FLOGGING A DEAD HORSE

I have lived and worked in Europe for the last 9 years after more than 30 years working in the IT Sector in NZ, Australia, Singapore and the USA, and have worked with, for, and also been responsible for, hundreds of different Managers at varying levels of seniority in that time. I came to Europe with high expectations of what I would find from a Management skills perspective. I have to say that I have been extremely disappointed by not only the Management skills that I have found here, but also by the attitude that I have found towards building professional Management.

Europe has generally not built a culture of management as a profession, not built a culture where management skill is highly valued as critical a skill as vocational excellence, but has tended to build business cultures where management as a science, as an art, as a way of life is seen as just an add-on. In many cases, management excellence is only seen as a “nice to have” rather than as a mandatory set of skills in senior executives. There is a lot of discussion in Europe about “leadership” and this is often transposed and confused for “management”, but in most European countries, the objective is the discussion itself, rather than the desire to go beyond this alone … discussion means that you can sound knowledgeable without ever having to do something that can actually be measured. It means that the Academics can expound all their theories about Management, without ever having had to live them. I have had numerous arguments with Academics in most countries when I felt that their theories could not work in practice. They tended to believe that this was acceptable as my Management practices could not work in their theory anyway. The problem is that this “academic attitude” is also prevalent in much of the Business World.

When I first joined the SAP Extended Board in 1999, I was the then CEO/President of SAP Asia Pacific. We had worked very hard over the previous 5 years to ensure that at SAP APA we had implemented working Management Evaluation, assessment and development programmes in place for all levels of management, and I felt that this was something seriously absent in SAP on a Global basis. When I put a proposal in front of the Board to turn this Management Excellence@SAP Programme into a global reality, I had some interesting reactions from other Board members. One of the executives in particular told me that he felt that Managers were like horses, and that in life you were “…. either born a race horse or a draft horse, and race horses shouldn’t pull carts and draft horses shouldn’t run at Epsom”. His feeling was that any intelligent, well educated, skilled professional could become a manager, and that being intelligent, he would work out what he needed to do in his own time.

Interesting approach, but I have always believed that the difference between a race-horse that looked good, and was well bred, and a racehorse that could actually win races was how well that race horse was trained, and how well he had been prepared beforehand for what was expected of him.

The idea that you could leave a racehorse sitting in a field until race day when you threw a saddle and a jockey on his back, and then expected him to know what to do, and perform well, made as much sense as believing that you could just wake up one morning and play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, having never actually learned to play a musical instrument. Moreover, whilst this brilliant-to-be Manager was acquiring his skills, what was happening to the people for whom he had been given responsibility?

Even after we had gone ahead (initially on a “skunk works”) with some enthusiasts from across the Company, and then successfully implemented the needed Management Development Programmes on a global basis, and had started to put some measurable value on Management as a skill, and as an asset, at SAP, I still would receive messages from this particular Executive with jokes about “flogging a dead horse”.

The belief that Europe will grow and develop as a major economic powerhouse that will be able to compete against the Americas and the Asians, appears to be more of a hope than a real strategy. I doubt that this will be possible until we all understand that skilled management and leadership is a critical starting point for success, that these don’t just happen because we wish them to, and that creating these skills involves more than just spending a few weeks at INSEAD and then handing out titles.

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8 Responses to FLOGGING A DEAD HORSE

  1. Hermann says:

    It is a strong believe of Peter F. Drucker, that management is a profession and can be learned. I’m trying to learn it since more than 10 years – and I’m not sure, if I’m making progresses. I’m sometimes wondering, if the effort to train a draft horse to win racings is worth doing … Would you train a draft horse, if you had to win competitions? Or would you rather look out for a “born” race horse and – of course – train that race horse too?

