Think Like a Peon

Five tips for managers who’ve forgotten what it’s like to be at the bottom of the ladder.

“Chief executive peon” Dave Haynes, 30, worked his way up the corporate ladder as landscape engineer, transportation specialist, and water-safety supervisor. (Regular-guy translation: “I mowed lawns, drove a bus, and was a lifeguard,” he says.) Now he’s an international sales rep with Federal Express. He has leveraged his considerable lower-rung credentials in The Peon Book (Berrett-Koehler, 2004), a no-holds-barred management guide for clueless bosses who have forgotten life at the bottom. “I’ve read all the mumbo jumbo in management books,” says Haynes, who recently earned his MBA. “But they don’t ever give it to managers straight, from the perspective of a peon.”

  • 1. Set reasonable expectations.

    “At a previous sales job,” Haynes said, “we had to make a certain number of cold calls per day. Our manager increased our quota by 10%. To hit her number meant not taking care of my customers. I lied about my numbers to keep her happy.” Peons don’t really want to lie; they just don’t want to lose their jobs.

  • 2. Walk around.

    Don’t wait for peons to share what’s on their minds; to them, your claim that “my door’s always open” is just trouble waiting to happen. “I don’t care how open your door is,” Haynes says. “The implied fear of most peons is that the back door is also open.” Go out and ask for feedback. And when you get it, resist the managerial urge for retribution.

  • 3. Go on vacation.

    “I used to work for this guy who would never go on vacation, even when he said he would,” Haynes recalls. “He would show up in the office to ‘see how things were going.’ Not only was this insulting to us, as it showed he had no faith in our ability to do anything without him, he returned from his nonvacation the same grumpy dude he was before he left.”

  • 4. Investigate “silent turnover.”

    Don’t breathe a sigh of relief when your star player cites health reasons — and not your management style — when leaving the company. Chances are there’s a bigger story she’s not telling, and it is probably about you. Peon departures almost always have to do with the boss. Press for honest feedback. That will help you stem more defections.

  • 5. Create some value.

    Peons are revenue generators, and they know it. They also know that, in CFO parlance, you are a cost center. In that way, peons have the upper hand. Says Haynes: “Don’t get caught being expendable. Be a manager who gets so caught up in the day-to-day operations of the peons that you are not easily removed.”