To the management born?

The idea that good managers are born and not made is increasingly being challenged.

We've all done it. Whenever we encounter what we instinctively feel is a 'good manager', we say that they've 'got something', they're 'a good people person' and 'you can't learn a style like that'. We like to think that the masters of the craft are in fact masters of an art and, as with poets and painters, their gift comes from a supernatural source. Even though we are surrounded by opportunities to learn more about the ways of management, we often tend to suppose that it is something that can't be learnt.

Oddly enough, one of the reasons that we assume good managers have innate talent is that we have read so many bad books on the topic. With legions of consultants, academics, retired directors and project managers struggling to define how to achieve good management practices, we slide into the assumption that what they are writing about is not subject to objective analysis.

There are times when it all feels like bad science. More than almost any other (with perhaps the exception of the legal profession) management is subject to mind-boggling and often linguistically nonsensical jargon. A former boss of mine once told me that I wasn't able to deal with a particular management issue because I didn't have 'business language'. This ghastly meta-language, devised exclusively to confuse those outside the know, permeates almost every self-help business book. You can't blame outsiders for thinking something fishy is going on.

And yet, for every bad book there is a good one. The best fall broadly into two categories: first, those that tell you how to comply with legislation and current trends (well, we've all got to know the rules); and second, those that genuinely attempt to objectify what can seem like a very subjective experience. Authors either take the inspirational route, where they brazenly tell you how they did it themselves, the idea being that some of the magic will rub off (Sir Richard Branson, Sir Digby Jones, Sir Alan Sugar and so on); or they dissect aspects of management and present them in neatly packaged sound-bites that are easy to learn and even easier to recite.

Both types of book can be extremely valuable in imparting information to managers desperate to absorb any scrap of information that can make them more time efficient, better at handling HR issues, negotiating contracts, handling counter-offers and so on. The trouble with being a manager, of course, is that you don't have time to effectively learn how to become a better one, and so those hours grabbed in airport lounges clutching the latest offering from Prentice-Hall or Kogan Page can be time well spent, even if some of the self-improvement often feels like self-flagellation.

According to Lonnie Pacelli, who has been a manager at Microsoft and Accenture, the 'Seven Deadly Sins' of management are arrogance, indecisiveness, disorganisation, stubbornness, negativism, cowardice and distrust. In his book 'The Project Management Advisor', Pacelli states that it is "perfectly OK to be self-critical and aware of your own weaknesses and mistakes".

This is fine in so far as it goes, but presumably the reason that he has listed and analysed these management flaws is so that we can learn from them. In other words, authors and educators in the field of management have an assumed starting position that the ability to manage can be learned. You may have a manager's brain, they seem to say, but it's pretty much the same as everyone else's.

Of course, those in the field of management science already know this. Theirs is a discipline that uses mathematical models and other analytical methods to help make better business management decisions. When you consider that some of the fields MS encompasses are logistics, resources allocation, simulations, data mining and so on, it is absurd to suppose that a manager can handle this type of material innately.

Myth-busting

"After several years I became a member by examination of the newly formed British Institute of Management. This was a time when people seriously believed that management was a science that could be taught. I have long come to realise that it is no such thing!" This is an extract from a book by H.A. Berry, in which the author details some of the trials and tribulations of being a manager in a postage stamp printing factory during the 1950s. Despite the existence of books such as Frederick Winslow Taylor's 'Scientific Management' (1911) and Lillian Gilbreth's 'Applied Motion Study' (1917), the understanding in the 1950s was that "the art of getting things done through people" (as one early writer on the subject defined the term) was all about common sense and leadership. This assumption was made at a time when most men (all managers were men in those days) had some experience of the armed forces, where a command-and-control culture was the norm. Disobeying or even questioning orders was a serious matter, and one that is in conflict with today's democratic management principles.

The British Institute of Management that Berry refers to was founded in 1947. Now the Chartered Management Institute, it conducts wide-ranging research projects in the field of management. One such item has recently made clear that, whether management ability is innate or not, the majority of engineers to become managers make the transition largely because they are due a promotion. Quite often these highly qualified engineers can find themselves isolated at management level where personality type can have a greater effect on their likelihood of success than their reputation and status as an engineer. Petra Wilton, head of public affairs at the Chartered Management Institute, says that these people are "managers by accident". She goes on to say that, for the majority of these accidental managers, there are real benefits to be had from retrofitting management qualifications to their CV. Despite Berry's thoughts to the contrary, the CMI thinks that in the modern world it's not enough to be a 'natural'.

Management is far more democratic today than it has ever been, with managers needing to inspire the trust of staff, suppliers, customers, shareholders and other stakeholders, all of whom can effectively vote out the manager. However, the vast majority of questions I receive do not cover this full range of issues and are almost exclusively dealing with staff management (this makes sense - mishandling a staff problem is the shortest route to getting yourself into hot water). The Manager's test I have devised is based on real questions sent in from readers of E&T, while the multiple-choice answers are based on various styles of management I have personally encountered.

