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OPINION: Throw out that management advice book

If you’re a manager looking for advice on how to manage better, there are certainly no shortage of books on the subject.

In Search of Excellence, Built to Last, The One Minute Manager, Winning, Lean In – and let’s not forget Managing for Dummies. Tens of thousands of titles are available by my count, with more published all the time.

Personally, I never paid any attention to this sub-genre of the self-help literature books until I became a manager myself. At the time of my promotion (which was somewhat unexpected, I might add) I felt like I hadn’t a clue as to what I’d gotten myself into. So to me, reading a book or two on the subject seemed a relatively easy (and discreet) way to bring myself up to speed.

But I immediately ran into trouble.

Instead of offering useful advice on how to manager better, I couldn’t even find answers to my most basic questions.

Like how to manage my time, for instance. According to Peter Drucker (considered by some to be the greatest management thinker of the 20th Century):

Even three quarters of the working day are useless [to managers] if it is only available fifteen minutes here or half an hour there.[1]

But the authors of In Search of Excellence (still one of the best-selling management advice books of all time) have this to say:

[Effective managers] don’t regularly block out large chunks of time…the average interval devoted to any one issue being nine minutes.[2]

And then there’s Kenneth Blanchard and Stephen Johnson’s opinion on the matter, which the title of their best-selling management book makes abundantly obvious: The One Minute Manager.

But soon I noticed something even more troubling.

Often these so-called ‘management experts’ seemed perfectly content contradicting themselves…even in the course of their own texts. For example:

In Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca growls ‘talk is cheap’ (p. 25). Yet several pages later he’s assuring readers that ‘words matter’ (p. 36), before quoting Winston Churchill on the subject: ‘Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.’

In Sam Walton: Made in America, the Wal-Mart founder and former CEO reflects on his childhood, and how he learned ‘how much hard work it took to get your hands on a dollar, and that when you did it was worth something’ (p. 5). Yet this tidbit of homespun wisdom contrasts with a response he gave to reporters following Wal-Mart’s loss of a half-billion dollars in the 1987 stock market crash. According to Walton himself, he quipped ‘It’s only paper’ (p. 3).

In Winning, Jack Welch describes his meteoric rise to CEO of General Electric as follows:

…in 1973 it dawned on me that I had a shot at the company’s top job—and that I wanted it too. In an act of complete cockiness, I put that down on my performance evaluation under the question about career goals. Eight years later, I got my wish. (p. 278)

But shortly thereafter he’s advising ambitious managers not to engage in behaviors that might alienate colleagues, and undermine their chances for promotion. In particular, he warns against ‘wearing your career goals on your sleeve.’ (p. 287)

So what’s going on here?

Do what I say, not what I say

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with these books, or their authors, disagreeing with each other on occasion.

Sure – it’s annoying to get three different opinions on how to manage your time. But that’s just a difference of opinion. In fact, it’s probably to be expected, given the apparent complexity of the managerial role.

What is frustrating—confounding even—are instances in which those same advice-givers contradict themselves without acknowledging that fact, nor any apparent awareness of having done so.

Another example: In Built to Last (1994), Jim Collins and Jerry Porras praise the work ethic of J. Willard Marriott, Jr., the executive chairman of Marriott International:

[Marriot] lived a relatively modest lifestyle guided by what he calls ‘the Mormon work ethic’ (seventy hours per week) that drove him to personally visit up to two hundred Marriott facilities per year—and to expect similar travel schedules from other top managers.[3]

And yet in Good to Great (2001), Mr. Collins offers a similarly flattering assessment of Colman Mockler (the successful former CEO of Gillette) for taking precisely the opposite approach:

Even during the darkest and most intense times of the takeover crisis of the 1980s and despite the increasingly global nature of Gillette’s business, Mockler maintained remarkable balance in his life. He did not significantly reduce the amount of time he spent with his family, rarely working evenings and weekends.[4]

Again, this is not two or more thoughtful individuals disagreeing with each other on some management-related topic. This is a presumed management ‘expert’ blatantly contradicting himself, without any explanation as to why. Not only does this render his ‘advice’ useless, it calls into question his very credibility.

More contradictions…

Perhaps you’re thinking I’m overstating the problem. I’ve simply stumbled across an outlier or two – occasional slip-ups in otherwise coherent texts. If so, consider the following:

Also in Built to Last, Collins and Porras praise The Boeing Company’s willingness to cut its staff when it had to, noting that ‘during the three year period from 1969 to 1971, Boeing laid off a total of 80,000 people, roughly 60 percent of its workforce’ (p. 100). But on page 104, they speak highly of the ‘guarantee of steady employment’ that Proctor and Gamble offers its employees.

On page 115 of this same text, the authors reprint ‘the Wal-Mart pledge’ as an exemplar of CEO-inspired company loyalty. Walton’s employees would recite it at company meetings, ending with the invocation: ‘So help me Sam.’ But on page 135, Collins and Porras ascribe Nordstrom’s extraordinary commercial success in part to creating ‘a zealous and fanatical reverence for its core values…rather than demanding slavish reverence for an individual leader.’

