Rebuilding management's good name

In recent years, leadership has been overvalued at the expense of management. But, as business experts realise competitive advantage comes from people, not leaders, it's time to give the more collegiate skills of managers their due.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 21 Jun 2016

Whatever happened to the noble calling of manager? These days, it seems everybody from the post room to the boardroom aspires to be a 'leader' instead and they're in a powerful hurry to boot. Who wants to go through all the tedious process-heavy grind and intractable problem-solving challenges that the traditional decade spent learning the ropes at the coalface of management brings with it?

This is the age of instant gratification. Career goals - and the associated financial rewards - which might once have taken 20 years to achieve are now expected to come along in five. If you want to be a leader, be a leader. Why bother with all the management hoopla, when the world is full of books, coaches and career seminars to help you acquire the patina of authority and experience without having to put in any of the hard graft?

That, according to the Jeremiahs, is what is wrong today. An obsession with the L word has produced a generation of execs who are superficially impressive and put on a good show, but who lack core strength and resilience and have presided over organisations fatally overled and undermanaged - witness Lehman Brothers under Dick Fuld or RBS under Sir Fred Goodwin. Time, some would say, to restore the rightful place of management in the organisational pecking order.

Hold on a minute. Surely there's nothing wrong with a bit of drive and ambition? That's progress after all. Has the reputation of management taken such a shoeing and, if so, what can be done to restore its good name? How is the nature of management changing and what will the manager of the future look like? And, in the friction-free world of the knowledge economy, where creativity and innovation are at least as important as the mastery of process and economies of scale, does management even matter that much any more?

The problem, says Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn professor of management studies at McGill University and founder of coachingourselves.com, lies not with leadership or management but with the arbitrary line drawn between them. 'The problem comes when we separate management and leadership; they are part of the same whole. Splitting them disparages managers and detaches leaders.'

That's counter to the prevailing wisdom of the past 15 years, with leadership getting all the glory and interest, while the less glamorous discipline of management has been left to languish. Mintzberg's new book, called simply Managing (FT/Prentice Hall), is his latest effort to redress the balance. The product of his 40-year career as a kind of organisational anthropologist, it is full of insight based on the experiences of managers and was recently named management book of the year.

In Mintzberg's view, leadership is a subset of management rather than the other way around: they are joined at the hip and cannot be studied or performed in isolation. You can't lead without managing, in other words, or manage without leading - it's all a question of balance and context. 'Managers who don't lead are uninspiring and ineffective. Leaders who don't manage become detached and do not know what is going on.'

So, at one end of the management-leadership continuum, a CEO might need to do a lot of leading and only a little managing, while at the other a newly promoted team leader will do lots of managing and only a little leading. But they must be able to do both, and be ready to flex the proportions in response to internal and external circumstances. 'You can't build something without both creative leadership and lots of problem-solving.'

You don't have to look far for evidence that events sometimes call for more management and sometimes for more leadership, and that failure to recognise the difference can be costly. Under its last CEO but two, 'Sun King' Lord Browne, BP was a paragon of noughties leadership: Browne was clever, statesmanlike, well connected. BP could do no wrong. And yet rumblings that he presided over a leadership-dominated culture in which the protests of managers on the ground went unheeded have grown steadily louder since his departure in 2007.

By contrast, his successor Tony 'I want my life back' Hayward was a classic management technocrat whose detailed knowledge of the business was not matched by political acumen or skill in the spotlight. So, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded last year, killing 11, his substantial store of competence counted for little against US outrage at the disaster. Everyone from President Obama down to the Louisiana crab fishermen took a bite at him and even though Hayward has stepped down, BP is still struggling with the consequences.

True leaders, says Mintzberg, are neither superheroes who create triumph from disaster nor time-serving appointees; rather, they inherit their success from the organisation. 'They emerge, they earn their stripes and they are followed.' And shortcuts should be avoided - a dash of age and experience is a vital ingredient in the mix. 'We need to get away from this idea that young leaders are the best. When I see these young leaders beating their chests, it makes me ill.'

But what of the skills that managers require to do their jobs? How are these changing and what does this mean for employers and employees alike? In the US, the archetypal preparation for responsibility has been the MBA, while in the UK, traditionally, accountants end up running the show. Neither of these routes prepares individuals for a world in which the ability to read a balance sheet and a P&L is no longer sufficient.

