Earlier this week I had the pleasure of catching up with my friend Felicia Marcus, Chair of the California Water Resources Control Board. Among several gems from our conversation was her characterization of one of her top responsibilities in overseeing a complex organization with a staff in excess of 2000: ego-system management.
The water world is one fraught with age-old turf battles, deeply entrenched interests and complicated disputes over
access to and ownership of our most fundamental resource. It is also in the midst of a major transformation, with career opportunities ranging from leak-sensing robotics to precision irrigation to smart water metering payment systems (check out ImagineH20’s innovation accelerator). Chair Marcus has risen to her position in no small part due to her ability to disarm clashing constituents and to navigate, assuage and otherwise manage the sometimes-bloated egos at the heart of these water wars.
There is something useful for all of us in Marcus’ concept of ego-system management, cheeky though it may be. In my first start-up I learned the importance of managing vertically. Of course I had to learn how to effectively motivate and lead my staff, but I also had to learn the critical skill of “managing upward,” directing the talents, actions and expectations of board members and investors. This meant calibrating alignment with people often more experienced than I was so that we were all rowing in the same direction. This alignment was harmonious when times were good, but as soon as the business started to face existential challenges, egos became exaggerated and conflicts arose.
Many jobs require this sort of vertical management. Managing upward requires skill and emotional intelligence, whether aligning expectations, soliciting support for projects or securing more responsibility and compensation for your work. Managing a team also requires an array of skills in order to effectively drive growth and engender buy-in and productivity from staff. And nearly all jobs require horizontal management—working within and across teams to create mutually beneficial and productive relationships. Together these modalities of management constitute the four-directional management we must all engage in as we conduct our work and navigate our careers.
In whatever direction you are required to manage, ego-system management is key to your success. And egos are tricky buggers, rearing their heads at surprising times in sometimes grotesque and harmful ways. We’ll leave understanding the human ego to Carl Jung , who saw it as the wellspring of our sense of identity and existence. It is often issues of identity—how we see ourselves in relation to others—that are the origin of interpersonal conflict in the workplace, as in life.
Skillful ego-system m