WHAT THEY DON’T TEACH YOU ABOUT PEOPLE

Business schools may be great at teaching people how to read a balance sheet, calculate net present value, internal rate of return and discounted cash flow, but they do not seem to do a great job at teaching future “masters of the universe” that management is really all about people.

Author: HBS1908; via Wikimedia Commons


Unless they will end up working for someone like Goldman Sachs, students will spend significantly more time analysing balance sheets during their business studies than they are likely to do in an entire career spanning 30-40 years in the business world. However, no matter which industry they end up in, and whatever management role, position or level they achieve they will never have learned enough about why intelligent, well educated people can act in ways that are illogical, frustrating and totally incomprehensible to their supervisors. Those challenges will only hit them in the real world.

via Wikimedia Commons


Here are some things that they should have learned to give them a faster start to successfully coping with the art of managing people.

1. What isn’t measured rarely gets done

Even if you have great people working for you, people will rarely stick to a task if it doesn’t get regularly scrutinised and measured. I am amazed at how many times I have seen a manager hand out the responsibility of a task to someone without setting down the criteria by which the results will be measured, a completion date and also a schedule for review. It’s not that people are generally lazy or not committed, but good people are generally very busy, and the urgent will take priority over those things that appear to be less so, and anything not measured will always drop to the bottom of the pile.

2. If someone doesn’t personally own a project it is unlikely to succeed

All projects need a champion to have any chance of success. Not just someone whose career is on the line based on its success, but also someone who has the ability and authority to pull in the resources and to take decisions that are needed to bring the project to a successful conclusion. I have sat through management meetings that kick off projects that are seemingly owned collectively by the management team. This helps but is not enough. There must be one person who is held responsible for the successful outcome.

3. You can’t manage behaviour through annual performance reviews

Not even through quarterly ones. Waiting until a formal performance review to address unacceptable behaviour or even good performance doesn’t work well. To effectively manage behaviour, both positive and negative, it needs to be as soon as possible after the action. Too many managers wait until the scheduled formal performance review to tell an underperformer that they have a problem, by which time it is likely that the behaviour which resulted in the poor performance has become even more ingrained. Every single interaction with an employee at even an hourly rate gives the manager an opportunity to reinforce required behaviour.

4. No matter what you say, and how often you say it, your people will interpret, copy and act based on your real attitudes and behaviour

I have come across CEOs who never stop talking about how their customers are the their #1 priority, and that they are committed to customer service excellence, or even customer delight, but who will never take calls from customers nor meet with customers on a regular basis (see “The 3 great business lies” posted August 2, 2010). People in the organisation will build their own attitudes and behaviours based on what they observe in those at the top, irrespective of how much they talk about the subject. Actions do definitely speak louder than words.

5. You must be specific about what you want done

A manager cannot just throw out a multitude of ideas that he carries around in his head as a stream of consciousness, and assume that people will understand what it is that he actually considers important. I worked for one company where one of the founders has one of the greatest minds that the technology sector has spawned, and which never stopped working. He had thousands of ideas at any time, and would share these with people whenever he visited a company site. When he would subsequently return there 6 or 12 months later, he would be amazed that quite often people had translated some of these thoughts into a real project, when all he was doing was sharing ideas. If you want something done then assign someone to the task and tell them specifically what you want. For the rest, make sure that people understand that you are just sharing thoughts and ideas.

6. Meetings are generally the worst way toget something done

Other than meetings being ok when you want to give a specific group of people some common information, they are mostly a waste of time and energy (see “Meetings bloody meetings” posted on 18th April, 2011). JK Galbraith had it right when he said “Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything”.

via WIkimedia Commons; LSE Fotostream


Managers are paid to make decisions, so trying to pass the decision process on to a committee defeats the whole management purpose. Work with those around you whilst accepting all input needed to call the shots, then work with those that you have selected, and tasked, to bring the decision to a successful conclusion.

In the words of Warren Buffet “The business schools reward difficult complex behaviour more than simple behaviour, but simple behaviour is more effective”.

I would change this slightly to “The business schools reward difficult complex analytical behaviour, when the ability to understand people is more effective for successful management.”

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15 Responses to WHAT THEY DON’T TEACH YOU ABOUT PEOPLE

  1. michaelpinto says:

    Great article, I completely agree, especially since, I’m about to finish business school and have learned more about managing people through actually doing it while involved in extracurriculars.

  2. leshayman says:

    Michael, it is heartening to see that there are some people like you at the business schools that understand that there is a real world that one has to engage with to give it all true meaning, and that an MBA is just a starting, rather than an end, point to a life-long journey of learning about what management actually means. Les

    • michaelpinto says:

      Les thank you for responding, I appreciate your time. I’m actually about to finish my undergrad, an mba is several years down the road for me. I do have a question you may be able to help with.

      I have always found it difficult to hold people accountable for their responsibilities while being in a leadership position. When you can’t fire and can’t pay what are some options to motivate people to take ownership of their work?

      • leshayman says:

        Michael, it’s harder if you have neither “the carrot or the stick”….
        However the best way to motivate people is to give them the ability to share in “a wonderful adventure” or to share in “a vision/dream”.
        If you can inspire people with an answer to “Why are we here ?” and be able to help them understand the important role that they can play in the achievement of that dream, then you don’t need the “pay or fire” method.
        People need more than money or the threat of losing their job to work well. They want to be inspired and led, and challenged and appreciated and developed and mentored and grown. Most people don’t leave their job because of money. Most (over 70%) leave because they couldnt build a successful relationship with their boss. I have always believed that “People join companies but leave managers”. Give people a great exciting vision, someone who they can follow who can show them how to be part of it, and they will follow you to the end of the earth. Les

  3. Spot on as usual Les. I think I’ve been a bit vague lately in some of my dealings with my team.

    Time to be a bit more explicit, monitor behaviour and give ownership where it’s needed.

  4. Yusuf Abdac says:

    I’m glad you teached me what they don’t

  5. John Irwin says:

    Les:
    Another thoughtful and useful blog. All of your points are well made; from my own view point #s 3 and 4 are especially important to do in “real time” as a normal ongoing process. In our modern, fast moving world with with it’s continuous change, availability of fast feed back and required corrections and actions.
    John

  6. John Irwin says:

    Corrected version

    Les:
    Another thoughtful and useful blog. All of your points are well made. From my own view point #s 3 and 4 are especially important to do in “real time” as a normal ongoing process in our modern, fast moving world with with it’s continuous change, availability of fast feed back and required corrections and actions.
    John

  7. leshayman says:

    John, I am with you on this. Cuture (sum of behaviours) is at the core. Les

  8. Thanks for this wise words (as always in your posts). BTW: This exactly is the reason why I have chosen not to do a MBA – and rather learn on the job/ with changing jobs or with coaches/ mentors (the 70/20 style). best, Thomas

    • leshayman says:

      Thomas, I can agree with your decision, even though I am not specifically against doing an MBA. I would just prefer that they acknowledged, and therefore taught, that successful management is 90% about people. Les

  9. Dani says:

    I enjoyed reading some of articles. Very insightful! I also have (and still am) banging my head with meetings that are prolonged because of the need of other to discuss and elaborate on every little point. I have been even in meetings where there is an argument between 3 people and the other two are just sitting there bitting their nails…. or the other way around.

    Anyway…. I could sit here and write my pain for hours 🙂 (plus there is a cultural difference becauswe I am a foreigner studying in The Netherlands so I should calculate my actions very carefully as to not get on their bad side because this will reflect bad on my end grade 🙂

    Anyway… again…. great articles.

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