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.”



If global competition and business processes are changing so quickly, why aren’t our leadership practices changing at the same rate to keep up with business needs?

A recent study carried out by Development Dimensions International (DDI), a US based Talent Management organisation, showed that whilst business needs and the business environment have all changed dramatically, business leadership practices have hardly changed in the last decades to keep pace.

The DDI study showed that:

“The leadership practices in most organizations received a resounding thumbs-down, with only a quarter of the HR professionals questioned for the report rating the quality of leadership in their organization as very good or excellent, and just a third of leaders giving themselves and their peers high marks.”

via Wikimedia Commons

A worrying finding of the study is that despite the emphasis that is being given to all aspects of leadership today, and despite the fact that corporate leaders are under global and public powerful scrutiny at all times, the results of the survey show that the quality of business leadership has not improved, and may have actually been declining for a long time in relative values against new and confusing market environments.

Of even greater concern is that there was little confidence that companies are building the next generation of high quality leaders. Only 18% of those surveyed felt that “… the leadership pipeline will produce the individuals needed for the future … “ (only 14% in the US), yet less than half of the companies surveyed had a process for identifying high potential talent and even fewer had a process for growing and developing these individuals once identified, despite the fact that this was seen as one of the key skills expected in business leaders. This becomes even more critically important in an environment where the baby boomers are all in the process of moving out of their corner offices and into their retirement condos in Florida and Nice.

Author: W. M. Connolley (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Supporting the DDI findings, the American Management Association found that fewer than one in ten Fortune 1000 organisations actually had made any attempt to integrate recruitment, or management development and succession planning, with strategic business objectives, and found that only 1 in 5 companies even have any succession plans in place to cover the sudden loss of a key executive, and a quarter of them had no succession plans in place at all.

Even when companies do have Hi-Potential programmes and succession plans in place, these are often just window dressing and thus disregarded, as in many cases they are done to be seen to be doing the right thing rather than representing any real plans to identify, develop and build future leaders. Most Hi-Potential programmes are based more on a manager’s propensity to identify and salute those that are acting in his image, and most succession plans are based more on what those above expect to see rather than a true reflection of who should be the right person to take a step up. When it comes to promotions, over 70% of senior executive appointments tend to come from outside the organisation anyway, and of the less than 30% that are internally filled, about 70% will be totally different to that shown in the succession plan, meaning that generally less than 10% of promotions are based on any real planning at all.

This may be the one major reason that so few companies bother to do any real succession planning in the first place.
Quite a vicious circle !

If management in an organisation is not good enough to start with, how will they know what initiatives are needed, and how they should be implemented to drive the changes that are needed to improve the situation?
This is also not helped by today’s business schools.

Author: Tatu Monk (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

For example, many of the case studies used in helping to educate our future business leaders are even older than the MBA students, and whilst they may help students in the process of problem solving, and may even deliver some interesting lessons in business life, they do tend to suggest that not much has changed in the last 20+ years, for example, in the way that business is done, in the way that technology has become so pervasive, in how people are managed and motivated, in the changing expectations and definitions of work in successive generations or in the way that partnerships or co-opetitions are handled. Most importantly these case studies do not take into consideration how social media are changing the entire world, including business, and not just personal, communication. I understand that some of these topics may be covered separately but this does not seem to be enough.

One problem with most business schools is that many of their academic theories don’t actually work well in business practice, while conversely the things that good managers do to succeed in practice don’t actually work well in the business school theories.
So we keep seeing once great companies going into decline, and we excuse this as just being a result of some global economic downturn, new competitors or changing markets, rather than on inadequate management skills that have had little real chance of being able to adjust and adapt quickly enough.

Charles Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is that is the most adaptable to change”.

Author: Elliott & Fry; via Wikimedia Commons

To this I would add … “At some time in the life cycle of every organisation, its ability to succeed in spite of itself runs out.”