And on page 10, the authors contend that the idea successful companies ‘focus primarily on beating the competition is a myth.’ But on page 95, they nevertheless applaud GE’s aspirations of becoming ‘#1 or #2 in every market we serve…’

And just so you don’t think I’m picking on Mr. Collins and Mr. Porras here:

In their bestseller, In Search of Excellence (1983), Tom Peters and Robert Waterman argue that ‘the picture of the thing is not the thing’ (p. 3). Except when it comes to the organization chart it seems: ‘Get the strategic plan down on paper and the right organization structure will pop out with ease…’ (p. 4).

On page 30 of the same text, the authors are openly critical of what they call the ‘numerative, rationalist approach’ to managing, in which the only true measure of business performance is that which one can ‘put numbers on.’ This is the ‘paralysis through analysis syndrome, they warn (p. 31). But they quickly backpedal, arguing later on that same page that ‘we are not against quantitative analysis per se…

And in the book’s final chapter, they articulate a principle they feel best summarizes the management practices of excellent companies: ‘Simultaneous loose-tight properties’ – which means maintaining ‘firm central control’ while at the same time allowing ‘maximum individual autonomy,’ (p. 318), and being ‘simultaneously externally focused and internally focused’ (p. 323). It also requires adhering to what they call the ‘smart-dumb rule’ (p. 324) which they confess is a ‘strange contradiction.’

…and still more contradictions

Still not convinced the problem is all that widespread? How about some successful CEOs and executive managers who can’t seem to make up their minds:

In Guts!: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World’s Hottest Car Company (1998), former Chrysler President and Vice Chairman Bob Lutz writes ‘while a good leader can and does command a spectrum of styles, he or she should never succumb to consensus-driven management. That to me is a place leaders don’t want to go!’ (p. 170). But in the very next paragraph he admits ‘Sometimes, consensus has its place…’

In Losing My Virginity (2004), Richard Branson writes ‘Throughout my business life I have always tried to keep on top of costs and to protect the downside risk as much as possible. The Virgin Group has survived only because we have always kept tight control of our cash’ (p. 263). But in the very next breath he confesses: ‘But I also know that sometimes it is essential to break these rules and spend lavishly.’

In Idea Man (2011), Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen insists that the mark of a ‘great innovator’ includes ‘an aura of confidence’ (p. 222). But if you grant that Allen himself is a great innovator (as I would), his recollection of an early demonstration of Microsoft Basic is particularly interesting. His primary thought in that moment? ‘There is just no way this is going to work’ (p. 81).

How about some from ‘old school’ management advice books?

In The Art of War (~500 BC), Sun Tzu warns, ’Do not repeat the tactics that have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.’ But then later, he rattles off a list of tactics generals should adhere to, because they’ve apparently worked…well, repeatedly, including: ‘Camp in high places,’ ‘pass quickly over mountains,’ and ‘do not climb heights in order to fight.

In The Prince (1513), Machiavelli singles out the example of Duke Valentino (aka Cesare Borgia) as ‘worthy of being noted and imitated’:

[The Duke] seeing the need for a sound government…appointed for this purpose Messer Remirro de Orca, a cruel and resolute individual, to whom he granted the fullest of powers… Later, judging that such excessive power was no longer necessary and fearing that it would arouse hatred…he then determined to free himself of all popular suspicion…[by having] Remirro’s body, cut in two, placed on view in the public square…with a wooden block and a blood-stained knife resting beside it.

And yet Machiavelli later asserts, ‘…it cannot be called a virtue [for a leader] to slay one’s fellow citizens, betray one’s friends, to act without faith, without pity, without religion.’

And two more from the ‘new school’:

In Pour Your Heart Into It (1997), Starbuck CEO Howard Schulz attributes the extraordinary growth of his company to ‘a team of smart and experienced managers’ (p. 5). But on the very next page he credits his frontline employees for this success – many of whom are quite young, and have, in his words, ‘no more skills than my father [a high school drop-out] had.

In Delivering Happiness (2010), the late Zappos CEO Tony Hseih describes the beginning of the end for him at LinkExchange (a company he founded and later sold to Microsoft for $265 million) as a personnel problem:

The bad news was that many of them [new hires] were motivated by the prospect of either making a lot of money or building their careers(p. 48)

But Hseih’s own top priority after graduating from college?

My goal was to find a high-paying job. I really didn’t care what my specific job function was, what company I worked for, what the culture of the company was like, or where I ended up living. I just wanted a job that paid well and didn’t seem like too much work. (p. 29)

And for you management scholars and other academics:

In Managing (2009), McGill University’s Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies Henry Mintzberg observes that ‘Organizations need order. But he immediately adds, ‘They sometimes need disorder too…’ (p. 180)

In Images of Organization (1998), Distinguished Research Professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business, Gareth Morgan, argues that when it comes to managing, it’s helpful to view organizations as cultures’ (p. 111). But later he notes that ‘culture…cannot really be managed’ (p. 145).

