Throughout my various careers I have both experienced, and come across, some interesting scenarios in relation to that of the perceptions of front line managers and their overarching bosses.

Much of the time (and especially in times of dilemmas/difficult decisions/delicate situations) the manager is the person out front dealing with it.  Unfavorable presumptions and accusations about this person can often be heard whispered between colleagues in the canteen after such events, but I have often wondered are these negative undertones being directed towards the wrong person? Sometimes when you’re involved in a situation you can find it hard to see what’s actually happening in your workplace.

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While there are many analogy’s like”Are you a sheep, sheepdog or wolf?”1 I like to think of it in terms of the Farmer and the Sheepdog…

A large herd of sheep are all placed in the field doing their job as given to them by the Farmer – eating grass. But one day the Farmer gets a call from the local butchers about the quality of some of the produce being supplied and so he has a discussion with his wife about what to do. They feel that it could be that the grass the sheep are eating isn’t nutritious enough, or that maybe some of the sheep need to be replaced. So they make a decision to move some of the sheep out to another pasture; and bring some of the others to the local market for trading. 

On this, the Farmer, calls on his loyal sheepdogs to help him with this process, while the Farmers wife stays at the farm and proceeds to bottle feed some of the baby lambs that are in the barn with some older lambs.

When the sheep see the Farmer at the gate they all run over excitedly as they think he will have food for them. But this mood quickly changes when they see the sheepdogs jump out of the tractor. The sheep start moving together as one – they are scared. The sheepdog, an animal too, empathises with the sheep, knowing they are afraid, but he knows he has a job to do. The Farmer steps inside the gate with the sheepdogs and starts blowing a silent whistle, which only the sheepdogs can hear. The sheepdogs start barking at the sheep and moving them in the direction the Farmer wants them to go in, but the sheep do not see or hear the Farmer give directions. The sheep are confused, and huddle closer as a group. A few of the sheep see a small gap in a fence and they try to see if they can run a different way. But one sheepdog is watching and he snaps at their heels until they move where he wants them to go.

The Farmer watches this process, and goes over to open a gate to the new pasture. The sheep run towards it wide-eyed, with the sheepdogs following closely; and listening to the instructions of the silent whistle, they separate the sheep into two groups as they move closer to the farmer. Five of the sheep are forced by one of the sheepdogs to go into a small enclosure to the left, and the remaining are escorted in an organised manner by the other sheepdog into the new pasture. The Farmer closes the gate behind them – separating the sheep from the sheepdogs. All of the sheep, in both enclosures, are relieved that the Farmer saved them from the sheepdog, but the smaller group are a little worried about the fact that they’ve been separated.     

 The Farmer calls his sheepdogs and they get into the tractor. The little “enclosure” the sheep had gone into was actually a trailer attached to the tractor, and the Farmer drives them away from the field. Unsure as to what is happening, they arrive in the courtyard of the farm, where they meet the lovely Farmers wife who had bottle fed them as babies too. The sheepdogs get out of the tractor. They are fed and watered and sniff around the sheep quietly – they have no interest in hurting them now. The farmers wife then puts some of the lambs unto the trailer with them, and keeps a selected chosen few behind. The Farmer starts his engine again and the lambs in the trailer bleat after the Farmers wife. The sheepdogs stay alert as their job is to protect the farm.

Not long after, the sheep and lambs arrive at the market and meet loads of other livestock and farm animals. It is not long after when they look around for their beloved Farmer and see that he has now new sheep beside him. They soon learn about their fate. Some are taken by other farmers, and the others, well…

Too little too late, the sheep and lambs realise that their enemy was never the sheepdog – but instead was the Farmer and his wife who had planned their demise all along.

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Okay so I am no farmer and maybe not everything is correct in terms of what happens on a farm (!) but I’m hoping the comparison between it and that of the CEO and the manager in the workplace comes across. If we take the Farmer as the CEO; his wife as a company partner; the sheepdogs as managers; the sheep as the employees and the butcher as the customer, I think it’s fair to say that this sequence of events has probably played out at some time or other in many large organisations.

Obviously (we’d hope!) in the real world that staff aren’t produce, and the outcome of the poor sheep in the end isn’t the same,  but I can guarantee if you’ve been through something like this, it can certainly feel like you have been sold out; and that it is the end of the road for you, in your career.

You may almost certainly did look upon the sheepdog at some stage as the enemy, and may still feel quite unsure about the Farmer and his wife, even now.

CEO’s and their company partners have one mission – to make money: this is the sole reason they are in business. If there are loss of earnings and/or the customers become unhappy, then changes have to be made, and quick. Staff costs are most often the first investigated in situations like this, as they are usually the biggest outgoing expense in businesses. If this is the area chosen to “quick fix the problem in hand” then CEO’s can choose to pick the strongest of their teams and give them more resources to improve; and/or they can decide to pick the weakest and remove them from the organisation altogether. I am in no ways saying that it is the right thing to do, it is simply stating what does happen in the real world.

It is important that the CEO is able to run his business smoothly and so he employs people to keep the business running smoothly and manage difficult processes,  like this for him. In this case, the CEO listens to the opinions of his managers and watches for staff who have the most potential; making decisions then on who should stay or go, behind the scenes. The company partners usually stay out of this process as they focus on seeking out new ventures to grow the business (much like the farmers wife with the lambs).

The managers are then called in and told what they have to do.

They too are employed by the company and they often empathise with their colleagues, but know they have a job to do and so must get on with it. They have to build themselves up and put a mental barrier around them so they can go through with it, and because of this they can often seem harsh (much like a sheepdog barking).  If staff kick up about the decisions made, quite often managers can seem like they too are snapping at heels, as they become defensive and stubborn, as they have to follow through on the task on hand. They know they will only get fed and watered (paid) if they do their job right.

Once the news is delivered, initial sniping in the canteen is usually geared at the manager, and little is said about the CEO, until the rest of the organisation find out what has happened. It is then that the reality of the bigger picture is seen. It is at this point that the manager tries to finds a way to work with colleagues again, leaving the dust to settle until the next season.

My reason for writing this, I suppose, is that I have both experienced and witnessed this first hand. I have been shocked when a seemingly “nice” manager “turned” stern and cold with me. I questioned myself, doubted myself and also questioned the situation. It was only on looking back did I realise that it wasn’t me, it wasn’t even them, it was actually the bigger forces from the top level of the company.

So as I move forward in my new organisation, I as CEO, am making an informed decision to face the music myself; say it as it is; and to stay fair when making choices – even if the news isn’t the best in the world. If I have to get managers in the future to help me, I will help them too.

Because at the end of the day, the sheepdog is also part of the team, and if everyone is against him all of the time, then it just opens opportunities for the wolves to come in, disguised as the sheep.

[Of course the CEO might be a woman, but for simplicity in writing I’m choosing one and it’s a man (the company partner is a woman, if that helps!)]