• 2 minute read

     

    Last month, I was in Anaheim attending the 2016 Academy of Management’s Annual Conference. As you might recall, I wrote some posts about my experiences there. (Please see “Live” from the AOM’s 2016 Annual Meeting, and subsequent posts.)

    One thing I didn’t mention, however, is that Disneyland is located right across the street from the Anaheim Convention Center. It was hard to miss (especially given all the kids running around wearing Mickey Mouse ears).

    So for this installment of my Paradox of the Week* series of posts, I thought a couple of contradictions/paradoxical assertions from Michael Eisner, the former CEO of Disney, might be appropriate:

     

    • In Working Together (2010, HarperCollins), Eisner discusses effective partnerships, and why they succeed. Drawing on his own “famously successful” collaboration with the late Disney COO and president, Frank Wells, Eisner explains: “…my ten years with [Wells] at Disney were the most successful of my career” (p. xii). Understandably then, he offers the following wish for his successor, and current Disney CEO, Bob Iger: “The workload at Disney is enormous—I hope he [Iger] finds a partner as good as the one I had” (p. 30).

    However, Eisner also appears willing to admit that Iger might be doing just fine on his own…which would seem to negate the entire premise of his text. “Today at Disney,” Eisner writes, “like Frank and me, he [Iger] is carrying on Walt’s legacy with style and grace” (same page).

    So are great partnerships necessary for success, or just nice to have..?

    • Some of Eisner’s other examples of great partnerships are suspect as well. For instance, Eisner lauds the “partnership” of Warren Buffet, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, and BH’s Vice Chairman Charlie Munger. And yet Buffet describes that relationship as follows: “He [Munger] has absolutely no problem being number two with me. And if we disagree, we probably won’t do a deal, but if I decide to do it, that’s fine” (p. 47).

    A partnership of “unequals” then..?

    Eisner also characterizes the “partnership” of celebrity chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (of the Food Network’s Too Hot Tamales) as follows: “She [Feniger] is alone, but she is still a partner. Apparently it is possible to be both” (p. 219).

    ???

    • And if that’s not enough to convince you that Mr. Eisner is willing to concede his text’s main thesis—namely, that partnerships are important—consider this admission, which he makes near the end of his text:

    “Nonetheless, after some 279 pages spent advocating for partnerships, I’m still very much a believer in the need for leadership by one person and ultimate accountability.”

     

     

    See you next week.

     


    *An instance in which a business or management “expert” contradicts him- or herself, or otherwise offers paradoxical advice – usually without any apparent awareness of having done so. For more examples of this all-too-frequent phenomena, click here. And for an explanation as to why this happens soooo often, please see Why you can throw out that management advice book (Parts 1, 2, & 3).

     

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  • September 16, 2016

    3 minute read

     

    It’s that time of year again.

    That’s right, it’s back-to-school for millions of college students across the nation.[1]

    The university experience includes both the good and the bad, of course. Lots of parties and athletic events to attend on the one hand, but plenty of homework and cramming for tests on the other. The opportunity to dive deep into subjects of interest, and broaden one’s knowledge of the wider world, too. But also the pressure to maintain that all important grade point average.

    And the chance for a brighter future and much improved career prospects.[2] But increasingly the likelihood of being crippled by student loan debt from which one might never fully recover. [3][4]

    For freshmen, there is also the additional burden of having to choose a major – a decision with the potential to affect one’s future life path like no other. And if the advice today’s freshmen are getting is at all like what I got from my high school counselor way back when, it will sound something like this:

    “For God’s sake, get a degree in something useful.”

    In other words, pick a major that will one day get you a job. (All the better if it pays well.)

    Typically this is taken to mean avoiding “soft” liberal arts subjects—like philosophy, history, or English—in favor of pursuing something more practical, like engineering, or business.[5]

    Or maybe chemistry.

    Well, for this installment of my Unconventional (Mis)management Non-wisdom series of posts, I’d like to offer the following for your consideration. Below is a list of people who didn’t do all that badly for themselves, and the “impractical” subjects in which they majored:[6]

    • Howard Schulz, CEO of Starbucks, was a Communications major (Northern Michigan University)
    • Mitt Romney, the former CEO of Bain Capital and former presidential candidate, was an English major (BYU).
    • Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was a Medieval History and Philosophy major (Stanford)
    • Paul Thiel, CEO and co-founder of Paypal, was a 20th Century Philosophy major (Stanford).
    • Michael Eisner, the former Disney CEO was an English and Theater double major (Denison University).
    • Hank Paulson, the former Goldman Sachs CEO, was an English major (Dartmouth).
    • Hedge fund manager George Soros was a Philosophy major (London School of Economics)
    • CNN founder Ted Turner was a Classics major (Brown University).
    • A.G. Lafley, the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, was a French and History major (Hamilton College)

    Oh yes – Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates never graduated from college, of course. Nor did Mark Zuckerberg, for that matter, or Larry Ellison (Oracle).

    Nor did Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia)…or John Mackey (Whole Foods)…or Mary Kay Ash (Mary Kay Cosmetics)…or David Geffen (Geffen Records)…

     

    Think I’ve missed any? Or have one that you’d like to add? Post it in the comments section below…

     

     

    Endnotes

    [1] According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, 20.5 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities in the fall of 2016, up about 5 million from 2000. http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2016.

