Stefan Stern: Hands off management

'The less training I do with them, the better they seem to play,' joked the self-effacing England rugby coach Brian Ashton, whose team narrowly lost the World Cup final at the weekend. Now there’s a line to get managers everywhere thinking.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010
In sport the importance of managers probably does get exaggerated. It is easy for the cameras to zoom in on the dug-out and capture the boss’s instant reaction to the latest piece of heroism (or idiocy) being displayed on the pitch.

And yet in sport it is what happens on the field of play in real time that counts, not what is said in planning meetings. Beautiful and intricate diagrams showing what each player should do when lose much of their significance once the whistle goes to start the match. As in the case of war, in sport the plan for battle lasts only a few minutes.
 
What about in business? Here, too, managers give team talks, make (over-)long presentations, discuss carefully with their people what they are supposed to do. And yet when dealing with customers or suppliers - when taking any sort of decision really - employees cannot always stop to ask their boss what they should do. This is the truth about “empowerment”: it exists whether staff like it or not.
 
So can we abolish all the managers then, and just let staff get on with it? Not a very popular suggestion with readers of a magazine called Management Today, I would imagine. (It’s not a particularly career-enhancing suggestion for a management writer either).
 
But as the guru Gary Hamel asks: “'To what question is "management" the answer?' Do we really only have managers because we don’t trust “employees” to get on with their work in a way that makes sense?
 
That nice, modest Mr Ashton was probably joking about his importance as far as the England rugby team is concerned. I expect he feels justified in drawing a salary from the Rugby Football Union.
 
But it’s not a bad set of questions for managers to ask themselves at any time: why I am I here, what good am I doing, and how can I help my people do their jobs better?
 

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