Let's reclaim the 'M' word

Befuddled by crass theories on leadership, tarred with the brushes of Enronism and fat-cattery, managers are defensive.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Hey, kids, complete the following well-known phrase or saying to win this month's star prize: 'When I grow up, I'm going to be a ...' A what, exactly? An astronaut? A firefighter? A footballer! Hands up anyone who put 'manager'. I see. Nobody.

Sigmund Freud said that achieving happiness in adulthood depends largely on the fulfilment of childhood desires. But few of us switched off the Scalextric or put down the Barbie doll to dream about a future of business meetings and presentations. When you chose (or were chosen) to become a manager, the chances are you were already pretty grown up. We come to management later in life.

And when that day arrives, well, what an appalling world the new manager seems to enter. Suddenly, everything that is going wrong is your fault. Former friends and colleagues stop talking when you enter the room. It is as though you have a sign with a big 'M' hanging round your neck. You have become one of them.

And when you finally get home after your first day as one of the 'm' people and turn on the telly to relax, what do you see? Everywhere managers are sullen, grumpy, foolish, defensive. They are either being harangued for their incompetence on Newsnight, or ridiculed in popular dramas and sitcoms. In TV-land everything is management's fault too.

Reflecting on this phenomenon recently, the sometime TV critic of the Observer Euan Ferguson wrote: 'Management, its transparent duplicity of language and shallowness of soul and thorough lack of wit, is not just disliked today in Britain, it's quite actively loathed.' (Ferguson was basing this insight on just one week's viewing.)

He went on: 'TV and films have always poked fun at management, but for a long while this was veneered with at least a flimsy modicum of respect. Now we truly despise them. David Brent and The Office did more than make us laugh, they made us cringe at an increasingly evident truth; and if I were this week whatever a "business leader" is, watching the dramatisation of my profession and its own portrayal in reality, I would wonder hard at the emergence of a British populace sadly resigned to daily governance by the kind of people whose personality and morals and intellects a staggering majority of the country would, in the real world, willingly flee by crossing live rails in damp socks.'

Phew! He really doesn't like management, does he? But if Ferguson is even partly right - and remember that the media contains an unusually high proportion of both inadequate managers and unmanageable staff - then this is a huge crisis indeed. We have the highest levels of employment ever in this country ... it's just that our managers are rubbish.

But this can't be right. Management was meant to be the answer to everything.

People have been studying it for more than a century, from FW Taylor's 'scientific management' to time-and-motion studies, through to the academics, authors, gurus and consultants of today. We know so much about it.

When New Labour took office in 1997, they set themselves performance targets - those five pledges - in true state-of-the-art management style.

(The shadow cabinet had even been off to Templeton College in Oxford before the election to find out what running a department was all about.)

New Labour embraced targets, measurement, league tables, naming and shaming, public/private partnerships - all in the name of unleashing the latest management skills on the public sector, to drag it (whether it liked it or not) into the 21st century. All the collective experience and insights of private-sector managers would be deployed to bring about change and reform, or 'modernisation' as it was called.

What do you mean, it hasn't really worked?

What is the nature of this crisis in management and what can be done about it? 'We seem to get a few mixed signals about the role of managers today,' says John Knell of the Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy.

'Managing is often a pariah activity, and yet it's a source of status.

For example, if you rise to become a university vice-chancellor or chief executive of an NHS Trust, you risk being exposed to the scorn of your fellow professionals.'

This echoes a point made by sociologist Richard Sennett at least 20 years ago: we are uncomfortable about authority. 'What sex was to the Victorians,' he wrote, 'authority is to us.'

Managers are also vulnerable to the fairly rapid changes of fashion in management thinking. 'Just when you thought you were meant to become a tree-hugging EQ-meister, peo-ple tell you that execution is all that matters,' notes Knell.

In truth, there are unavoidable characteristics of life within a hierarchy that will always make the manager's role difficult. Delivering upwards may mean not being able to deliver downwards, and vice versa.

'Despite all the rhetoric about valuing people, most organisations are now pretty focused on performance,' says Knell. 'Managers have to balance these conflicting imperatives and shoulder the responsibility. In these circumstances, dissatisfaction with management is not so much a problem as the simple reality of work today. We expect our managers to be Marjorie Proops one minute and Gordon Gekko the next: should we be surprised that some managers find this challenging?'

