Bewildered managers are our dark secret

First published in Business Day 22 July 2015

Greater transparency is heavily punted in the King III report on corporate governance and consequently is embraced as an organisational goal by management nationwide. Unfortunately, transparency is not nearly so evident when looking closely at the managers rather than their companies.

Close scrutiny suggests a significant number of managers at various levels in a wide range of operations have only sketchy knowledge of the management basics. Some have no grounding at all in fundamental management techniques.

Often they are desperate to learn and when they do, they show surprising aptitude and deliver impressive results.

But first they have to make a deeply embarrassing confession: they hold down a managerial position, perhaps have done so for a number of years, and receive managerial remuneration … but don’t know how to manage.

In fact, they never did.

How can this happen?

Five scenarios suggest themselves …

  • They parachute into management from on high. They held equity in a business that was taken over by a major concern. They can no longer sit at the top of the pile, but have to be accommodated somewhere in the enlarged structure and end up with a job in management, sometimes quite senior, though managing others hardly features on the CV.
  • They achieved success in some other sphere and were hired on the assumption that seniority in their original area of expertise implies managerial experience.
  • They were specialist over-achievers. In their niche – working with fellow professionals – they achieved notable success. To keep them and reward them, senior management made them departmental heads, assuming management skills that simply were not there.
  • They were victims of fast-tracking. Their companies were slow to develop black staff and belatedly decided some catching up was necessary. They promoted promising candidates into management, but neglected to provide management training, assuming a little hand-holding by mentors would suffice.
  • Experience-driven elevation – unkindly and inaccurately described as reaching your level of incompetence. Promotion based on length of service can ease an individual into management. The person is too loyal to sack and demotion seems cruel. After all, the mystified manager puts in the hours, makes an effort and may be no better and no worse than several colleagues.

In all scenarios, the rational response is to take the job or promotion, hang on to pay and perks and quietly muddle along. This may be enough to ensure managerial survival. By not rocking the boat the individuals concerned may even move up a few grades.

These managers then guard a big, personal secret (they don’t know much about management).

In situations like this, two frequently encountered survival tactics are consensus-seeking and high visibility activity.

The tactics may take the form of attendance at long, arduous meetings, striving for agreement with your peers on some issue or other.

Your secretary holds your calls. You put in a long day. You may be exhausted afterwards, but essentially you are an absentee boss who avoids day-by-day management.

In extreme cases, all the other participants in the meeting are engaged in similar survival tactics; so no one is going to call a halt any time soon. As a result, one day-long meeting follows the next while the organisation lurches along on cruise control.

In effect, broad swathes of the operation are run by routine and standard practice rather than management. Tough problems go unaddressed. Productivity stalls. Costs mount.

In benign economic or industry conditions, the consequences might not be too dire, but that can’t last forever.

Ultimately, corrective measures have to be taken. The situation won’t rectify itself. But in the short, even medium, term, perpetuation of the malaise is most likely.

Within management ranks a culture develops of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.

This reluctance to own up is entrenched by a South African blind-spot. We are very bad at asking for help.

Anglo-Saxon precedents favour the managerial equivalent of the strong, silent type who lets results do his or her talking. This is not the only managerial model, however.

One alternative comes from the East.

Korean and Japanese managers are influenced by Confucian philosophy. In their organisations, junior managers are loyal and obedient. They support their superiors. The quid pro quo is that those at senior level share information and give hands-on assistance to those coming through the ranks.

In these inclusive structures, asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is an opportunity for interaction and growth.

The system of mutual respect has some characteristics in common with Ubuntu.

A philosophical shift like this may be helpful in the long term, but here and now there is urgent need for simple, practical help with the management ABCs at organisations afflicted by a managerial malady brought on by big gaps in basic knowledge.

Fortunately, affected managers don’t need a year’s sabbatical at Harvard Business School. They don’t need firing, either.

Huge improvements can be made by handing over a simple management toolkit supported by how-to training on core managerial functions.

Experience in the field indicates that once the basics have been absorbed, big productivity gains can be made – measurable improvements in output, motivation and effectiveness that make their way to the bottom line month after month.

In a young, growing country that struggles to manage a 2% gain in GDP that’s got to be good news.

Leave a Reply