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The Management vs. Leadership Debate

I’m sorry to weigh in on this, but I can’t ignore it any longer due to a current writing assignment on management. I worked with executives and managers for my whole career of 35+ years and came to have very high regard for them, thinking of them all as “managers”. I never thought of that as a derogatory term in any way.

But apparently Abraham Zaleznik (in the Harvard Business Review of May-June 1977) asked the question, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”  That launched a 40-year discussion of putting down management as simplistic and dealing only with the routine, while elevating leadership as… drumroll, please… visionary and inspiring.

Unfortunately, that premise was reinforced by otherwise brilliant John Kotter, in his “What do Leaders Really Do?” article in HBR, December 2001. As a result, the people who enjoy an opportunity to take sides between “bad vs. good”, “dullards vs. geniuses”, or any other “better-worse” kind of argument, have an excuse to keep up that artificial and divisive comparison.

I have tried to ignore this, going so far as to tune out the vote of MBA students in Jeffrey’s classroom a few years ago, when they were asked, “Would you rather be a manager or a leader?” The entire class raised their hands for being a leader. Managers, I’m sad to say, have a bad reputation created by “leadership experts”.

But now I must face the flurry, which is, I hope, winding down these days. Here’s a quick summary of the argument:

WHAT MANAGERS DO WHAT LEADERS DO
Planning and budgeting Creating vision and strategy
Focus on routine operational results such as producing products and services Focus on strategic direction and producing useful change
Organizing and staffing to build capacity Aligning people with the vision or strategy
Specialize in structural matters Specialize in communication issues
Control Inspire and motivate
Solve problems Prepare organizations for change
Managers are task-oriented Leaders are people-oriented

Mitch McCrimmon (https://www.lead2xl.com/john-kotter-on-leadership) said, “This was a disaster for our thinking about management from which we have yet to recover.” I agree. The fact is that managers do all those things at different times for different reasons. Humans do not fall into such neatly arranged categories.

Watching managers and leaders in action for over 3 decades, the primary factor in the differences between people in positions of authority is their location in the hierarchy. Those at the very top of an organization – the “C-Suite” and Board members – are called upon to communicate more frequently with “outsiders” who are in civic, community and corporate power positions, rather than focusing first on internal activities and connecting with fewer “outsiders”. Every organization has a level in the hierarchy where communications seldom reach up or down (I’ve seen them, remember?), and both sides of that authority dividing-line don’t know much about the other one.

That gives the top layers of an organization a closer view of the worlds outside the organization, hence a larger context to work with. Unfortunately, it also gives them a smaller view of those toward the middle and bottom of their own organization. The number of CEO’s and Executive Directors who know almost nothing about what their people toward the bottom of the organization are dealing with daily would horrify you. That is also the reason organization change is so problematic, often failing to meet planned deadlines and budgets. The “leaders” simply do not see the realities and challenges that are the facts of work life for those in the bottom rungs.

OK, that’s all I need to say for now. I will get back to my writing assignment, which is on the subject of “management”, i.e., the machinery that operates organizations and a layer of smart people that is a lot more strategic, people-oriented and effective at communication than they are given credit for.

Happy New Year!

How New Manager Got a Fractured Organization to Collaborate

I’ve been going through my past cases with client organizations – now that I’m retired from my consulting career, I figure I can write up some of what I learned from working with them.  One of my favorites was Rodd, newly hired to run a multi-regional organization that worked with state agencies, local employers, and lots of other businesses and civic groups. He was overwhelmed – not because there were too many people, but because none of those regional offices worked in the same way.

This case is now posted on our workplace communication website because after Rodd found that site, he tried two of the free assessments, and then figured out a way to get all of his people – and processes and procedures – working in synch.  In our last conversation, he told me, “I thought I was screwed, but this worked and we all actually had some fun doing it. Thanks for saving my career.”

I didn’t save his career, of course. He did that himself, using the assessments on that site to evaluate what was going on in his regional offices. But he started with himself: what was his profile in using the four kinds of productive communication?  He found that he was strong in two kinds of conversation, weak in the other two. Then he kept going, learning more about the communication in his whole office and ultimately in all five regional offices.

You can see the list of all six chapters of “The Case Study” on the Group Assessments page of the site. The story of Rodd’s first step is here, the beginning of his six steps to get his people more aware of each other and better able to collaborate on standardizing some of their work procedures and reports. It was a highly successful project for him, and he was right: it was fun.

Personality vs. Communication = Internal vs. In-Between.

Myers-Briggs is the “world’s most widely used personality test” and “the gold standard of psychological assessments”, says a Washington Post article. The article mentions government agencies and corporations that use the test, but then goes on to say that “the test is highly questioned by the scientific community” and that it’s not clear organizations should use it anymore.

Why not use a personality test in organizations? It’s a good way to find out about character traits and behavioral tendencies that might be relevant to improve training programs and group interactions. It’s also part of “talent management”, which includes “everything an organization does to recruit, retain, develop, reward and make people perform” (wikipedia). So what if it’s a money-maker, part of the $50 billion training industry – does that make using it a mistake?

Well, that depends on what you want to accomplish. Personality testing is a good way to let people know that other people operate in different ways, based on different habits and preferences. Just because I’d rather read a book and you’d rather go to a party doesn’t mean we aren’t both competent and capable in our jobs. But it does mean that we will probably prefer different kinds of work and work environments, and that we might disagree on what is most important. That could be good to know.

But personality tests will focus our attention on what’s inside a person’s skin as being the most important phenomenon. It’s interesting – in fact, the internal stuff is so interesting that we don’t always look at what goes on between people: conversations, such as making requests, promises, and agreements. Or giving and receiving, of both products and services. And learning – yes, learning is an in-between phenomenon, not an in-the-mind one. Even attitudes, usually thought of as internal, show up in facial expressions (think Grumpy Cat) and tone of voice that are in-between, sent from one person to another.

The in-between deserves a bit more attention. What we see, say, and hear let us know whether there is integrity in our relationships and our business. If I say I’ll call you on Tuesday, and you don’t hear from me all week, my word isn’t going to be worth much to you the next time we talk. If you tell me you’re going to email me a document but I haven’t received it after 6 days, I might want to notice that we didn’t agree on when you would send it (and that I need to make better agreements). And not just integrity is found in the in-between: accountability and credibility are there too.

So fine, use personality tests to help people see the diverse flavors and behaviors in their working world. But communication is not a personality trait. We might consider using a communication diagnostic to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of productive interaction in our workplaces.

That Difficult Client Talk – Part I

Dear Reggie,

First, the bad news. You’ve been blaming your staff and technical teams for not doing their jobs well, but you have not considered that you might be the problem. So I’m here to tell you that you are breaking almost every rule of good management. I’m telling you because you said to me, “I want my workplace to work. Help me fix it.” So I am pointing to the heart of the problem: You.

Second, the good news. There’s a path to being a better manager. In your case, the path has three steps, but I’m only going to deal with the #1 item right now. Here it is:

Stop Managing People! They don’t like it, and it doesn’t work anyway. So there. A few important points:

  • Get permission before you coach somebody. You assume that your people want your coaching. That’s a bad assumption – you need to check with them before you coach them. Tell them what kind of coaching you think they need, then ask if they want you to give them some guidance. If they aren’t enthusiastic about it, then let it go. Or find out what kind of support they would prefer.
  • Don’t play psychologist. Dealing with people’s personal feelings, experiences, and conflicts is not your specialty. And it’s not what management is about. You are a technical guy, running a technical department. Human relations are not your strong suit. Get a person from HR to help you sort that stuff out, and work with them to learn from them.
  • Take responsibility for establishing clear assignments. The assignments you give people are vague and incomplete. Every assignment needs to be associated with a clearly stated goal, and maybe even some sort of measure for success. Every assignment needs enough discussion to have confidence that the other person – let’s call him/her Robin – understands exactly what you want, need, and expect. And, finally, every assignment needs a deadline.

Start managing agreements. An agreement begins with you making a request for a product, service, or result. Then, at some point, Robin makes a promise to produce or deliver what you’re asking, though perhaps with some modifications (due to that discussion you had with him/her).  Request + Promise = Agreement.

Then, Reggie, you follow through. Stick with managing the agreement, not Robin. Check in at pre-arranged times and places – by email, at the weekly meeting, etc. – to ask for a status update, as in “Is everything on track with Project X for the September 17 deadline?”

Unless you’re at the water cooler or the coffee machine, you don’t ask, “How’s life?” or “Did you have a good weekend?” or “Why the long face?”. Wading into the personal is fine for personal time, but keep your eye on the agreement in a more formal way when you’re on the work clock.

Thanks for listening, Reggie. You wanted my coaching, so there is Part I. Give it some practice for the coming week, and I’ll check back with a few of your team members next Thursday to ask them how you’re doing.

After that, I’ll stop by your office and we’ll both take a look at how well you are doing your job.

The Problem with People: Hidden Agendas

You know those name-badges people wear at conferences? I’m thinking people should wear them to state clearly what they are – and are not –committed to in life. It would save so much wasted time and confusion.

  • Did you ever have a conversation with someone who said they wanted your help , only to discover that all they really wanted was someone to agree with what a jerk their mother-in-law (or that guy down the hall) really is? Badge: “JUST NOD YOUR HEAD AND LISTEN”.
  • Or how about being in a conversation to solve a problem, where you keep sharing your good ideas and the other person keeps saying “Mmm hmmm”, or “Maybe…” – and then later you realize they collected all your ideas and used them later, as if they’d thought of all those things themselves? Badge: “DEVOTED TO LOOKING GOOD”.
  • And have you ever worked hard to fix something or make it work better to help somebody out, and they didn’t even seem to care what you did? Badge: “YOU’RE HERE TO SERVE ME”.

Seriously, I got a call from a business manager – let’s call her Lindsey – who told me about how she worked to pull together information from 6 sales training programs that had been used in the past 4 years, and turned it all into one new training program, updated it with all the organization’s current information and ideas. It took several days to do the job, which meant she worked into the evenings to finish her regular work. But she was sure it would be appreciated, because her boss needed the program materials. He was expected to train the new sales team in the coming week, and he would not have known how to assemble something that good from the company’s program materials.

So he was delighted, right? Nope. “How do you know this is what I would want to use?” he asked Lindsey. “I was thinking we don’t need this kind of standard training thing, and I was just going to have a round-table discussion.” He did the round-table, and never said another word about it. Lindsey, of course, had to field all the complaints from sales team members: “We didn’t get trained in the methods we’re supposed to use for renewals of old systems or for selling the supplies for our new systems either,” they griped. “We got to talk about how we feel about sales.” Boss’ badge: “SELF-IMPORTANT ASS”.

The real problem is that we think everybody operates pretty much the way we do. If you’re a problem-solver, you think other people are too, and are sure they’ll be interested in that. If you’re focused on advancing your career, and one of those problem-solver people starts yammering about an idea they have to make something work better, you’ll try to be polite but wish they would pay more attention to office politics or following instructions.

The problem with people is they don’t wear their “agenda” on their lapel. So we have to figure it out ourselves, and sometimes we make mistakes that are costly. What to do? Listen carefully to learn what people care about, worry about, and what matters to them in their lives and their work. First, of course, you have set your own agenda aside – you know you have one, don’t you? – and listen well to what other people are really about. That way you’ll know how to best invest your time whenever you talk with them.