    [2] A study conducted in 2011 by the Pew Research Center found that college graduates make more on average than their less educated counterparts. (“Is College Worth It?” May 15, 2011. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/05/15/is-college-worth-it/6/#chapter-5-the-monetary-value-of-a-college-education. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2016.) Another study by Pew concluded that the unemployment rate for college grads is lower than for those with a high school diploma or less. (“The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.” February 11, 2014. “http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college/. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2016.) And according to a study conducted by Georgetown University, those individuals with a college degree were better able to weather the Great Recession than those without one. (“America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Nots, 2016.” Anthony P. Carnevale, Tamara Jayasundera, and Artem Gulish, June 30, 2016. Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Downloaded from https://cew.georgetown.edu/publications/reports/ on Sept. 14, 2016.)

    [3] According to an analysis of U.S. Student Loan Debt Statistics for 2016 by studentloanhero.com, “the average Class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, up six percent from last year.” A study conducted by American Student Assistance (ASA), a non-profit organization whose mission is to “remove the financial barriers to higher education,” found that “those with student debt are delaying decisions to buy a home, get married, have children, save for retirement, and enter a desired career field because of their debt.” From “Life Delayed: The Impact of Student Debt on the Daily Lives of Young Americans.” 2015 Edition. Downloaded Sept. 14, 2016 from www.asa.org.

    [4] According to a report by Bloomberg, for most students who graduate with some student loan debt, paying it off within a decade is becoming increasingly out of reach. (“This Is How Badly We’re Managing Our Student Debt,” by Shahien Nasiripour. August 29, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-29/this-is-how-badly-we-re-managing-our-student-debt. Retrieved Sept 14, 2016.)

    [5] According to one survey, however, the return on investment for an English degree is actually higher than for engineering, information technology, human resources, or marketing (assuming of course that you can actually land a job in that field.) “8 Degrees That Will Earn Your Money Back” by Dawn Dugan. http://www.salary.com/8-college-degrees-that-will-earn-your-money-back/slide/2/. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2016.

    [6] Degree and alma mater information obtained from the respective Wikipedia entries.

     

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  • September 9, 2016

    6 minute read

     


    Blogger’s note: This is the fifth and final installment in a series of posts describing my experiences at the Academy of Management’s (AOM) 2016 Annual meeting in Anaheim, CA (August 5-9). To see the other posts in this series, please click on the respective links – #1: Images of Organization (a short video), #2: FAQs, #3: The disruptor’s dilemma, and #4: Melissa.


     

    Last week I told you about Melissa.

    As you may recall, she was one of just two people I talked to/interviewed a few weeks ago at 2016 Academy of Management Annual Meeting in Anaheim who I felt had something interesting to say about the nature of good management, and how to organize and manage a for-profit business.

    This week, it’s Joyce’s turn.

    Joyce, however, is unlike pretty much everyone else I met at the conference. For starters, she was in no way affiliated with broader academic management community for whom this conference was intended. That is to say, she is not a tenured professor of management, nor a management consultant. She is not even a aspiring a management scholar, nor is she employed by a publisher, university, or research services organization for management professionals. And she’s not a management coach, guru…or even a blogger.

    Nevertheless, what she shared with me about managing—or rather mismanagement—was far more insightful than anyone else to whom I spoke. Furthermore, the pearl of wisdom she delivered wasn’t conferred upon me in the course of a lecture, presentation, round-table discussion, nor through a workshop. In fact, it was just an offhand remark—a question, actually—she made to me in casual conversation.

    So just who is Joyce, you might ask, and what did she have to say..?

     

    We don’t start serving until 10:15…

    I met Joyce on Day 3 of the five day conference, although I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I do however remember what time it was almost down to the minute.

    It was 10:10, give or take a few ticks of the clock.

    I know this because each morning, from 10:15 to 10:45 am, refreshments were served to conference-goers in the main Exhibition Hall, which is where my booth was located, and where I spent the bulk of my time while in Anaheim. So everyday, at about 10 o’clock, the convention center’s catering team would roll in their carts filled with beverages and food, and start setting up for it.

    My booth (#108), as it turned out, faced one of these coffee, tea, and pastry stations so I had a front-row seat for their preparations. (For a glimpse of the view from this booth, check out my video post from the meeting, Images of Organization.) After the coffee urns, rolls, and other food were set up and ready to go—usually by about 10:10—this same catering team would then spend the next several minutes fending off caffeine-starved/low blood sugar conference attendees until the designated time of 10:15. (Just why this was so important remains unclear to me.)

    That’s right – you guessed it.

    Joyce was one or the people charged with setting-up and re-stocking the coffee, tea, juices, croissants, bagels, etc. at this particular refreshment station.

    I learned her name from the badge she wore. We started chatting, and I soon found out that she’d been employed by the Anaheim Convention Center as part of their catering service for several years. It was a good job, she assured me. The pay was decent (union), and she enjoyed the work. Especially meeting new people.

    Joyce also told me a little about her family. She’d had six kids (three by the time she was 18) and all told, they’d given her a total 25 grandkids (only one boy, though). They in turn had blessed her with 13 great-grandchildren…and counting. It was a lot sometimes, she said, but she loved it. One of those great grand-kids, Joyce confided to me, was concerned by the fact that she was still working at her age because of her limp (something I hadn’t noticed).

    “But I try to tell her,” Joyce added, “doing this work keeps me active! My leg doesn’t cause me any pain…it just looks like it does sometimes.”

    I asked her about her impressions of the conference relative to other events held at the convention center, and she said she didn’t know what to make of it. There sure seemed to be a lot of books, she observed – which prompted her to tell me how much she liked reading. “I’ll pick up and read a book about anything,” she exclaimed. “That’s how much I enjoy it.”

    “Really? Read any good books on managing..?” I ventured.

    But she’d misunderstood me. “Good books?” she replied. “Oh, I really enjoyed Gone with the Wind. That’s one of my favorites.”

    [At this point in our conversation I made a mental note to try to grab a few freebies for her later in the week. On the last day of conferences like these, publishers will often give away their books instead of paying to ship them back. But in the end I didn’t have time and missed my chance. Nor did I see Joyce again anyway, though. Either she wasn’t scheduled through the end of the week, or she’d been assigned somewhere else in the convention center.]

    But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    As I said, it had to have been almost precisely 10:10 am when Joyce made what was, in my opinion, the most astute observation I’d heard the entire week. I’d just introduced myself, and after exchanging pleasantries (and watching one of her co-workers shoo someone away from the muffins), I asked her what she thought of her own manager, and management in general at the convention center.

    She paused. And then, with just the tiniest hint of frustration in her voice—notable because it was the only time during our entire conversation that Joyce seemed anything but outwardly positive, or generally upbeat—she replied. “You know,” she said, “sometimes they talk to me like I’m still in high school.”

    Then she turned to me, and asked:

    “Can bosses be insubordinate?”

     

    Insubordination

    For those of you who have been following my blog, I guess this is sort of a spoiler alert.

    You see, what Joyce summed up with her question/observation is the essentially the main thesis of my blog. It’s what I’ve leading up to (or perhaps dancing around) for some time now.

    For instance:

     

    Now, however, I think it’s time to just come out and say it.

    The job of management is to listen to those they manage—and then do what they tell them to—not the other way around. Managers should consider themselves as “reporting to” their employees, not vice versa. This means that your company’s organization chart (if it has one) is effectively upside-down.

    I know – either you’re skeptical, or you think I’m speaking metaphorically. What makes you say that?, you’re probably wondering. “Subordinates” in charge of their “supervisors”? How is this even possible?

    Believe me, I get it.

    But bear in mind that this is not just something I believe, or simply wish were true. Nor is it my opinion, or how I think things “should” be done.

    This is something I can prove.

    So stay tuned for answers/rebuttals to these, and all of your questions/objections. You can do this by continuing to follow my “Timeless Tirades” posts, which are written as a sort of series. (Start with “Why your boss probably sucks.”) In these posts I’ll be explaining more of what I mean by all of this, and in turn what it means for you, your organization, and your manager (if you’re not a manager yourself).

    But back to Joyce’s question: Is it possible for a boss to be insubordinate?

    Well, not only is it possible, it happens all the time.

    For instance, any circumstance wherein you, as an employee, find yourself being told what to do by your manager, as opposed to the other way around, your manager is being insubordinate. On those occasions when he or she refuses to listen to you, or rejects out-of–hand what you have to say in favor of whatever he or she has in mind, your manager is being insubordinate.

    Your boss is even being insubordinate when he or she makes a decision that you haven’t signed off on – particularly if it affects you and/or your ability to do your job.

    So Joyce’s question really sums it all up. “Bad management” is what happens when bosses try to tell their employees what to do. “Good management” can only happen when managers listen to their employees, and then do their best to follow those directives.

    And so after just a moment’s pause, I turned to Joyce and answered:

    “Yes. Absolutely.”

     


    Alright, that’s it for my recap of the AOM’s 2016 Annual Meeting. Next week it’s back to my usual mix of posts. Be sure to look for the next installment in my “Timeless Tirades” in a couple weeks…

     

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  • September 2, 2016

    8 minute read

     


    *Blogger’s note: This is the fourth installment in a series of posts describing my experiences at the Academy of Management’s (AOM) 2016 Annual meeting in Anaheim, CA (August 5-9). To see the other posts in this series, please click on the respective links – #1: Images of Organization (a short video), #2: FAQs, and #3: The disruptor’s dilemma.


     

    My primary aim in traveling to Anaheim last month was simple: Ask those attending the Academy of Management’s 2016 Annual Meeting a few, perhaps pointed questions about managing. (If you’d like to be reminded of what those questions were, please check out my post “’Live’ from the Academy of Management’s 2016 Annual Meeting.”)

    Recall also that last week, I’d begun describing some of the answers I was getting…and some of the reactions.

    In more than a few instances, for example, my line of questioning was enough to make people uncomfortable enough to want to change the subject. But in some cases, just the name of my blog seemed enough to prompt a reaction. For instance, on Day 2 of the five-day conference a woman came up to me with a grin on her face. She asked if I’d been checking out the expressions on people faces as they passed my booth.

    “Why?” I asked.

    “Because you’re getting some interesting looks,” she replied.

    But let’s get back to what I heard from those who did take the time to stop and talk to me. As I pointed out in last week’s post, much of it wasn’t terribly insightful. In fact, if I’m completely honest, a lot of what I heard I’ve heard before – usually in the pages of a management advice book. And so for the most part, these were ideas/answers/explanations that I’ve considered—and dismissed—in the past.

    But a few people did have something to offer – and in particular, two individuals stood out to me. So this week, I’d like to introduce you to the first—Melissa—and then next week I tell you about what Joyce had to say.

