Standing up for management

Clare Forrest argues that our obsession with leadership in organisations is devaluing the role of the manager

Here’s my premise: organisations don’t need more than one leader. More than that, it’s downright ridiculous how the current fixation with developing ‘leaders’ is downgrading the role of managers. It’s great to be called a leader isn’t it? It sounds really important, grand even. But who these days is proud of the title of manager? Not many I fear, which is unsurprising when you look at the common ways in which leaders (good) are differentiated from managers (bad). Here’s some typical words applied to each:

And so on and so forth.1 Who wants to admit to the management role after that?

Then there’s that common quotation “You manage things, you lead people”. Really? With all due respect to the redoubtable Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, you can’t manage a ‘thing’. In essence, it either works or it doesn’t or you have enough of it or too much or too little. These are purchasing and maintenance and administrative decisions. People, on the other hand, really do need managing to achieve the results required. The word manager came to us in the 16th century, probably from the Italian maneggiare which is related to handling and controlling horses. The ultimate derivation is from the Latin noun manus – a hand. According to Drucker2 the word “management” was first used as we understand it today in 1911. It seems then, that when we talk of managing we are talking about ‘handling’ people to achieve what is needed. Not about making sure we have the right things in the right place and so on and so forth.

Slightly, but not totally, tongue in cheek, I am left wondering if the real reason we love to delineate the supposed differences so clearly is that we then have a ready-made activity for our courses. You know – the one that’s around the theme of “What’s the difference between leaders and managers?” (And, yes, I too have been guilty of running this one.) Looking back, I wonder how much damage we people developers have done to those who were once proud to be called a manager – until they went on a leadership programme.

Proud to be a manager?

When I had my first managerial role, I was privileged in today’s terms, though I took it for granted then. I was given more or less complete autonomy to run my site, my staff and my budget, and to do my own local marketing. Recruitment decisions were mine, as was performance management. Appraisal, as we know it today, didn’t exist then – thankfully, but day-to-day performance management was a key part of the role. Managing a team of 12 over different shifts was a real and enjoyable challenge.

It was fantastic to be trusted to do so much and to be pretty much left to get on with it, with lots of support from my manager when I wanted or needed it. But I was never a ‘leader’ and it’s not a title I would have recognised. I was proud to be called a manager – and I like to think I was a good one. But a leader? That would have been daft. Mine was a large organisation and leadership was the remit of the man at the top. It was his job to provide us with a clear vision and understanding of where we were going. How ridiculous it would have been considered then to have lots of leaders, each with his or her own vision of what they wanted the organisation to achieve. That’s not a recipe for success, it’s a recipe for chaos. Lots of mini-leaders each doing their own thing, taking their teams in the direction they each want – is that a crazy idea or what? So why do we persist in talking about leadership and rarely about management? The truth is we need one leader and many superb managers who enable the success of the leader’s vision.

Of course, you may argue, managers are also leaders (and not all leaders will be managers). So what? Why persist in this false dichotomy which serves no one well and merely confuses? Much better to be clear on the role of managers – especially because being a manager is so much more difficult than being a leader. It requires many skills and a real willingness to grasp nettles – more of this later. It also requires the integrity to see the ‘real’ leader’s vision through, without diluting the message. Leaders really don’t do very much at all when it comes to making things happen.

What seems extraordinary to me is that we disparage management to the extent that we hand the title to those who don’t manage people at all and who are, essentially, administrators or technicians. A couple of examples: I recently read a job description for a building manager. Not a word about managing a team. Two years ago, I provided employment law training for a large, public sector organisation. The programme was squarely aimed, by the client, at those with responsibility for managing people. It was made compulsory for everyone who had the word ‘manager’ in their job title, even though 30 per cent of these, by the client’s own admission, did not manage anyone at all and had nothing much to gain from attending the course.