    • leshayman says:

      Hi Hermann,
      I believe that every Manager can be trained, developed and mentored to be a better Manager than he is already. I am just against leaving Management Development to chance alone.
      I am also against pushing vocationally brilliant people into Management roles arbitrarily when that is the only way that they can get more reward, influence, prestige and seniority in a Company. One Company I worked with, we found that 30% of the Management in one division would have preferred to have stayed in an Individual Contributor role, but felt that this woulld not get them enough return on effort.
      A starting point is to build a “true” dual career path for them so they can continue in the vocational stream and still be able to achieve their work goals.
      I think it is also critical to remember that Learning is a journey, not a destination, for all Managers, and that the more we learn, the more we realise how much longer is that journey.
      Les

  2. Frank Liebeskind says:

    Management is a complex mix of education, intuition, experience (your and that of your role models and mentors), empathy, street smarts and cunning. A book can only teach you superficially, if you don’t feel like a manager or act like a manager and develop people and gain respect as a manager, then all the training in the world won’t make you a real or successful manager. (Maybe the reason Kevin Rudd failed as our Prime Minister; a PM must be a brilliant manager amongst other things).

  3. Dominic Wakefield says:

    This one reminds me of my early days in ‘mangement’ when I worked at a top London hotel chain as part of a five year ‘hotel management training’ course. Most of it experiental learning hence the five years – but I do remember thinking at the end of the five years – I undertand the hotel bit but what did they mean by ‘management’ in the ‘hotel management’ title.
    It was not until I subsequently became a management consultant that I began to understand the rest. Since then I have spent many a year since making a buck by developing and training managers understand their role as a manager. So yes – development & training is a key aspect of fine tuning a racehorse.

    • leshayman says:

      I do like “On the job Training” . I have always supported the idea that personal development should be only 10% formal training and 90% on-the-job development with supporting mentoring and coaching. If you give people challenging assignments that stretch them, with a skilled, experienced mentor to guide them, they will generally learn more than a in a classroom.
      The problem is that many are just thrown in at the deep end without anyone close-by that can teach them how to do more than just float. There are too many managers who do just float along in that they do well enough to keep their job, but do little to develop and grow their people nor to be net generators of talent for their organisation.
      I have found that the best way to get promoted is to have great people that you help to get better, and they just keep pushing you upwards to get you out of their way. 🙂
      Les

      • Ian Grant-Smith says:

        Les,
        Very well said as being a manager is something you are either born with that needs to be developed or you don’t have. Life is like a staircase and we need to realise what step we are on in life and maybe I will only be climb one step up in terms of my ability in the future. So there are horses for courses and some horses will never race but carry children around on a family farm. Being a leader is something you either have or don’t have the key aspect of a leader is to be a forward thinker with a view to the future and not just the “now” as you need to be like a sailboat who plots it’s course and knows it’s final destination. As a leader needs to make key decisions now that he knows are critical that will enable him to what he see’s in the future. I do believe management and leadership can be taught to anyone but the maturity capability people assessment on the individual needs to be addressed up front in terms of what they are truly capable of as that is the reality of life. The sad truth is that some people don’t want to accept where they on the staircase in life. Being a leader is not always about being first as you can be third in line and just lead by example by delivering the value need where you are at. So that’s my little piece…..Take care Ian

  4. Adriana says:

    Dear Mr. Hayman,

    I was reading this post really interested in your position on this issue. As I just relocated from an eastern European country and now living in Germany, I am still at the “observing stage”. My whole management base was influenced by a former manager whom I admire. Following his attitude towards people I have found books compatible with his style (D. Goleman, G. Kohlrieser) to continue my self-education while taking a break from the business world to learn German language and adapt my thinking to the German style.

    So I ended up reading on Amazon.de some testimonials on the books I’ve read, some o them being really wicked. While I perfectly understand that some people have to finish a book they don’t like (although I never did that), it is still out of my common sense understanding why would a person, after reading that book, would waste again precious time writing a negative review on the book and then continuing to read the same author to make another such review on Amazon… What I further noticed is that the critics generally refer to “American school” whether it was explicitly said or not. The final impression I’ve got is that “American school” is somehow perceived as shallow compared to the rigorous European management education and philosophy. Good versus bad, no shades of grey…

    I was wondering how were you perceived when coming as a manager in Europe after all that “multicontinental” experience, having other education than the rigorous European one…

    Thank you,
    Adriana

    • leshayman says:

      Adriana, I have long believed that the US has understood that management is a profession, whereas in Europe it is more of an add-on to vocational excellence. The focus in Europe tends to be more on product and process whereas in US it is more on people (notwithstanding US focus on stock options and money). I do not believe that European management is more rigorous, nor more skilled, nor more capable than the US. In fact, I see professional management skills as being a serious weakness in European companies. Les

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