     

    Melissa

    Melissa, who I met on the first day, is a vice president at a firm specializing in revenue cycle management (RCM) and accounts receivable management (ARM). As I understand it, this means her company sells the software and services that other businesses use to collect what’s owed to them, or to the companies contracted by them.

    Her presence at the conference, however, might be better explained by the fact that she is also an executive coach of sorts. Her aim in particular is to “create a space for peer-to-peer interactions” between CEOs and executives outside of their normal work environments, as I recall her describing it – something she argued is important because it allows CEOs, executives, and other managers to seek out each other’s advice, and benefit from each other’s experiences in a setting that is uncomplicated by the organizational politics that might be found within their own companies. And frankly, if I were a CEO, I could see where that might be pretty helpful.

    Melissa is also Harvard MBA – and when I asked her what she most learned from that experience, her answer took me by surprise. “Humility, she replied, which is not at all what I expected. After all, this is the institution that has produced the likes of Robert McNamara,[1] Stephen Schwartzman,[2] and Jeffrey Skilling.[3]

    Just as encouraging to me was Melissa’s reply to my following question:

    If the person closest to a problem is typically best equipped to solve it, why are frontline employees routinely denied the authority to address those organizational problems that most affect them..?

    For those of you familiar with my blog, you probably realize that this is a particularly big deal for me. Indeed, it is pretty much the reason I started writing about management in the first place (please see the “About the Blogger” sidebar on the home page). Managers, I’ve concluded, should be listening to their employees as opposed to the other way around. I’ve also argued in the past that “the continued inability of most companies to tap into the enormous intellectual potential of their employees is perhaps the single biggest missed business opportunity of the last several millennia.”[4] To my mind, businesses wrongly deny their frontline employees the necessary authority and resources to decide how best to solve their own problems, or those they might encounter in the course of their work.

    So there’s that.

    Melissa, after acknowledging that issue raised by my question is indeed a problem at most companies, then assured me that things were in fact changing for the better. Attitudes regarding “decision rights,” as she put it,[5] are evolving – and workers at all levels are being granted more of a say in decision-making processes. As examples of institutions where this is already the case, she singled out Southwest Airlines, Zappos, as well as the US Military.

    Great, I thought – although for me, it can’t happen fast enough.

     

    Why is your boss your boss?

    Melissa’s response to my last question is something I’d like to spend a little more time discussing. And that question was:

    Why is your boss your boss? 

    To be honest, I’ve always been a little bit struck by the power of this particular question. Often it’ll essentially stop people in their tracks for what often seems like several minutes while they gather their thoughts. And I can almost tell what they’re thinking just by their expressions: Why are you asking me such a STUPID question?

    But once they’ve take a moment to consider my question (possible after I’ve pressed them to do so), they’ll usually respond in one of three ways:

     

    1. Because he/she can fire me.

    The first answer I get is perhaps the most obvious: Because my boss has the power to fire me. And to be honest, for a long time I considered this an acceptable response/reason as well – that is, sufficient justification for my manager’s authority. That because someone has the power to fire me, I must listen to them, or do what that person tells me to do. Seems straightforward enough.

    But if by “fire” you mean the power to terminate a particular worker’s employment contract? Well, as an employee I have that power is well. (Hint: It’s called “quitting.”) And so far as I can tell, it’s still far easier for me to resign than it is for an organization to fire me. A person might give two week’s notice if they want to be professional about it, but there’s nothing requiring them to do so. Workers can basically walk off the job at their pleasure. Employers, on the other hand, may find themselves facing a lawsuit if they fire someone without showing just cause, or giving ample notice.[6] So when it comes to who can fire whom, employees may actually have a bit of advantage.

     

    1. Knowledge is power

    The second response I get to this question goes something like this:

    “Because my manager has more experience than I. He/she knows as much (or more) about the work I do than I do. Therefore, he/she SHOULD be telling me what to do.”

    Again, on the face of it this seems convincing enough. The superior expertise, or greater knowledge of many managers relative to those who work for them would seem a sound basis for managerial authority. Isn’t it often the case, after all, that a manager will have held (or excelled at) those positions for which he or she is now responsible for managing? A sales manager, for instance, who was once a salesperson him- or herself. It would seem to make perfect sense to promote your best salesperson to sales manager, and have that person bring everyone else’s productivity up to that standard.

    Perhaps – but this is just not possible for all managers in all instances. Consider, for instance, that while employed as a pharmaceutical scientist, I typically reported to another chemist who had considerably more experience than I in the field. But my boss?[7] He often reported to someone without any training in chemistry whatsoever, and who often lacked a degree in the natural sciences. Instead, this individual (often the CEO) had majored in finance or accounting. Or they simply had their MBA.

    Obviously then, not all managerial “authority” can be based on expertise in a particular field, or superior knowledge of a particular industry. In fact, it’s unsustainable. Imagine if the CEO of a pharmaceutical company was expected to have advanced degrees in chemistry, biology, microbiology, law, and accounting, as well as experience in drug development, marketing, and sales? After all, it is not atypical for a CEO to have vice presidents responsible for each of these important areas reporting to him or her. Consider too, that companies tend to hire specialists to bring in needed expertise to an organization. And if that’s true, why then expect that person to take orders from someone who, by their own admission, has little or no knowledge of this specialized field?[8]

    Clearly then, basing “managerial authority” on expertise alone is not the most convincing of arguments either.