And lest you think this is not an equal opportunity phenomena:

In The Mary Kay Way (2008), Mary Kay Ash insists that ‘The individual who thinks only What’s in it for me? will never make it in our Company’ (p. 116), adding ‘to succeed with her business, she must think in terms of what’s good for her people, not herself’ (p. 119). But she later warns, ‘I always say that each Beauty Consultant must ensure her own survival’ (p. 122).

In Lean In (2013), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg describes how impressed she was with a job applicant who began her interview by asking ‘What’s your biggest problem, and how can I solve it?’ instead of telling Sandberg ‘all the things I’m good at and all of the things I like to do.’ Sandberg hired her, effusing ‘It was a killer approach’ (p. 52). But on page 69, she repeats some ‘great advice’ she got while working at the US Treasury: ‘He [the chief of staff] told me to figure out what I wanted to do before I went to see people who had the ability to hire me.’

And finally, a CEO who couldn’t even keep from contradicting the title of his own book:

In Only the Paranoid Survive (1996), Andrew Grove recounts the following anecdote from his tenure as the CEO of Intel: ‘The other night, I checked my (e-mail) and found a message from our sales manager in charge of the Asia-Pacific region… He passed on some breaking news…his tone was quite concerned, almost scared…’ Grove’s paranoid response? ‘My immediate reaction was to shrug off his news’ (p. 109).

And on page 152, Grove tells this story: ‘Some time ago a business reporter told me of an encounter with the head of a major Japanese corporation… When he [the reporter] asked questions that clarified the strategy of the corporation, the other man angrily retorted, ‘Why would I tell you our strategy? So I could help our competitors?”’ Nice and paranoid, right? Not according to Mr. Grove: ‘I think this man wouldn’t talk about his strategy not because he was afraid of helping his competitors but because he didn’t have one…’

Not as easy as it sounds

Don’t judge these books or their authors too harshly, however. Coming up with coherent, non-contradictory advice is not nearly as easy as it might sound. You can prove it to yourself by trying the following exercise:

Step 1Think of something you know to be true about managing, or being an effective manager.

You don’t actually have to be a manager yourself. Just think of something you know managers need to do, and do well, in order to be considered ‘good.’Here’s one I came up with:

Makes decisions.

We can all probably agree that managers need to be decisive if they are to be successful. In fact, so critical is this one skill thought to be that many would prefer a manager to make an ill-informed, or otherwise bad decision, as opposed to no decision at all. As Henry Mintzberg explains: “If managing is about getting things done, then managers have to be decisive…”[5]

Step 2Now think of another management ‘principle’ that’s just as important as your first, but which obviously contradicts it.

This step may take you a little longer, so be patient. Again, focus on those things managers need to do to be effective. In my case, I eventually realized the contradictory/paradoxical principle was:

Delegating.

Without a doubt, managers need to be able to delegate to be considered ‘good.’ You could even argue that this is essence of what a manager does. Since managers can’t do everything for themselves (nor should they try), they absolutely need to know how (or when) to assign tasks to those employees suitably qualified to accomplish them.

Here’s the problem: Delegating requires giving up some decision making power, to the extent that it allows for a task’s completion. To do otherwise—that is, to assign a task to someone, but then insist that each and every decision necessary in carrying it out be approved by the delegating manager—cannot truly be considered delegation. As Mintzberg explains: ‘In delegating, a manager identifies the need to get something done, but leaves the deciding [my emphasis] and doing to someone else.’[6]

And so this is contradiction.

A manager can either make a particular decision…or they can delegate it. But they can’t do both.[7] To make a choice for yourself is to pass on the opportunity to delegate this responsibility…but to delegate that choice is to not make this decision.

So try it for yourself.

Maybe it’ll be easy for you – or perhaps identifying that contradictory ‘principle’ will prove more difficult? Either way, let me know what you come up with by contacting me at question@thesubordinateisin.com. If you have a good one, I’ll post it in the comments section.

Next week (part 2), I’ll talk about what the management academia have to say about all this (Spoiler alert: Not much).

But in the meantime, my advice to you is to put down that management advice book you may be reading.

It’s just not worth your time.

 

REFERENCES:

[1] Drucker, Peter F. The Essential Drucker (2001). New York: Collins Business, p. 239.

[2] Peters, Thomas J. and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence (1982). New York: Harper Business, p. 7.

[3] Collins, Jim. Built to Last, (1994). New York: HarperBusiness, p. 197.

[4] Collins, Jim. Good to Great, (2001). New York: HarperBusiness, p. 61.

[5] Mintzberg, Henry. Managing (2009). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., p. 187.

[6] Ibid., p. 60.

[7] Mintzberg appears to be aware of the paradox these two ‘principles’ create as well. In Managing, he refers to this as the ‘dilemma of delegation’ (p. 173) but doesn’t have much to say on how best to navigate it. Instead, he merely laments that when it comes to delegating, sometimes you’re ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ (p. 174). Which is true, of course…it’s just not very useful advice.

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