Book review: Management Matters, by Philip Delves Broughton

The author has served up a useful guide to being the boss, but lacks a big theme to tie it all together, says Stefan Stern.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 02 Jan 2013

Book: Management Matters: From the humdrum to the big decisions

Author: Philip Delves Broughton

Publisher: Pearson Books, £14.99

 

Management is a slippery subject. So while it might be tempting to place your faith in that garishly designed airport paperback that promises to reveal 'the five things every manager has to do', the chances are it won't be of much use to you. The book will contain a few (perhaps exaggerated) success stories, which is to say post hoc rationalisations. Luck, the weakness of competition or regulation and long-term trends may all lie behind the 'management triumphs' contained within.

Fortunately, Philip Delves Broughton is too wise to fall into this trap. He knows managers operate in a range of settings. As a seasoned hack, his scepticism is not in doubt and he has already proved his credentials by writing warily about his time studying for an MBA (What They Teach You at Harvard Business School, Portfolio Penguin).

His new book spares us simplistic 'solutions'. It draws on some of his journalism, dusts off his business school notes, and packages it all together in just over 200 pages.

The book's subtitle promises us material that is 'humdrum' and 'big'. It delivers on both. That's management for you: it is both grand and small, long term and everyday, sublime and, occasionally, ridiculous.

So at one moment we are given some advice on our sleeping habits: 'It may seem personally intrusive for a management book to recommend getting more sleep, and yet it is hard to imagine a manager doing his best if constantly frazzled.' The next, we are offered a theoretical discussion on strategy: 'A collective term for the complex set of interactions which create the gap between a company's costs and its customers' willingness to pay.'

Delves Broughton is at his best when he provides simple definitions of the core tasks managers have to carry out. 'Ideally, a boss should be someone who provides clear expectations, gives you the tools to do your best work, and responds fairly to your successes and failures,' he writes. 'Every employee is entitled to hold their boss to this standard.' That's good. But, inevitably, some management jargon forces its way into the text as well: 'It is fashionable to talk of the need to secure employee "buy-in" to management.'

For managers, one size will not fit all employees or workplaces. So it is not surprising, perhaps, if the author makes a few statements in the course of the book that seem to contradict each other.

At times, Delves Broughton salutes the virtues of toughness: 'Where is the guru who tells us that the way to get the most out of an organisation is to ratchet up the pressure until everyone is desperate and frazzled? And then to run psychological rings round them?' he writes. 'Most people know that their best work is not coaxed gently from them but dragged out under extreme pressure, intimidation and raw fear.'

But later on in the book, invoking Tom Peters, Delves Broughton says: 'Managers should not fear being nice for fear of mixing business with pleasure, or feeling inhibited if they then have to make hard decisions. The moment you set up a business and hire someone or sell to a customer, business becomes personal. And once it's personal, it pays to be nice.'

A bit like Churchill's famous pudding ('take away that pudding, it has no theme', he was once reported to have said to a waiter), then, this book struggles to offer a coherent theme. Partly, this is because the material has been drawn from a range of previous writings. But, partly, it is because its subject, management, is so varied.

Sensibly, Delves Broughton falls back on common sense. 'The only way through this conundrum is to do what feels right to you...

the only habit guaranteed to fail is being phoney,' he writes. When the author keeps it human he convinces. 'Ultimately, managers will survive because of what their critics see as their greatest weakness: their humanity,' he says. 'Human beings remain the most adaptable management tools any executive could want.

'All of this may sound like common sense,' he concludes. 'But it is rarely common practice. Which explains why management books are still written at all.' Quite.

Stefan Stern is director of strategy at Edelman and visiting professor in management practice at Cass Business School

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