People-keeping and mission-keeping

In a couple of conversations this week, this distinction between people management approaches kept popping up. I am pretty sure this is incomplete, but it seems useful, so here goes. In my experience, it feels like competent people management falls somewhere in the spectrum between people-keeping and mission-keeping.

At one extreme are the people-keeping managers who focus entirely on the health of the team. If you are their report, they always have your back. They will make sure that your career needs are taken care of, going to tremendous lengths to find a way for you to flourish. At the other end, the mission-keeping managers are aflame with the big idea and enlist followers to make it happen. They may zig and zag, and have setbacks, but every report knows where they’re going, no matter how long the journey.

I’ve known many great managers, and it doesn’t seem like there’s rightness or wrongness in this spectrum itself. I’ve seen people-keeping managers who over time build loyal followers who feel like they belong, having this almost perfect alignment with the others in their team. They make sound tiger teams, having a great time no matter how they are applied, with mission almost becoming a byproduct of being together. In this way, their specific mission may change, but everything they touch, they leave a little bit better than before.

I’ve also seen mission-keeping managers who set out on ambitious (and sometimes, truly quixotic) quests and attract followers. Regardless of whether they eventually succeed, their determination and clarity of purpose also acts as a magnet. These teams tend to be less cohesive than those led by people-keeping folks, but the folks who stick it out to the end tend to be highly resilient, and those who leave remember their time on the team as formative.

Most managers know intuitively where they are on this spectrum, and they are better off  conveying that to their reports. If I am joining a team led by a manager with a strong mission-keeping slant, I know that my career mentoring will have to come from elsewhere. This is just not something my new manager will be interested in. The people must fit the mission. If I am joining a team of the manager who’s strongly people-keeping, I need to be prepared to have fluidity and uncertainty — the mission will shift and change. Because here, the mission must fit the people.

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