'The numbers are still relevant, but they aren't a differentiator any more,' says Octavius Black, CEO of the MindGym. He says a degree in psychology would be a better training ground for managers. 'We have done competitive advantage from strategy and from technology. What's left is competitive advantage from your people and the line manager is critical to that. Get your people to flourish and your organisation will perform better.'

In a climate of economic and corporate austerity, he sees management returning to the spotlight. 'Management had a terrible reputation for many years. It was The Office and Ricky Gervais. Everyone wanted to be a leader, but now the nurturing and development side of management is coming back.'

At the heart of this shift lies a more pragmatic view of what the life of an executive involves. 'Moments of real leadership in any given role are few in number, albeit individually important. Mostly what is required is management - delegation, communication, motivation, handling tricky relationships and connecting people. The emotional side of work.' These are traditionally viewed as feminine rather than masculine traits, he adds. 'The manager is back, but not as you know her.'

The stock of those - male or female - with the sharpest social and psychological skills is also on the rise because of today's lean, flat organisational structures. Success here belongs to managers who can manipulate the levers of influence without relying on traditional ego-massaging trappings like a big job title and a corner office. 'It's about accessing actual power - the people in an organisation who can make things happen - rather than positional power.' But, he says, those people are often pretty low profile and have relatively modest paper responsibilities - you need to build a strong network and seek them out.

Soft skills are on the rise, but the crucial thing for managers is to learn how to think, says Mintzberg. The precise academic discipline doesn't matter that much. 'Once you have learned how to think, get onto the ground in an organisation, learn the heart of it. Start by packing boxes, if that's what's required.'

It is not only managers who need to change skills and attitudes - organisations do, too. As Gary Hamel has noted (author of 15 books, including The Future of Management), for all the huge strides that have been taken in terms of living standards and individual expectations over the past 150 years, many of the world's largest firms still operate essentially the same command and control management model that came in with the industrial revolution and has been with us ever since.

'You can only afford traditional management models if you operate in traditional markets with monolithic supply chains,' says Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. 'The modern global market is multiplex and taking advantage of it requires a much more creative, flexible and connected approach.'

Traditional models will run out of road, Nicholson says, because the complexity and overheads of maintaining the organisation will no longer be justified by the dwindling advantages it confers. 'People's commitment to an organisation is provisional and based on engagement; they no longer automatically wear the company badge with pride.'

In a corporate arena where commitment has to be earned and connectedness trumps hierarchy, strong employee engagement can make the difference between an outstanding manager and a merely okay one, says the MindGym's Black. 'There is lots of data supporting a correlation between employee engagement and improved performance,' he says. 'And managers are key.'

Employee engagement is still recovering from recessionary fallout, when cost-cutting and job losses made it look like any 'engagement' was one way and strictly in employers' favour. It's time to get over that, he says, because engaged employees make a huge difference. Take pub company Mitchells & Butlers, which claims to have found a link between employees' engagement in its pubs and the quality of the food they serve.

Power has shifted towards the employee, says Black. 'Organisations which have ignored engagement over the recession are in trouble; their talent is leaving.' And it's always the best people who leave first, further compounding the problem.

That is the sort of vicious circle that's become all too familiar. But what exactly is engagement and how can managers improve it? Isn't it just a corollary of success, that people would rather work harder for a firm doing well than for one on its uppers?

These are not easy questions. Some will point you at survey results showing improved 'discretionary effort', others to better retention rates, some even to measures of trust or productivity. As with so many organisational metrics, all of these things are part of the picture, but none quite captures the whole.

'Organisations are built from the bottom up,' says Mintzberg. 'People want to contribute to a sustainable enterprise and it's amazing what you can get out of motivated people who are really engaged with the organisation.'

So long as business remains a team rather than a solo effort, management will stay at the heart of it. Instilling a sense of purpose is a better means of motivation, says Mintzberg, than an obsession with short-termism, bonuses and cashing-out.

'Building sustainable organisations and creating a legacy that will outlast you: that's what a manager should be trying to do. Set standards you want people to aspire to, listen to their ideas and then act on them. You've got to know what's going on.'

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