What it Means to Manage

A coach celebrating with a group of kids he coaches

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

I recently posted a message on LinkedIn about the value of looking at the behaviour of those around you to learn and improve yourself https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6669579647019180032/. In that post, I mentioned that it’s not always necessary to look to books for information and learning but I didn’t want that message to be interpreted as books are irrelevant. In fact, it was a paragraph in a book that inspired this post.

I have worked with a lot of managers in my time and, with respect to those I have worked with, few of them have been great. I don’t mean they were poor managers, I mean great as opposed to “just” good. It takes something special to be a great manager; you have to excel in so many areas that much of it is reliant on experience and hard-won miles. I want to emphasise the word experience here because time (i.e. length of service) does not equate to experience. It takes the right attitude to have the humility to accept that you’re not good enough, that you can’t have all the answers, that there are things you can learn, that you will make mistakes and that you absolutely own those mistakes. That’s when you can start to progress from good to great.

I do not consider myself to be a great manager, but I do aspire to be one. I am aware of my weaknesses and strengths and I’m always actively trying to minimise or improve on those weaknesses whilst maximising on my strengths. I look to many sources for self-improvement; observing people, making and learning from mistakes, talking to people including peers, my own managers, my network, friends, subordinates and mentors, and consuming articles, podcasts and books.

It was while reading one such book, The Essential Drucker, that I came across a paragraph which triggered a flurry of thoughts in my mind. Now, Drucker is definitely what you would call a great manager. In fact, he probably embodies the term. Born in 1909, you may make the assumption that his writings and teachings are out of touch with the modern world or not relevant in a world of high-paced technological change, entrepreneurialism and disruptive startups, but you would be very, very wrong. The best wisdom is timeless and the nugget of wisdom I encountered so clearly embodied what it means to be a manager that I literally stopped reading, grabbed a pencil, underlined the sentence and then put the book down to write this post.

The fundamental task of management remains the same: to make people capable of joint performance through common goals, common values, the right structure, and the training and development they need to perform and to respond to change

How succinctly beautiful is that? There is so much detail and value and stuff to pick out and expand on within that sentence that I could write a short thesis on it. I won’t do that. You’ll find more value in just buying and reading the book than by reading my errant waffling on the subject. I will, however, try and break down why I think it is so valuable.

Make People Capable

I love this part. I particularly love the word capable. Management isn’t about making people do things; trying to do so results in poor performance all round. You need to make people capable, whether that’s in their role or in their willingness to want to perform. I also love the switch of the focus of who owns this part. It is your duty as a manager to make people capable and if they are not then it is your fault, not there’s. If your people fail, it’s your fault. On that, you should check out Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink.

Make People Capable of Joint Performance

I realise that I carved up part of the sentence further with that previous section, but I thought it important. This fuller part is equally important, though, with an acknowledgement that you cannot expect any organisation to succeed if your people are operating independently. Bringing people together and using their combined knowledge, experience and strengths for the benefit of the organisation and its customers is critical for the long-term success of that organisation. Again, it is your job to create this capability and bring people together. Failure of the team is your failure.

Common Goals

Why do people want to do the work? What’s in it for them? Money? Sure, but you can get money in any job. Why do your people want to earn money here, with your organisation? What are you giving them to be excited about? What do you want to achieve? Does it inspire and motivate people? This doesn’t have to be the product; not everyone is going to get excited about, I don’t know, producing breakfast cereal (apologies to all the employees of Kelloggs, I just needed an example and happen to be eating breakfast). However, you can give people and teams goals within the organisation that motivates them away from pure product. This might be volume, sales, innovation, anything that has a tangible benefit for the organisation and the customers and drives your people into achieving.