     

    1. Because that’s how it is

    This third and final answer is the one that Melissa offered – although I recall her phrasing it a bit more eloquently than this. Notably too, she responded without hesitation. In most cases, I found this to be the last answer people offer – if they offer it at all.

    As Melissa put it, when we take a job somewhere, we “opt in” to this notion of managerial authority. That is to say, as part of our contract for employment, we consciously (or unconsciously) accept that our boss will be our boss for however long we decide (or are allowed) to work there. When our boss tells us to do something, or when to do it, we have already implicitly agreed to listen to them, and act accordingly. This is something we accept “in exchange for employment,” as I think Melissa put it.

    But why have we come to believe this? What is the justification for this understanding/interpretation of what it means “to manage” (or be managed)?

     

    Why your boss is your boss

    I’m going to wrap up this post by hopefully planting a seed of doubt in your mind.

    In my opinion, we accept the notion of managerial authority because we’ve somehow come to believe (or have been led to believe) that this interpretation of “managing” is consistent with some fundamental economic or organizational principle. That somewhere in the science of business or in management theory there is a logical, provable, and rational reason for why employees report to their managers, as opposed to the other way around. And any business that opts to do otherwise, it would therefore follow, is putting themselves at a disadvantage relative to their competitors failing to do so.

    This is simply what management is.

    When your manager says “jump,” you ask “how high?” because to do otherwise would surely compromise your organization’s already slim chances of surviving. Sure, you might exercise a little discretion in your work, but when it gets down to it, and push comes to shove, you should defer to your boss, instead of he or she conceding to you, because that’s what it takes to succeed.

    But what if that wasn’t true?

    And let me just say this again because it’s important: What if that wasn’t true..?

    Alright – that’s all for now. Next week I’ll tell you about Joyce.

     

     

    Endnotes

    [1] McNamara is the former President of the Ford Motor Company and US Secretary of Defense who, during the Johnson administration, may have misled the President concerning the attack of a US destroyer in August of 1946 (known as the second “Gulf of Tonkin Incident”). This is thought to have contributed directly to the escalation of the military conflict that would lead to the Vietnam War. He would later use metrics—that is, body counts—to assess the progress of the US Military in that war (From the R. McNamara Wikipedia entry. Retrieved Sept 1, 2016.)

    [2] Schwarzman is Chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group. In a 2007 interview for “The Guardian,” Schwarzman described his view of financial markets as follows: “I want war, not a series of skirmishes… I always think about what will kill off the other bidder.” (from the S. Schwarzman Wikipedia entry. Retrieved Sept 1, 2016.) In August of 2010, he compared the Obama administration’s plan to raise carried interest taxes to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, as statement for which he later apologized. (“How billionaires destroy democracy,” by Neil Brooks and Linda McQuaig. April 1, 2012. Salon.com.)

    [3] Skilling is the former CEO of Enron who was convicted of federal felony charges in that company’s collapse. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins was purportedly Skilling’s favorite book, and while at Enron he developed a performance evaluation scheme that became known as “rank and yank” in which a certain percentage of employees would be fired from their existing job, regardless of absolute performance. (From the J. Skilling Wikipedia entry. Retrieved Sept 1, 2016.)

    [4] From my post: “Five books every manager should read.”

    [5] The first time I encountered this particular management phrase—“decision rights”—it was in Charles Koch’s Book Good Profit. (For my somewhat less-than-flattering review of this text, please see my post “Charles Koch would like the world to buy his book”.) Personally, I still prefer the less jargon-y “decision-making power,” but that’s just me.

    [6] I realized I’ve raised a lot of issues here – complex ones that deserve a far more thorough treatment than I am able to offer in this particular post. So as much as I hate doing this, I’m going to leave this for a future post. Please stay tuned.

    [7] At the time (the late 90s and early 00s), the pharmaceutical industry was notably male-dominated, especially in R&D. Perhaps as a consequence, I never found myself reporting to a woman ever in my entire career as research chemist, nor was there ever a woman to be found anywhere in my chain of command.

    [8] Ditto endnote #6.

     

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  • 8 minute read

     


    Blogger’s note: This is the third installment in a series of posts describing my experiences at the Academy of Management’s 2016 Annual meeting in Anaheim, CA (August 5-9). For the first installment, click here – and for the second, click here.


     

    So my primary goal in attending the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (AOM) in Anaheim earlier this month was simple:

    Sit in a booth (see above photo) and ask conference-goers—most of whom were either students of, or some sort of expert on management or organizational theory—a few questions about managing.

    That’s it.

    The questions I intended to ask, however, were anything but straightforward. In the past I’ve referred to them as management’s “oldest, and most basic questions imaginable,”[1] and, so far as I can tell, they have yet to be satisfactorily answered…by anyone, “expert” or otherwise.

    For instance:

    (Q1) If the roles of advisor and evaluator are incompatible with each other,[2] why are managers expected to serve as both when it comes to their subordinates..?

    (Q2) If managers are in fact responsible for evaluating their subordinates’ performance, doesn’t this create a “catch-22” for supervisors? After all, what seems to most influence employee performance is how well he or she is being managed…[3]

    (Q3) Organizational efficiency can be improved by both “flattening” an organization (that is, reducing the number of layers in its hierarchy), and by limiting a manager’s “span of control” (which keeps supervisors from spreading themselves too thin).[4] But in order to flatten a hierarchy, one must necessarily increase the average manager’s span of control…

    (Q4) Teamwork seems to require “taking one for the team” on occasion – or subordinating one’s own interests to those of the collective.[5] Except that sounds like something a communist would say, not a capitalist, right..?