It will soon become apparent that a certain personality type will do well in this test. However, the reality of the scenarios provided is that the most effective managers will be able to have a foot in more than one camp at any given time. In a recent interview in E&T the chairman of the Institute of Directors, Neville Bain, explained that British industry should be a pioneer in the field of environmental responsibility, but not "at the expense of its ability to compete internationally".

What does this mean? It means that the manager, in order to survive as well as succeed, must be able to keep the faith of various stakeholders who might have conflicting interests. Is this innate? Given that very few managers reach Bain's level, it's tempting to think that it is acquired through years of experience.

Quick fixes for the future

Whether it is hard-wiring or conditioning that makes a good manager, the way the manager's brain will operate in the future will be different. Susan Greenfield is a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and a well-known writer on the subject of the human brain. She thinks that the shift towards the "working on screen culture" will have a dramatic effect on the way we think, because "our standards of satisfaction and fulfillment may be different". She argues that, by having vast quantities of information available to us at the touch of a button, we are conditioning ourselves to 'iconic thinking'. "The screen culture is not conducive to taking time to think," says Greenfield. The result is iconic thinking, quick fixes and short attention spans.

This in turn, she warns, will have an effect on the way companies are structured and will change the relationship between management and their employees. As the workforce becomes more and more distally fragmented, the notion of the traditional monolithic corporation may become a thing of the past and we may need a whole new generation of managers with different intellectual apparatus to rise to the challenges of this new incarnation of the management model.

If Shakespeare had written about management he might have said: "some are born managers, some achieve management, and some have managerial responsibility thrust upon them" - perhaps we should be relieved that 'Twelfth Night' was written before the age of the airport self-help book.

But the analogy is apt. Whether any of us feel that we were born to manage, the current business environment is undergoing such momentous changes that the only way to stay on top is by continuous learning. And, for those of us accidental managers that have management thrust upon us, we should be grateful for the 100 billion neurons in our brain that allow us to at least attempt to adapt to change.

Do you have a manager's brain?

Answer as quickly and as honestly as possible the following multiple choice questions. Find out how you got on at the bottom of the page.

 

1.) A member of your team has requested a sabbatical. Do you...

a) Refuse point blank. That's what happens in academia, not business

b) Say that you would like to help, but you are unable to set a precedent

c) Try to evaluate how this would help both company and individual

 

2. A member of your team has received an offer from a competitor company. Do you...

a) Tell them they have one hour to pack up their desk

b) Make a counter offer - you can't go to the expense of recruiting

c) Find out what is so attractive about the move to your competitor

 

3. You have found a mistake in a trustworthy employee's expenses claim. Do you...

a) Fire them on the spot - theft is a summary dismissal

b) Overlook the issue, but keep an eye out for any repetition

c) Contact your HR department to see what, if any, reaction is required

 

4. Your design team has raised an ethical issue related to your target markets. Do you...

a) Ignore the issue - it's none of their business who we sell our product to

b) Explain firmly that the welfare of the business comes before personal politics

c) Explain that it can be entered as an agenda item for the next board meeting

 

5. A member of staff has been smoking on the company's premises. Do you...

a) Call the police. Smoking in the workplace is illegal

b) Start disciplinary proceedings against the member of staff

c) Allow that person's line manager to deal with it according to company rules

 

6. Your staff has asked for a sustainability strategy for the company. Do you...

a) Make it clear there is no room for 'touchy-feely' green policies in business

b) Explain that issues not related to profitability have a low priority

c) Suggest a company-wide scheme to implement environmental improvement

 

7. A member of staff has called your judgement into question at
a party. Do you...

a) Ban all works parties from henceforth - they're bad news

b) Let it pass - it was a party and we all say things we don't mean

c) Consider for a that there may be in vino veritas before letting it pass

 

8. A member of staff feels that he has been unjustly overlooked for promotion. Do you...

a) Assume time is the great healer

b) Explain why the successful candidate got the job instead

c) Suggest how the company can help in ensuring greater success next time

 

9. Some members of staff have asked to work from home on a regular basis. Do you...

a) Turn them down flat. The office is where you are contracted to work

b) Have concerns. How do I manage remote workers?

c) Encourage them. It's the way we're going to work in the future. Let's start now.

 

10. Everyone it seems is hassling you for a pay rise. Do you...

a) Explain that "until I get a pay rise none of you will get one"

b) Explain that the 'current climate' won't allow pay rises

c) Give a committed diary date for when negotiations will start

 

How did you get on? For every 'a' you get one point, for every 'b' two points and for every 'c', three points. If you scored 26-30 you have a responsible, fair and balanced attitude towards management; 20-25, there is room for improvement, but the signs are you're on the way to being a good manager; less than 20, you need more help with your management technique than can be adequately dealt with here.

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