The failure of leadership teams

It’s not just me though. The inestimable Peter Drucker had this to say in one of the last interviews before his death in 2005:

“Let me say bluntly, I don’t believe in leaders. All the talk about leaders is dangerous nonsense. It is a cop out. Forget about it. And I am very unhappy that after the twentieth century, with Hitler, Stalin and Mao as the great leaders, maybe the greatest leaders in hundreds of years, I’m very unhappy that anybody wants leaders with those examples of mis-leaders so fresh. We should be very much afraid of leaders.”3

I couldn’t agree more, and it’s the propensity of leaders to create blind followers, whether the vision is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, that is one of the most important reasons we need excellent managers. It’s they who will challenge the decision of the leader when negative consequences are perceived. Why? Because that’s [pullquote]the role of a great manager – to make sure that the implementation of a leader’s decision is practicable and practical[/pullquote]. A leadership team made up of many leaders and/or sycophantic followers is likely to be so puffed-up with self-importance that it finds itself taking rotten decisions which ultimately bring the organisation down. Enron is a particularly good example of this, but recent history is littered with examples of leadership teams charging headlong to defeat. Scott’s doomed journey to the Antarctic was a result of he, and his leadership team together, making rotten decisions on almost every level, from using ponies to severely underestimating food supplies. The sub-prime mortgage scandal was intensified by the Bush administration actively preventing the investigation and prosecution of the shadow banking system and the Federal Reserve failing to police what was obviously happening4. Then there’s the ineffectual leadership team at the Co-operative Bank which sanctioned the decision to buy Britannia Building Society which took the bank to the brink of collapse. And now, of course, we have Tesco…

Management is about performance

So what is a manager? Here’s my definition: a manager is someone who plans, directs, motivates and controls the team to achieve a desired result.

This is pretty much what I was taught when I was first offered management development and it’s derived partly from Fayol’s Functions of Management (see below), partly from Drucker and partly from me. Directs is in the sense of conducting the orchestra. Controlling is not in a robotic way but in the sense of movement and deployment. In other words, it’s all about performance

Fayol’s Functions of Management

1.       Planning

2.       Organising

3.       Commanding

4.       Co-ordinating

5.       Controlling.

It’s that performance element that is my biggest concern. It seems that instead of being expected to grasp the performance nettle, managers are more or less encouraged to ignore it by the way performance has been extracted from the day job and turned into an ‘event’ in most organisations. Yes, the annual appraisal. Known by many names in an attempt to make it sexier, the now, almost universal, imposition of archaic performance appraisal schemes effectively discourages real performance management by limiting it to an annual, paper-driven process. (It has been encouraging to note that recently, some companies have been ditching their schemes, of which Adobe is the most prominent.) All this does is drive managers to treat performance conversations with indifference and, often, outright avoidance. To be clear: performance is the day job of the manager. He or she needs to be continually:

  • Clarifying objectives, making sure everyone knows what needs to be done
  • Setting up the motivational conditions for the team to achieve the desired results
  • Developing individual team members through carefully-planned delegating and coaching
  • Observing performance, feeding back these observations, rewarding when it’s right and correcting when it’s not
  • Holding single issue performance conversations when a team member’s behaviour indicates a need
  • Recording performance problems, holding the team member to account and monitoring him or her for improvement
  • Taking appropriate further action if improvement does/does not happen.

Time and time again appraisal has been proven to demotivate employees. That includes managers. The argument that, without a scheme, bad managers would never talk with their team members doesn’t hold water. If a manager isn’t managing performance then the solution is not to impose a system. The solution is to performance manage that manager.

A few months ago, the all party Commission on the Future of Management (CFM) and Leadership5 published the results of their survey on the state of management in the UK. It does not make happy reading. One of the key conclusions is that the UK needs a million new managers by 2020, that’s almost 200,000 new managers a year. Sadly, it also reported that 71 per cent of managers admit that their business could do better when it comes to training new managers. Even worse, 43 per cent of line managers rate their own managers as ineffective. The Office for National Statistics’ figures6 released in 2014 show that output per hour worked in the UK is lower than the average for the other six members of the G7 – the US, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Canada. With the best will in the world, we have to admit that we are getting things wrong. The CFM report concludes, gloomily but accurately that: “Since management and productivity are intrinsically linked, it is likely that management practice is one of the major factors holding the UK back from achieving its full economic potential.”

What to do?

We have to stop the rot. I believe that the constant devaluing of management and the lauding of leadership is both confusing and detrimental. We can begin by dropping the term ‘leadership’ and starting to value management for what it is. The word ‘manager’ needs to become the badge your people want to have. Only develop leaders if you seriously envisage them being in charge of the organisation one day. Otherwise, focus on developing people to be excellent managers with the emphasis on getting things done through their people. Have a robust process for identifying managers. Regularly poll your people to find out what they think of their manager’s performance. Remove those who score poorly and those who fail to improve performance. Don’t leave their training and development until they’re in the role. Give them the resources they need to do the best for their teams. Let’s make management a proud profession once more.

A fully referenced version of this article is available on request.


Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *