Geppetto Management

By | September 11, 2022

Everyone who has ever managed people should aim to be a “Geppetto Manager.”

In the famous Italian story, retold by Disney, Geppetto was the old woodcarver who made a wooden marionette named Pinocchio.

Pinocchio, the puppet, dreams of becoming a real boy. The story is about how Pinocchio learns to have a conscience and then, after several adventures, becomes a real boy.

As a puppet, Pinocchio could only move when someone else pulled the strings. This limited Pinocchio to doing tasks and not solving problems.

A lot of employees are like that. They do not feel empowered to move on their own due to the constraints their bosses put on them. Sometimes it is on purpose; sometimes due to lack of confidence; sometimes they just do not understand what they can and cannot do.

They become their bosses’ puppets. Good at undertaking assigned tasks but never equipped to take responsibility. Afraid to take initiative.

Managing is about teaching, not controlling.

Pinocchio, the puppet, had another problem. Lying. When he lied, Pinocchio’s nose grew and gave away his lies. This might be a handy adaptation if Pinocchio were your employee.

The goal of Geppetto Management is to turn your puppets into fully functioning people. Managers need to empower people so they can make decisions. Giving them responsibility instead of tasks.

Showing that kind of trust is the best example for your employees to learn from. One best practice for your success is to have the folks around you with abilities that complement yours rather than duplicate them. It is easier to delegate when you know they are better at something than you are. That takes some self assessment and humility from you.

Unlike the fairy that comes to the aid of Pinocchio, managers do not have any magic wand they can wave to help the transition. Managers do have a lot of techniques to employ that can help employees evolve and develop themselves. These can be their way of cutting the strings, perhaps one at a time, and getting your puppets to stand on their own.

The magic for managers is in creating situations where employees have the opportunity to take risks and learn. As a manager, you set the conditions, then you need to get out of the way and let your people strive. Once they become confident in the new task, they think of it as just another normal task. Setting conditions is managing; assigning tasks is logistics.

Not all puppets want to be boys or girls. But all puppets should be given a chance and the conditions to become one.

One useful thing to do with people learning their roles occurs when you observe something they did after six months or so on the job. Ask them about what they have just done. They usually look bewildered and tell you it was nothing in particular, just something related to their job.

That is when you should point out they were operating without strings. Ask if they would have been capable of doing the same thing six months before. Also point out a similar situation that they were having trouble managing by themselves back then. This lets them see the changes that they have gone through. We can’t always recognize our own transitions without some help in reflecting on them.

That is when they realize that they are advancing their skills in their job. It is a great feedback loop. It reminds your charges that they are getting value – beyond their pay cheque. Unexpected feedback creates a communications channel that can be helpful for both parties in ongoing assessments.

Do not be afraid to tell someone they did something well that they might not have been able to do before, and usually remind them that their team members helped them look good.

My goal as a Geppetto Manager is to create a learning and responsibility trajectory for each person, depending on their talents. Then train them to acquire the skills needed to enhance their talents and bring them past an effective level in their job.

I love it when it dawns on them that they have progressed and are doing things they could not have done before. I believe that this realization itself is important to personal development. It gives a person confidence that they are, in fact, growing in their profession. It also reinforces that challenging work brings personal development. There is no greater reward for a manager.

I tell people who work for me to do my job. I tell them that they get little credit for doing their own job, that is what they were hired for and it is expected. Doing your job is the price of admission, not the price of promotion.

People get plenty of credit for going beyond their job, that credit starts to demonstrate that they are ready for even more responsibility.

It also makes it easier for you, as the manager, to go beyond your own job yourself, which helps build your reputation or your business. When you know your people have your back, you can move forward. You have to trust whoever is pulling the strings.

You do need some patience in the process. Usually, you know how to do things quicker and easier than your employees. Probably because you have already done their job. Nevertheless, you have to give them room to falter or you are giving them no room at all.

The easiest thing to do professionally is to crap all over your subordinates. You have that power over them. It is also the worst thing to do.

It is easy to blame them for anything that goes wrong. Really easy. You have control of them.  What are they going to do in response? They are subordinate to you. When you blame them, you undermine your relationship and their trust in you. If you want to talk to someone about a mistake, make sure you do it in private so there is learning and not humiliation.

It is important to remember to focus on the mistake, the action, and not the person. Actions can be corrected, or new ones learned; actions are much more changeable than a person is. An action is the third party in your relationship.

Remember loyalty is a two-way street; don’t expect it if you don’t give it.

Keep your door open to get feedback from the folks who work for you. Discuss it together privately. They may have insights or guidance for you as well. If you are not accepting advice when you get it, you are acting like a teenager who knows it all. You are made of wood.

When we went out to meetings with clients, I would often ask my staff for a detailed review of the meeting on our trip back to our offices. It was best to do it while the meeting was fresh in everyone’s minds. This would allow for introspection, learning, a greater understanding, and sensitivity to what happened and what we would need to think about in the future. Merely reviewing the meeting dynamics heightens social learning.

It may be hard for your ego to give the people who report to you credit for an idea or a job well done, especially in front of others. We all have needy egos. Nothing builds trust for the whole team more than an honestly given compliment in front of peers, and not just a gratuitous one.  You will be seen as a stronger manager when you dispense credit – a person leading and protecting a great team. Don’t be cheap with those complements; they don’t cost you anything.

I feel enormously proud of former employees who grew into high level senior positions and made successes in their lives. I felt that they had developed amazingly and that I might have been a part of their development in some small way. Sometimes I was a pain in the ass, but always with the hope that it helped them to be the best they could be. 

A manager, after all, is the same as an athletic coach or a teacher, but with bottom line responsibilities. The coach doesn’t play the game; the teacher doesn’t write the tests. You have to train your puppets and then cut the strings.

The coach and the teacher have an institutional structure that makes their charges move on, either to the next grade or as their body ages. Managers do not; it takes a lot more effort for a manager to support and promote their puppets.

From time to time you get an employee who gets too confident and wants to take on more than you think they can handle. Like when they get a job offer that is stretch and offers a lot more money for the risk. My advice for that to those employees is simple: Never get ahead of yourself, or you will never catch up.

If someone takes on too much responsibility and fails, their confidence gets damaged. It is hard to take a step back in title or salary to build back up.

It is a tightrope to walk, a balance to keep.

When working with people you are trying to develop, you always have to ask the questions – “Am I setting them up to stand on their own? Am I turning a puppet into a boy?”

Cue Jiminy Cricket.

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