. On a day-to-day basis the nanny makes sure the children are safe from harm, they get enough fresh air, eat nourishing food and learn more about the world and how to live in it. Apart from looking after the children the nanny also communicates their development and concerns to the parents. The nanny makes sure that children who have difficulties in learning receive special coaching. Children who have particular talents are encouraged. The nanny guides the children to read, play, develop their abilities and enjoy the world. The nanny creates an environment where it is safe to take risks and to learn. When managers have these nanny-like qualities, they enable their staff to do their work and to develop their abilities.
The best manager I ever worked for, Peter Ford, was like a nanny. There were the obvious things like making sure we all had the facilities we needed to do our work. For instance we had an open plan office – not the best environment for thinking work – and he managed to get the budget for some sound absorbing screens and have a couple of “quiet rooms” assigned to our team. All of this, and many other things he did for us, involved negotiation and politics that we were unaware of. He encouraged us to read and discuss new ideas in systems development. He brought books and magazines for our team library and scheduled time for us to discuss them together. He gave us chocolate biscuits on Fridays. He noticed when we were feeling unhappy or unwell and he talked to us and helped us. He protected us from the rest of the organization – if the sales department wanted some work done they had to go to him first. He did not allow anyone else in the organization to criticize us – if they had complaints they went to Peter. But if he was unhappy with us he let us know. The only time his office door was closed was when one of us had some private matter we wanted his help with or when he was displeased for some reason. In short Peter was our nanny.
There are a number of indicators of this very positive pattern of behaviour. The manager is available to talk to his team, his office door is open, you don’t have to make an appointment to see him. Another indicator is that project team members spend very little time on administrivia. Rather than people hunched over screens, you will see wall charts and drawings and people standing at whiteboards and solving problems together. The environment has an atmosphere of confidence, people are not afraid to say what they think. Also, in this environment training and education are treated as a necessity rather than a luxury and there is time set aside (like the morning coffee pow-wow or the Friday afternoon book review) for discussing new ideas together.
In any group of people there will always be rumours and gossip and the accompanying time-wasting activities. However in an environment with the nanny pattern, this time wasting is minimized because the manager tells the team what is really going on, so people don’t have to rely on the rumour mill in order to know what is happening in their organization.
This situation will only exist when the manager thinks of himself as an enabler of work. A nanny’s job satisfaction comes from seeing the development of the childrens’ abilities – both social and technical. A “nanny” manager gets the same satisfaction from seeing individual team members develop. And staff want their managers to be competent providers. They don’t want to have to worry about the infrastructure for getting work done. They want their managers to be able to navigate the hierarchy and get what is needed for the nourishment of the team.
You see the opposite when a manager focuses his attention on administration and procedures. Drawing and adjusting Pert and Gantt charts are more important than talking to the team. Also you see the opposite in projects where the manager is focused on doing the actual development work himself instead of looking after the needs of the team.
Now consider the way that your organization views the job of a manager. Do you encourage managers to be work enablers? Do you reward managers for being enablers? Do you hire nannies or administrators?