Linda Holbeche, director of strategy and research at the Roffey Park Institute, agrees. Earlier this year she published Roffey Park's annual Management Agenda report, which again highlighted the dilemmas of managers finding themselves repeatedly stuck in the middle, the meat in the corporate sandwich.

'Sceptical workforces are far less compliant, and much more "transactional" and adversarial in their outlook,' she says. 'Retention is a really big issue for everybody at the moment: managers are rather more trapped, while their teams feel able to move on if they don't like what's on offer.

'At the same time, there is often very little positive support and role-modelling at the top, so managers find themselves having to defend a culture that is quite unhealthy. That's when you are tempted just to give up, and the infighting starts up all over again.

'All this pressure is felt in the middle - I call it the "coronary sandwich". Managers are often the least well protected of all employees, and it becomes undiscussable (sic) because a remote leadership doesn't really want to know about it,' she adds. 'Chronic absenteeism, bullying and harassment are all proxies for the general degree of disenchantment. Sometimes, you do have to ask yourself: why would anyone want to be a manager?'

Why has it all gone so wrong? Why has the job of managing people, surely one of the most profoundly important and worthwhile things any of us could ever do, become this mixture of dreadful chore and daunting impossibility?

Of course, employees are restless these days and very hard to please.

They are cynical about corporate intentions, anxious about career paths (and pensions), and bored by repetitive tasks. They are regularly informed that there is no job for life, and even if there were, someone in China or India is just about to take it.

The great time-squeeze, between a workplace that asks more and more of us, and a home life that, well, asks more and more of us, is proving too much for many to bear. All these tensions are playing in your people's heads. This is the workforce that will be facing you when you turn up in the morning.

Some analysts think that work has lost meaning for people partly because a remote and impersonal Strategy (with a capital S) has been over-emphasised by corporate leaders at the expense of the living culture of the organisation. Employees have become disconnected from the things that they used to enjoy doing. And managers have to go in and defend this situation, repeating the mantra of a strategy that has little meaning for everyone else.

David Robertson of the Attiva Consultancy believes that lack of clarity about what a company is trying to achieve is the first hurdle to overcome.

'Even now you see statements of corporate strategy that are incomprehensible to most people,' he says. 'They are not engaging, not interesting, not something that people can connect with.'

And for staff to make a personal connection with their employer, they need to see their managers walking around and taking an interest in their work. 'We encourage our clients to implement a "back to the floor" approach,' says Robertson. 'The management team mustn't be invisible. It's a bit sad, isn't it, that in 2005 you have to remind people to walk round now and then and show an interest in people's work - but you do.'

But this floor show is not for entertainment: it is all part of a necessary re-energising of the workforce. Robertson cites Sumantra Ghoshal and Heike Bruch's 2004 book A Bias for Action as a key influence. 'There is a sad lack of purposeful action in many organisations,' he says. 'It's so easy for people to appear to be frantically busy, but in fact there are obstacles in their way preventing them from being effective. Managers should be creating an environment where people feel valued, where their energy is renewed and where success is celebrated. People get tired and are unable to sustain high performance. Good management is about directing people's energy in the right way.'

That all sounds nice and straightforward. Why isn't it being done? 'A lot of managers lack the self-awareness and confidence to make this happen,' argues Robertson. 'You need the self-awareness to understand what your management skill sets are, what energies you are good at releasing. You need the confidence to act, to show authentic leadership, to reveal something of yourself. Some managers find this very hard: it's easier to present a false, corporate image of yourself rather than your true self.'

This chimes in with something that Myles Downey, head of the School of Coaching (his joint venture with the Work Foundation), has been arguing for some time. Downey has a neat little platform trick that he uses to wake up audiences at the start of a conference or presentation. 'Just be yourself,' he encourages. And then pauses. And as the meaning of those words hovers in the air, Downey usually notes a similar response. 'There is nervous laughter,' he says. 'People realise how difficult that is in a pressurised situation. When I'm working one-to-one with people, that is often a question they ask: can I really be myself at work?'

He believes that many managers feel constrained by the culture of the firm they work for. 'They comply with the prevailing norms because they are fearful of speaking up, or they adopt certain behaviour they would not normally display,' he says. 'Most people I know are capable of being kind, they don't just discard people - but they come under pressure to do that at work.

'How do you keep your integrity in that situation? The art of line management is balancing the needs of the individual and the organisation, making sure both thrive,' adds Downey. Again, easier said than done.

At the end of last year, George Binney of the Ashridge Business School published his book Living Leadership (co-authored with Gerhard Wilke and Colin Williams). This was that rare thing - a really useful, original and intelligent business book. But you may not have heard too much about it because its key messages challenge today's conventional wisdom and mock the still-popular view of heroic leadership.

'A dangerous and false dichotomy has grown up between leadership, which is the big inspirational stuff, and management, which is boring and insignificant,' says Binney. 'This completely undervalues the very subtle and important art of management. We need to put management back in its proper place - it is a very subtle discipline. You have to be very astute, very sensitive to people, as well as having all the good nuts-and-bolts skills involved in managing projects.'

The myth of lofty, heroic leadership separates management from the CEO and board, Binney argues. 'Managers are told that there is nothing wrong with the strategy; the problem is that they are not executing well. Managers end up as anxious taskmasters, demanding performance, pushing targets at people. You end up collecting people's assignments like a schoolmaster and awarding marks out of 10 - I have actually seen that happen at an international IT company. And I saw the CEO of another global technology firm tell his staff: "Boys and girls, you must try harder." This sort of high-anxiety leadership has the opposite of the desired effect - you get what you fear most.

'Leaders need to get off the pedestal, get into the middle of the organisation and have a real conversation with people about strategy,' concludes Binney.

'This high-anxiety approach to leadership is simply not sustainable.'

So much for the experts. What do real bosses think? Charles Alexander, president and national executive for GE in the UK, is troubled by what he sees as an anti-business bias in the media and popular culture, and thinks that much of the anti-management sentiment stems from that.

At GE they are in no doubt about the value and purpose of management.

'Managing people is an incredibly important and responsible task,' says Alexander. 'At GE, we are interested in enabling people to fulfil their potential, to grow as a person. If you are working as an engineer at Prestwick or Caerphilly, stripping down jet engines and reassembling them, you have a terribly important job, and managing that work is an important task, socially as well as economically. This isn't about fat cats or Ricky Gervais.'

Jim Goodnight, founder of SAS, the world's largest privately held software company, says that 'managing by loitering' has kept him in touch with front-line activity ever since he started the business in 1976. 'I talk to key contributors (ie, programmers) as much as I do to managers,' he says. 'I will talk to anybody I want to, when I want to.'

Not for him the easier option of sitting back in his office, waiting for the hierarchy and 'organisational chart' to do the work for him. Goodnight does not want his senior managers to channel and filter information. 'That's a common management trait,' he says, 'to try and control the information flow through you.' Goodnight is out of his office and on the SAS campus all the time.

Jim Kilts, CEO of Gillette, has successfully turned the shaving firm around in the past four years, readying it for the $57 billion merger with Procter & Gamble. He is another no-nonsense, hands-on manager. For him, managers should have nowhere to hide. 'People always like to say that management made them do it. Well, we are all management. If there's a problem, it's everybody's problem.'

Some things change, some stay the same. Meanwhile, managers struggle to keep a grip. The world gets faster and more confusing, but some of the old tunes still have a certain appeal. It was the late John Garnett, the (genuinely) inspirational head of the old Industrial Society, who used to tell audiences of managers: 'If you care about what they care about, they'll care about what you care about.'

Now, that's not such a bad place to start, is it?


DON'T JUST SIT BACK, JOIN IN: Managers win respect by rolling their sleeves up and sharing some of the burden, taking some of the pain. Show your team that you understand what their work involves.

LISTEN: You can't know everything about the difficulties your people face in their everyday work. Take an interest. Hear them out.

WALK AROUND: Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built a great business in part by letting everyone see that they were involved. Be visible, open your door.

BECOME A CULTURE-BUILDER: Try to show that there's a meaningful, higher purpose to work, not just a daily grind. Involve people, offer them a compelling narrative.

DO AS YOU WOULD BE DONE BY: Nothing pollutes a business like hypocrisy. Treat people well. Show integrity.

TAKE THE RAP: Don't blame others when things go wrong; take responsibility. You are in charge.

CELEBRATE SUCCESS: Have fun - really.

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