    (Q5) If the person closest to a problem is typically best equipped to solve it,[6] why are frontline employees routinely denied the authority to address those organizational problems that most affect them..?

    (Q6) Why is it still who you know, and not what you know, that’s important at so many companies? In other words, why all the office politics..?[7]

    (Q7) And then finally, what is the basis of managerial authority? Or, to put it even more simply, why is your boss your boss..?

    So let’s get to some of the answers I heard.

     

    May I have a moment of your time..?

    When it comes to the incompatibility of roles of “advisor” and “evaluator” (Q1), most of the people I talked to did in fact recognize the conflict of interest here. As for how to address it, well…that’s where things got a little more complicated.

    Some saw the circumstance as acceptable, despite the obvious paradox. A “balance” is needed, they argued, or this is simply part of the “challenge” of managing – answers that left me wondering whether they really understood what the word incompatible means.

    Others, however, were more forthright. One individual, for instance, suggested that the notion that employees could see their boss as anything other than an evaluator was basically bull-****, as I think she put it. But the catch-22 raised in (Q2) proved trickier to dispense with. As I repeatedly pointed out in my conversations from that week, any manager held responsible for evaluating a subordinate’s performance is, in effect, being asked to assess his or her own capacity to manage.

    I got some blank looks on that one.

    My next question (Q3) was a bit easier for folks to navigate (or perhaps wiggle out of). Sometimes, they assured me, it was certainly necessary to “flatten the hierarchy,” while at other times it was of course best to reign in a manager’s span of control. But when I pressed them on this—pointing out that knowing when to flatten, and when not to, at the very last deserved further elaboration—I received either similarly blank looks, or was brushed off with something like “Well, it’ll depend on the circumstances…,” or that it should be evaluated on “a case by case basis.”

    Sure – I can’t argue with that. But from a manager’s perspective, it’s just doesn’t leave you much to work with, does it? To say that sometimes you need to do one thing, and at other times you should do the exact opposite depending on the circumstances – but then not be able to clarify what those circumstances are? That’s like telling a medical student that sometimes chemotherapy is appropriate treatment, while in other instances surgery is best, but then confessing that you have no idea when either procedure should be used.[8]

     

    What’s that, comrade?

    Things didn’t get really interesting, however, until I started asking that question about “teamwork” (Q4).

    To reiterate, good teamwork seems to require “taking one for the team” on occasion – or subordinating one’s interest to those of the of the collective. But that hardly sounds like the pursuit of self-interest which, according to most economists, is the cornerstone upon which free markets are based. In fact, as an organizing principle “teamwork” seems more in line with the thinking behind command (i.e. Communist) economies, as opposed to capitalist ones, where workers are expected to put aside their own selfish interests for the good of the whole.

    So how did the CEOs, executives, and managers of for-profit enterprises come to rely so heavily on this particular concept?

    The first time I pointed out this inconsistency/paradox to the someone in Anaheim, the reply I got was not what I expected. But that’s not because I hadn’t heard it before; I’d actually gotten it in response to some of my other questions as well. In fact, as the week wore on, this soon became the “answer” I received most frequently, no matter what question I asked.

    (A few conference-goers even walked up to my booth and said this to me out of the blue.)

    Here’s how it would typically play out: After pausing for a moment or two, the person I’d been talking to/interrogating would look me up and down—as if considering me, my booth, and the name of my blog for the first time—and then ask me something akin to the following:

    “So…how do you make your money here? What’s your business model..?”

    In other words, they’d change the subject.

    Instead of taking a stab at my question—or simply admitting they didn’t have an answer for me—their primary concern would turn to figuring how I support myself and my site.

    Suddenly they wanted to know what my angle was.

     

    The disrupter’s dilemma

    And you know what, I get it.

    Back when I was a practicing chemist, if some self-described blogger had shown up in my lab—or at a conference I was attending—and started asking me a lot of pointed questions about my research, or the subject of chemistry in general, I’d probably react similarly. What are you doing here? I’d surely wonder. What’s your deal, anyway?

    So, no – I shouldn’t have been surprised by any of this. To be fair, this is the sort of reaction that I probably deserved. I’d come to Anaheim to conduct my little inquisition knowing full well that some of the questions I had in mind to ask have yet to be answered by anyone – even the great Peter Drucker. For instance, that question about “flattening” an organization versus limiting a manager’s span of control? It’s been bouncing around the management community for almost 80 years.[9]

    I was also well aware that just my showing up at AOM’s meeting was likely to ruffle a few feathers. I was at a conference on managing, for goodness sake, and the name of my blog is insubordination (not to mention that I have posts titled “Why your boss probably sucks” and “That MBA isn’t worth as much as you think”). I’m surprised that anyone in attendance—many of whom teach at those same business schools I’ve criticized—was willing to talk to me at all.

    Finally, and truth be told, I have to admit I was in Anaheim under somewhat false pretenses. I really wasn’t all that interested in hearing what other people had to say in response to my questions because I’ve already come up with answers of my own. (To find out what those answers are, stay tuned to my “Main Series” posts).[10] So I shouldn’t be too surprised if some people picked up on this despite my best efforts to conceal that fact, and were put off as a result.

    So very quickly I found myself facing a bit of a dilemma.

