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.

Want to get the job done? Get a good manager

First Published in Business Day 8 July 2015

The distinction between leaders and managers has been stacked in favour of leaders, so we have to celebrate what it means to be a great manager, writes Stephen Asbury

LEADERS are wonderful. Everyone seems to think so. Leaders do the vision-thing. They head the organisation. They are admired, rewarded and feted. Leaders lead. Others follow. Managers only manage.

For years, the distinction between leaders and managers has been stacked in favour of leaders. The catalyst was probably author and Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, and his work on the differences between the disciplines.

To Kotter’s credit, he stresses the crucial importance of management but, since he highlighted the leadership versus management issue, the plaudits have all gone to the leaders, while managers have become the poor relations.

Leaders handle strategy. Managers handle issues that get their hands dirty like putting in a new production line, service delivery or maintenance.

Leaders inspire. Managers perspire. It’s as simple as that.

Leadership’s aspirational aspects help to explain the huge growth of the leadership industry, not only in SA, but worldwide.

You can attend leadership courses, sign up for leadership seminars, go to leadership workshops. Everyone wants to be a leader.

Ask MBA students to name great leaders and names trip off the tongue: Ford turnaround king Alan Mulally, Apple pioneer Steve Jobs, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, FedEx founder Fred Smith, Alibaba boss Jack Ma and so on.

Ask them to name great managers and they do a detour to sports and spotlight Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United.

The great managers in business go unsung, but they are indispensable to improved performance. Kotter’s comparisons confirm this, for those prepared to look. He lists three key differences:
• Leaders set direction; managers plan and budget.
• Leaders align people; managers organise and staff.
• Leaders motivate people; managers control and solve problems.
It’s clear that the vision-thing is totally dependent on management capacity if anything is to be achieved.

In a South African context, the nature of the challenge and the vital importance of good managers can be illustrated by reference to national policy-making.

In the past 20 years we’ve had the Reconstruction and Development Programme; Growth Employment and Redistribution; Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for SA; the New Growth Path; and the National Development Plan for 2030.

All set out a compelling vision. Worthy results were achieved along the way, but one plan followed the next without

achieving anything like the full set of objectives. Why?
One reason must surely be the mismatch between strategy and implementation — SA’s so-called execution deficit.

Of course, when it comes to implementation and capacity on the ground, you look for great managers rather than great leaders.

There’s no political agenda behind the reference to national strategy. South African policy makers are not the only ones who suffer because backup is lacking further down the line from those who have to manage, support, report back, tackle shortcomings, solve problems, achieve day-by-day improvements and keep people focused. These challenges face company after company right across the national economy.

Clearly, a dearth of management capacity is not the only challenge. We face strategic constraints such as an unreliable power grid. Without growing electricity capacity, sustained economic expansion is tough to achieve.

AS GROWTH stalls we are in danger of becoming a make-do-and-mend economy — which again highlights the need for managerial skill, because when you have to make the best of what you’ve got, you need gifted managers.

Thankfully, they are still there. They work in small-and medium-sized enterprises, major corporations, parastatals, official departments, and local, regional and national government offices around the country. But there are not nearly enough of them. They are the national resource SA forgot.

We need to reverse that situation and start encouraging and growing the ranks of managers who can drive rising productivity and bolster economic growth.

We have to celebrate the role and what it means to be a great manager. This shouldn’t be difficult. There’s a lot to admire:

• Great managers care; about the task, the results and the people who do the job.

• Great managers commit to the success of their subordinates because success from the bottom up ensures results are achieved.

• Great managers help their workers grow.

They are also are unafraid. They don’t duck accountability. They know they will be measured and they set up simple, practical yardsticks for every member of their team.

Great managers are disciplined. They show up every day and get the job done.

They know when subordinates are doing a good job and when they’re not. They discriminate on performance, reward and take remedial action.

Great managers are not afraid of hard work. They thrive on it.

FORTUNATELY, an international reassessment is quietly gathering momentum.

This may ultimately result in greater focus on the transformation — departmental, divisional and national — that can be achieved when management skill is properly developed.

Professor Roy Green, dean of Sydney’s UTS Business School and part of the Australian government’s Manufacturing Leaders’ Group, recently focused renewed attention on management’s role in lifting productivity.

Work at the London School of Economics suggests a one-point improvement in management practices (on a five-point

scale) drives up productivity by 25%.

A UK government report, Engaging for Success — Enhancing Performance through Employee Engagement, indicates a link between employee engagement and business results, and, of course, companies depend on good managers for worker engagement.

Other studies show best-practice management development can drive a 23% rise in organisational performance. …

THESE positives are supported by analysis of a US Census Bureau survey of management practices at more than 30,000 plants.

A key finding was that companies that adopted more structured management practices for performance monitoring, target setting and incentives, achieved greater productivity, higher profits, better rates of innovation and faster employment growth.

The effect on job creation has to be interesting in a country where unemployment officially hovers near 25%, one of the highest rates in the world, according to the International Labour Organisation.

Strategies abound for creating jobs in SA. It would be ironic if great leaders failed to make an impact on the numbers, but management got the job done.

But, then, getting the job done is the hallmark of any good manager.