Common Values

We hear a lot about company culture these days and there are a lot of organisations that now have “amazing cultures” and a few who truly have amazing cultures. This is crafted right from the very top of the organisation and should filter right through. The larger the organisation, the more difficult this is, but not impossible. You can see whether the values a company state is mere lip service or fundamental to the organisation through its behaviours, the way it talks, the way it treats it’s people and it’s customers, the working environment it creates, it’s actions outside of core business value through its actions in the local and wider community, and the stories that pervade through the organisation (are the stories positive or negative, do they talk about past heroes or villains). As a manager, you have to believe in the organisation’s values as a start. If you don’t then you have to work to change them or find an organisation whose values you do believe in. Secondly, you have to make sure that you embody those values through everything you do and say. Thirdly, you have to find, hire and retain people who agree with those values and will actively promote them. If the organisation means more to people than a pay packet, you will get more out of them than what you ask for.

The Right Structure

I love Google’s willingness to ask fundamental questions and experiment to see if they can improve ways of working. In 2002, they conducted an experiment to find out whether managers were actually necessary by getting rid of them all. Brilliant! The experiment was an unmitigated disaster and they quickly re-introduced managers just a few months after starting the experiment. A flat hierarchy seems great on paper, but it seemed people needed structure in their organisations so that they know who to turn to for guidance, support and answers. This can be your immediate team (peers, seniors, juniors, line managers, etc.), the wider team (different roles, managers of managers), to organisational departments (finance, legal, sales). Structure brings support and specialism that people can tap into when they need it. Any person within your organisation should know or be able to find out who the best person or team to speak to about any issue or question they have. It is management’s responsibility as a whole to provide that structure, ensure it is the right type and make it visible and understandable to the people in the organisation so that they can make the best use of it.

The Training and Development They Need to Perform

I have split this into two as the two elements address different, but related things. Firstly, your people need to be able to perform. This goes without saying but what is not said is that their inability to perform is your responsibility. You need to make sure they have everything they need in order to excel at their role, whether that’s tools, services, support or, in this case, knowledge and learning. If they do not have these things, it is your responsibility to correct it. Now, I’m not suggesting that you need to train everyone within your team or organisation, but you do need to ensure that you hire the right people, put systems and processes in place so that new people can be brought into the team or organisation and given the full context of what you are trying to achieve (goals and values), trained and developed to do their role if they do not already have those skills, and continually pushed to excel through further learning and development throughout their time with you. There are no excuses here for you to not accept responsibility. Are people not good enough? It’s your responsibility to hire the right people who can perform or have the capacity to perform after training. If they aren’t, it’s your responsibility to your organisation and the other people you support to move that person on or get them the help they need. Is training not good enough? That’s on you. You need to know what each person needs to get the job done and put the proper procedures in place to ensure they get it. No budget? It’s your responsibility to secure budget to ensure your people have the right support or find another way to train people with limited resources. No-one said management was easy.

The Training and Development They Need to Respond to Change

And now the second part. If you think that things will remain static and unmoving in your industry or organisation, you’re in for a shock. Now, more than ever, markets change, competitors change, customers change, society changes, politics change, the environment changes and technology changes. Not only do things change but they change at such a rapid pace that you cannot possibly hope to steer the ship without having to take drastic action at times. Your people need to be ready to change with you and even preempt change so that they can guide you and the organisation where necessary. Change may be internal or it may be external but change will come. When it does, who do you want by your side? Do you want the people you’ve neglected to train and develop, devoid of the skills and knowledge required to understand and execute on, and sometimes even make, the tactical and strategic decisions? Or would you prefer those that have an in-depth understanding of your vision, your industry, your organisation, your marketplace, your customers, their own roles, the skill sets they need and the ability to execute to the best of their abilities?

So much knowledge can be garnered from such a simple sentence. Through the ages, Drucker continues to train and develop those who seek it. It’s what made him a great manager. Did he know all of this instinctively? No, of course not. He gathered this knowledge in the same way that you should be seeking it out now; through observing, reading, testing and learning.

Which leads me to the final, unwritten, observation from this sentence: you must absolutely ensure that you manage yourself.

Yes, manage others. Yes, support others. Yes, set goals and values. Yes, create visions and training and develop your people. But, above all, do all those things for yourself. If you neglect to manage yourself then you cannot possibly hope to manage others. Inspire by doing and learning and striving and teaching.

Stand on the shoulders of giants. Drucker did.

What are your thoughts?