    On the one hand, my stated goal was still to ask conference attendees those seven questions I laid out earlier (Q1-7). But on the other, I was also really hoping to increase interest in, and traffic to my blogsite. And yet if I was making people uncomfortable with the questions I was asking, was my pursuit of the former jeopardizing my efforts to accomplish the latter?

    You see, it had quickly became clear to me that I was losing people when I pressed them for answers, or asked them to explain themselves. It wasn’t that they’d always try to change the subject, either. Their demeanor and/or body language might change, for instance – they might make less eye contact, or begin to slowly edge away from my booth. Or just excuse themselves entirely.[11]

    So what was I to do?

    Was it better for me to continue to ask pointed questions about the paradoxes, inconsistencies, and shortcomings in current management and organizational theory to the very individuals who were either responsible for, or should be doing something about it?

    Or should I just sit back and listen to their take on “good management”, even though I feel like I’ve heard (and dismissed) it all before?

    (For more on why I’m so dismissive of what others have to say about “good management” in general, please see my series of posts “Why you can throw out that management advice book (Parts 1,2&3)” and “Is nothing sacred?” You might also check out any one of the entries in my “Paradox of the Week” post category, or those in my “Unconventional (Mis)management Non-wisdom” post category.)

    Would it be better for me, in other words, to provoke, or promote?

     

    Answers, not questions

    In the end, I opted to listen.

    And you know what? I’m glad I did.

    Even though much of what I heard was familiar to me, and despite the fact that I spent most of my time answering questions about myself, and my blog, instead of asking them (please see last week’s post “FAQs”), I nevertheless did learn a couple of things.

    First, it would appear that I’m not alone in my frustration. There seem to be plenty of academics and students and scholars of managing who are just as perplexed as I once was by the current state of management and organizational theory. In fact, I encountered more than one individual who was ready to accuse the Academy of Management—the “preeminent professional association of management and organizational scholars,”[12] mind you—of being poorly managed…if you can wrap your head around the irony in that sentiment.

    And just as importantly, I heard a few opinions and comments that were genuinely insightful…and which I’ll get to in next week’s post.

    Before I do that, however, I guess I have one final FAQ to answer: What exactly is my business model here? How do I plan to make any money? By just blogging?

    Well, not that my finances are necessarily any of your business, but here goes:

    If I had to guess, I’d say that anyone who can come up with a better way to manage a business—any for-profit business, that is—might be able to make a little money telling people about it.

    And by “better managed,” I mean is able to articulate a way of managing that allows a company to tap into their employee’s talents, ingenuity, and enthusiasm more fully (as opposed to discouraging their workers), as well as enables that organization to solve problems quicker, and anticipate and/or react to changes to the marketplace faster, more efficiently, and more profitably – all the while operating in a way that the community and society as a whole can be proud of, as opposed to having to continually regulate.

    It seems to me that might be something people would eventually be willing to pay for to learn about.

    Right?

     

     

    Endnotes

    [1] Please see my post: “Why your boss probably sucks,” paragraph 13.

    [2] Hill, Linda. 2003. Becoming a Manager. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 209.

    [3] Wagner, Rodd, and James K. Harter. 2006. 12: The Elements of Great Managing. New York: Gallup Press; Shaer, Steven J. 2013. Fix Them or Fire Them. Challenger Books.

    [4] Simon, Herbert. “The Proverbs of Administration.” As reprinted in Jay M. Shafritz & J. Steven Ott. 2001. Classics of Organization Theory (5th edition). Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., pp. 112-124.

    [5] Fayol, Henri. 1949. General and Industrial Management. New York: Pitman Publishing Corp.

    [6] Peters, Tom, and Robert Waterman. 1982. In Search of Excellence. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

    [7] Morgan, Gareth. 1998. Images of Organization (Executive Edition). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Kohler Publishers, Inc. and SAGE Publications, Inc., pp. 149-181.

    [8] For more on why this point is so important, please see my post “It’s not what you do. It’s when you do it.

    [9] Simon, op. cit., pp. 112-124.

    [10] Here’s a hint for (Q1): If the roles of “advisor” and “evaluator” are incompatible, then one of them probably has to go, right?

    [11] Fortunately for me, not everyone I encountered was so easily put off. And to those of you who weren’t, or remained patient with me, my questions, and my general insubordination, I very much appreciate it. Thank you.

    [12] From AOM’s website.

     

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  • August 19, 2016

    5 minute read

     


    Blogger’s note: This is the second installment in a series of posts describing my experiences at the Academy of Management’s 2016 Annual meeting in Anaheim, CA (August 5-9). For the first installment (a short video post), please click here.


     

    So I’m back from Anaheim.

    As you may recall, I was there earlier this month attending the annual gathering of the Academy of Management—or AOM—which is the “preeminent organization for management and organization scholars,” according to the organization’s website. Approximately 10,000 such scholars were in fact in attendance,[1] and according to the conference program, 3576 papers, 964 symposia, and 384 PDWs (Professional Development Workshops) were presented or held over the conference’s five days.[2]

    You might also remember that my stated goal in going there was to ask other conference-goers a few, perhaps pointed questions about managing. These are questions that, in the past, I’ve referred to as some of management’s oldest and most basic questions,[3] and which have yet to be satisfactorily answered so far as I can tell.

    So what better venue at which to ask them?

