Myth of managing managers

Monday, 2 July 2012 00:55 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Managers are not yet an endangered species. They will if they do not deliver results. This is relevant to global, regional and local scenes alike. Can we really manage managers? If we think we can, it is surely a myth. Let’s see why that is so in today’s column.



Overview of management

Any management textbook will give the definition of modern management as “a set of activities, including planning and decision making, organising, leading and controlling directed at an organisation’s human, financial, physical and information resources, with the aim of achieving organisational goals in an efficient and effective manner.” In essence, it is all about achieving goals, which was the case in ancient times as well.

The verb manage comes from the Italian maneggiare (to handle, train, control horses), which in turn derives from the Latin manus (hand). The French word mesnagement (later ménagement) influenced the development in meaning of the English word management in the 15th and 16th centuries. In a crude sense, management can be broken into three parts, man, age and ment. It essentially speaks about people, times and actions.

Management has become an increasingly popular discipline for aspiring job seekers. It is also increasingly becoming critical for any organisational success. I have met many a technical expert who opted to learn management in order to move beyond his/her functional silo.



Managers in action

A manager is simply the one who manages. He/she is the person responsible for planning and directing the work of a group of individuals, monitoring their work, and taking corrective action when necessary. In other words, he/she is the one who plans, organises, leads and controls in an efficient and effective manner. Despite the diversity of designations, the primary tasks remain more or less the same.

A manager’s title reflects what he/she is responsible for. An accounting manager supervises the accounting function. An operations manager is responsible for the operations of the company. The manager of design engineering supervises engineers and support staff engaged in design of a product or service. A night-shift manager is responsible for the activities that take place at night. There are many management functions in business and, therefore, many manager titles. Regardless of title, the manager is responsible for planning, directing, monitoring and controlling the people and their work.

Roles managers play and the skills they require have been widely researched. For an example, Henry Mintzberg came up with the idea of ten managerial roles under three broad categories, viz. Interpersonal, informational and decisional. Robert Katz in early seventies classified key managerial skills into conceptual, technical and inter-personal.

As we are aware, conceptual skills refer to the ability to analyse and diagnose a situation and find the cause and effect. It also includes envisioning the future. Human skills are all about the ability to understand, alter, lead, and control people’s behaviour. Technical skills refer to the job-specific knowledge required to perform a task such as those in marketing, accounting, and manufacturing. Managers need all three in the right blend in order to perform.

It reminds me of Peter Drucker, who wrote extensively on management. According to him, job of the manager can be divided into five basic tasks. The manager, he wrote:

1) Sets objectives. The manager sets goals for the group, and decides what work needs to be done to meet those goals.

2) Organises. The manager divides the work into manageable activities, and selects people to accomplish the tasks that need to be done.

3) Motivates and communicates. The manager creates a team out of his people, through decisions on pay, placement, promotion, and through his communications with the team. Drucker also referred to this as the “integrating” function of the manager.

4) Measures. The manager establishes appropriate targets and yardsticks, and analyses, appraises and interprets performance.

5) Develops people. With the rise of the knowledge worker, this task has taken on added importance. In a knowledge economy, people are the company’s most important asset, and it is up to the manager to develop that asset.

While other management experts may use different words and focus on different aspects of these responsibilities, Drucker’s basic description of the manager’s job still holds.



Managing managers

Now comes the crucial question. How can we get the best out of managers? Is it simply by managing? Or by doing anything different? This has been an interesting debate throughout years.

Stephen Covey of ‘Seven Habits’ fame uses an extremely apt jungle metaphor to illuminate us. According to him, many people are fantastic managers. They are able to push forward on whatever projects are thrown their way. In a jungle, if given the task to slash through the brush and clear a path, these amazing managers would wield their machetes valiantly. They would cut through the flora no matter what problems came up to face them. These managers don’t care about the big picture; they just accomplish the task at hand.

That’s where merely managing the managers would not guarantee results. You need leadership that goes beyond. Leadership is all about making sure that the direction is the right one for the future. The leaders are up high in the sky surveying the jungle. They are the ones who are willing to say, “This is the wrong jungle! Let’s move on.” A manager might respond to the leader by saying, “But we’re doing so well!” As Covey further observes, a manager doesn’t care about the bigger picture. He or she will chop whatever jungle is put in front of him/her.

Now the issue is clear. Attempting to manage managers would inevitably lead to meagre results restricting their scope of action. According to Stephen Covey, we can manage “things” and not people. People need to be led. Leadership, that goes beyond management is the sure fire approach.

That’s why I call the practice of managing managers a myth. Managers should be shown the proper direction. They should be motivated. They should be given encouragement. They should be empowered. These are all about leadership.



Global evidence

There are many success cases of inspiring managers for results. Let me refer to ‘Microsoft’ to see how Bill Gates inspires his managers.

Create and nurture ‘the correct culture’ – Microsoft was one of the early movers in making work as comfortable, inspiring and fun as possible so managers spend lots of time there.

Develop a clear vision – and stick to it – From the beginning, Gates dreamed of developing Microsoft into a corporate giant.

Hire ‘action’ oriented employees – Managers at Microsoft have exposure to many different environments and come across many employees. Some will be better than others, while some will be outstanding. Gates has always hired the smartest people who can ‘get the job done.’

Relax and feel at home – As some observers state, “Microsoft has a simple way of maximising its employees’ productivity: It allows each individual’s office to be as individualised as one desires.” That means making the office more like home. Everything from real offices (not cubicles) to windows in most offices, from free soft drinks to no dress code, from an open supply room to anything-goes work hours. Quite simply, these policies improve employee morale, and thus increase overall productivity.’

Successful innovation and success in general may be built on failure: Gates has constantly had Microsoft innovating along. Currently though, as many large IT businesses employ smarter and smarter employees, time will judge who can innovate the most and bring to market technologies that have ‘stickiness’.

Be ‘shrewd’ and keep the team on its ‘toes’ – Gates is known for his sharp cross examination of employees who present new ideas, innovations, etc. He analyses information quite quickly and gets to the bottom of the matter at a rapid pace. Employees have criticised this approach and associated quick, sharp, snappy analysis that at times is uncomfortable (in employee’s views). These qualities of Gates have enabled Microsoft to dominate Personal Computers (PCs).



Sri Lankan scenario

Attempts to manage managers by way of excessive bureaucracy are evident particularly in the public sector. Even in the private sector, ensuring empowerment with freedom to be creative has been the “road less travelled”. Time has come for the chief executive officers to act more as chief inspiration officers in motivating their managers. When it happens, managers will manage themselves in producing results.

It was a pleasure to listen to several such CEOs in a recent HR conference. All four of them, representing the fields of advertising, tea, insurance and vehicle component manufacturing spoke with conviction that they do not manage their managers but inspire them. I had no way of double checking their claim with their respective managers. Assuming what they publicly claim is true, the emergence of a new breed of CEOs who inspire and influence their managers is evident.



Way forward

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action,” said Peter Drucker. Managers need inspiration. Leaders should provide it abundantly. In such a case, the myth of managing managers will have no relevance globally, regionally or locally.



(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour. He can be reached on ajantha@pim.lk.)

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