The manager-upper

David Burns runs a united team - they're bonded by shared misery.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Is David Burns the worst people manager in the world? This is the topic du jour every day in the European sales department of market data provider Info-Mine. You hear the sotto sniping everywhere - down by the water cooler, on the smokers' roof terrace, in the booths of the coffee shop down the street... 'He's a kind of negative mentor...', 'He made Kate cry last week...', 'Does he have any idea what a **** he is?'

No, he doesn't. A more sensitive manager - or even an average one - might have picked up on the fact that he makes his team's daily life a misery. Yet Burns manages one way only, his eyes - and his tongue - fixed firmly on the boots of those above him. Charming, deferential and emollient to his superiors, he treats those below him like him something he's found on his shoe. Here's an example of a conversation with him... Team member: 'I've seen this great new product that could cut our costs by 25%.' Burns: 'So why aren't we using it?' Burns has a way of making even helpful suggestions seem negative.

Yet he's no sadist. His indifference to his inferiors is a many-splendoured thing. Take Kate, she of last week's waterworks. She has waited for her appraisal for three months; she has reminded him four times but he can't make time for 45 minutes with his hardest-working employee. Yet his diary is packed with meetings with those higher up the I-M hierarchy, almost all set up at his request.

To understand Burns, it is instructive to talk to those who knew the man before he managed anyone, when he was a graduate trainee at Neptune market research. His contemporaries will smile or chuckle as they recall someone 'reasonably bright, certainly not brilliant... very eager - mainly to please'. Right from the start, Burns really wanted to impress those above him.

His lickspittle willingness worked well enough until his career stalled. The problem was that Burns' ability to ingratiate himself with the hierarchy was not enough, given his lack of other, more mundane but useful management skills. He was passed over for promotion several times, even by people he himself had employed. Eventually, he moved companies and his new underlings are now paying the price for the successes of his old underlings.

Even so, Burns has a number of redeeming features. He can be genuinely charming when he feels the need to make the effort - so on those rare occasions when he praises his team, they feel he actually means it. Does he? Well, his fake sincerity is so good that he almost believes it himself. When he delivers these little homilies, his mind is usually on more important matters, such as what price/quality point is appropriate for a restaurant in which he will lunch with the European MD.

For this reason, those below him tend to believe he's just a bit mixed up and lacking in people skills rather than purely self-serving. Which is why no-one has gone for the thermonuclear option and made the formal complaint that Burns richly deserves. Mind you, if they did, they'd have to pick their person carefully. Senior management are as amenable to flattery as the rest of us, and many of I-M's top brass think Burns is exactly as he portrays himself to them.

And for all his faults, he's not universally awful: he treats the team PA (who is no threat to him) and the team fast-tracker (who might be useful in future) pretty well. And the performance of his department has been respectable, although this might be down to a buoyant economy - a trained chimp, the cynics say, could have done as well.

Few of the top brass seem to have got the measure of him. A hostage to anything resembling a real challenge, he'd be stuffed in the unlikely event that I-M brought in 360-degree appraisals. Yet he has those essential off-CV survival qualities of low cunning and deviousness in spades: those whom he thinks have crossed him tend to find their careers accelerating up cul-de-sacs.

If there is any karma, Burns will get to within touching distance of the top job and then find himself pipped at the post - preferably by one of his former underlings. But before we leave Burns to his petty empire-building, there is one more good thing to say about him. His team are better bonded than any other in the business. The reason? With a manager this awful, petty rivalries and differences are put aside in the face of shared adversity.

Burns in a burst

1965 Born Pinner, Middlesex. Educated local schools, Southampton

University

1988 Joins Neptune Business Research as graduate trainee

1990 Reports assistant, Neptune

1992 Management assistant, Consumer Reports

1994 Assistant manager, Consumer Reports

1998 Joins Info-Mine as deputy manager, European sales

2002 Manager, European sales, Info-Mine

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