    For example:

    • If the roles of “advisor” and “evaluator” are incompatible with each other,[4] why are managers expected to serve as both with respect to their subordinates?
    • If those closest to a problem are typically best suited to solve it,[5] why are employees routinely denied the authority to resolve those problems that prevent them from doing their best work?
    • And why are good managers so ****-ing hard to find?[6]

    (For a complete list of the questions I planned to ask, please see my post from two weeks ago: “’Live’ from the Academy of Management’s 2016 Annual Meeting.”)

    And I did – I put those questions to as many people as I could. And I’ll get to some of their responses in my next post.

    First, however, I feel like I need to acknowledge that I was asked many more questions than I was able to pose in return. So before I go any further, I’d like to devote this short post to answering a few of the most frequently asked questions about myself and my blog from that week:

     

    1. What’s your blog about?

    Managing.

     

    2. How do you mean..?

    You know – managing. Managing people.

    [It turns out that this question really isn’t as stupid as it sounds. In the world of management theory and organizational studies, to say you’re interested in, or write about just “managing” doesn’t really register. It’s considered far too broad a topic, so it just doesn’t compute. As evidence of this, consider that the AOM boasts some 25-odd divisions, interest groups, and other sub-specialties—all management-related, mind you—including: Operations Management (OM), International Management (IM), Conflict Management (CM), Management Education and Development (MED), Business Policy and Strategy (BPS), Organizational Behavior (OB), and Critical Management Studies (CMS).[7] But for me, it really is just that simple. Managing is managing.]

     

    3. Who’s your target audience?

    Anyone who is, has been, or would like to become a manager. Or anyone who’s ever had a bad manager, or has been mismanaged in some way. Basically, I feel like my blog might appeal to anyone who’s ever had a job.

     

    4. How often do you post?

    Once a week. My blog is a bit unconventional in that respect – I don’t post every day because my posts tend to be a bit longer than what could be considered typical for a blog (the length of a magazine article, as opposed to just a paragraph or two), and I don’t want to overwhelm my readers. Also, I don’t want to overwhelm myself (I really wish I were a faster writer.)

     

    5. Do you host guest bloggers?

    Actually, I hadn’t considered it – but hey, I’m game. So if you’d like to write a “guest post” on the topic of your choosing (management-related, of course), you can submit your idea through the contact page on the site, or just email me at insubordinate@insubordinationblog.com.

     

    6. What college/university are you affiliated with?

    I’m not. I’m not even an academic. I got interested in managing when I became a manager myself, and because at times in my career I’ve been poorly managed. As a result, I like to think that I offer a “practioner’s” view of managing, as opposed to that of an academic, consultant, or theoretician. I also believe I offer a much needed counter-perspective to the conventional management writer/blogger: that of someone who’s been on the receiving end of management’s misguided practices and policies, as opposed to the CEOs or executive managers who engage in, or come up with them. And my approach to managing is that of a scientist – very much so, in fact (see next question).

     

    7. You have a PhD. What did you study?

    Organic chemistry. I graduated from Imperial College (University of London) in 1995 with a PhD (D.I.C.) in “synthetic organic chemistry,” to be precise. I also have a Master’s degree in the same subject (Colorado State University), and Bachelor’s degrees in both Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (University of Minnesota). For much of my career I was employed as a research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry.

     

    8. Why did you start writing about managing?

    I ran into a bad manager at my job and now, after a lot of reading, I believe I’ve figured out why good managers are so few and far between.

     

    9. Why are you here in Anaheim?

    Three reasons, actually.

    • To build readership for my blog.
    • To talk to publishers about my book. I didn’t bring it up much in Anaheim because it’s still a work in progress, but this text does serve as the basis of much of what I write about in my blog. (Please see the Main Series posts). So if you’re an agent or publisher, and would like to learn more about this project—which is nearing completion—please feel free to email me at publish@insubordinationblog.com.
    • To offer my services as a guest lecturer. For those of you who teach business or management courses at the collegiate or graduate level, I lecture on a few special topics that may be of interest to you. One is a critical analysis of mainstream management advice books that, in my opinion at least, is both entertaining and insightful. (For the substance of this lecture, please see my series of posts: “Why you can throw out that management advice book – Parts 1,2,&3.”) I also offer a similar critique of “conventional management wisdom” (please see: “Is nothing sacred?”) – and I’m developing an analysis/critique of the so-called “contingency theory of management” (please see: “Why that MBA might not be worth as much as you think”). If you’re at all interested in having me speak to your class or students, please feel free to use the contact page on this site to get in touch with me, or just shoot me an email at insubordinate@insubordinationblog.com.

     

    Oh, yeah – my main reason for being in Anaheim was of course to ask conference-goers those questions about managing that I mentioned earlier.

    And I’ll get to some of their responses next week…

     

     

    Endnotes

    [1] 10,405 according to Meetings Coordinator Megan Johnson.

    [2] AOM 2016 Meeting Program, p. 57.

    [3] Please see my post: “Why your boss probably sucks.”

    [4] Hill, Linda. 2003. Becoming a Manager. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 209.

    [5] Peters, Tom, and Robert Waterman. 1982. In Search of Excellence. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

    [6] According to the Gallup Organization, 82% of all managers have been “miscast” in the role, while only 1 in 10 people have “the natural, God-given talent to manage a team of people.” From “The State of the American Manager.” (03/27/2015) Downloaded from http://www.gallup.com/services/182138/state-american-manager.aspx.

    [7] AOM 2016 Meeting Program, p. 58.

     

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