Sunday, June 12, 2011

Five Management Concepts That Really Work

I recently outed five management concepts that, while popular, are a waste of mental energy.  As a result, several readers challenged me to provide some management concepts that actually DO work.

I hesitated at first, because there's no idea so excellent that it can't be transformed into crap by a bad manager. However, just as there there are some concepts (like treating downsizing as a strategy) that tend to create jackass behavior, there are other concepts that tend to create better behavior.

That's what this post is about.

I've selected five management concepts, each of which replaces a common, but dysfunctional, way of thinking.  These concepts, which are based upon 20 years of close observance of a myriad of corporate cultures, cover the five most important elements of management:

  • What is business all about?
  • What is a corporation all about?
  • What is management all about?
  • What is an employee suppose to be?
  • What is the best use of technology?

    Managers who get these five elements straight tend to be successful and have successful teams.

    Concept # 1: Treat Business as a Series of Relationships


    In many companies, executives envision the business world as a battlefield, and therefore create conflicts between companies inside a market, between departments inside a company, between groups inside an organization, between individuals in a group and (by extension) between customers and vendors.

    As a result, managers build big empires and "armies" of employees to fight the war. Managers order the "troops" around, while the troops wait around for "marching orders." Women, because supposedly they're not natural soldiers, are considered inappropriate for positions of authority. Customers become territory to be conquered rather than potential partners, and the competition is demonized into the "enemy" even when it might be advantageous to partner with them.

    By contrast, executives who treat business as a series of relationships (not just alliances) tend to focus on managing the complexity of the interactions of different organizations and people all trying to accomplish different things.  Rather than trying to get them to fight some imaginary enemy, executives try to bring the individuals and organizations into alignment so that they're working towards a common purpose.

    In companies where this concept dominates, managers tend to be more cooperative.  Because the emphasis is on relationships, people are more likely to connect one-on-one.  And women are very much in the game, because they often have superior relationship building skills. Most importantly, such organizations seldom, if ever, treat customers as territory to be conquered.  This allows the sales teams to focus on building relationships with customers and, yes, competitors when it makes sense to do so.

    Concept # 2: Envision the Corporation as a Community

    any executives tend to think of their company as a vast machine that they need to control.  This naturally reduces employees into faceless cogs where nobody is indispensable, and everybody is as replaceable as a spare part. Individual initiative, goals, and desires are considered to be completely subsumed by the demands of the corporate machine.

    Managers who like the machine analogy tend to create rigid teams with rigid roles and rigid functions. Managers and workers alike become convinced that change is very difficult, similar to retooling a complicated machine.

    Such managers tend to think of themselves as "controllers" whose job it is to make sure that people follow the rules of the "system." Employees are treated in dehumanizing ways while the corporation centralizes control at the top.  What's worse, sales teams working for such organizations are constantly struggling to secure resources to help them sell.  They suffer on a daily basis to get the machine to respond in a way that matches the needs of the customer, rather than the needs of the corporate machine.

    By contrast, when executives and managers see their organizations as communities of individuals, all of whom have individual hopes and dreams, they begin to find ways to connected those hopes and dreams to the organization's purpose.  This is NOT kumbaya stuff.  Many firms, for instance, are using psychological testing to help managers figure out how to provide coaching that's customized to the learning capabilities of each individual.

    When employees really feel that they're valued as individuals, they more easily dedicate themselves to the goals of the organization.  They're more likely to truly enjoy contributing to their own success, the success of their peers, and the success of the community at large.  Anybody who has worked in this kind of organization remembers it as a wonderful experience for the rest of their life.  (Unfortunately, such experiences are woefully rare.)

    Better yet, the more community-like a corporation becomes, the easier it is for sales professionals to get things done, because communities are naturally more flexible and service-oriented than machines.  Ideally, the community concept begins to embrace customers as well.  I've worked in environments, for instance, where customers would come over and hang out with the employees after work, just because they thought of them as friends.

    Concept # 3: Redefine Management as a Service Position

    Unfortunately, many managers think of the job of managing as a matter of controlling employee behavior.  Despite lip service to "empowerment" and "leadership", the main thrust of management is to ensure that employees do exactly what management wants them to do.

    Under such regimes, employees who disagree with a manager or refuse to do something are "insubordinate" and therefore dangerous.  Many times, the HR group begins to compile a dossier on the "troublemaker" who can't be adequately controlled.

    The natural result of seeing management as a control function is the creation of brittle organizations that can't adapt to new conditions.  Often this happens because multiple managers in multiple stovepiped groups set up conflicting power structures, each of which is trying to "control" what's going on. Worst case, you end up with endless turf wars, with managers involved in a supercharged political atmosphere.

    Whenever that happens, productive work becomes difficult if not impossible. Individual initiative is killed in favor of a "let's wait and see what the boss says" mentality.  For example, sales professionals who are micromanaged in this way pay a fairly major productivity tax, probably of around 30 percent.  That's 30 percent more sales that could be closed if the sales team didn't have some bozo looking over their shoulder and meddling with the sale.

    By contrast, when a corporate culture thinks of management primary as a service position, you get coaches rather than dictators.  Freed of the burden of attempt to "control things", managers can more easily set a direction and to obtain the resources that employees need to get the job done.  There's less talk about "leadership" and "empowerment" and more helping people to become more successful.

    When managers are seen as being "in service", decision-making more naturally moves down to the lowest appropriate level of the company. Teams tend to form their own rules and direction without interference.  Just as importantly, the impetus for huge management salaries goes away and the gulf between management and employees shrinks.  That's a good thing.

    BTW, if you want to see how this kind of management works, look at any sales team that has 1) low turnover, and 2) high productivity.  Sales coaching is a relatively well-understood phenomenon and, while there are plenty of controlling sales managers, there are a fair number who understand this "in service" idea and put it into daily practice.

    Concept # 4: Treat Employees Like Adults

    Sad to say, but many top managers think of their employees as resources wayward children who are too immature and foolish to be assigned real authority, and simply can't be trusted.  You see it in the implicit belief (and explicit rules and regulations) that employees are naturally goldbrickers and thieves.

    Employees subjected to this kind of management paternalism always develop a deep and abiding resentment toward management.  Ironically, it plays back to management with passive-aggressive behavior that actually is rather childish.

    There are thousands of organizations full of employees who have been infantilized to the point where they refuse to do anything until they're certain that they won't get blamed if something goes wrong. On these teams, employees spend more time "covering their butts" than doing productive work. Employees only work when they're being watched, if then.

    The single most important thing that a manager can do is to scrap that kind of thinking and begin  treating employees as if they are intelligent adults.  When managers think of their employees as adults and therefore as peers, they find it easier to shed the notion that their job is to order employees about. Managers who see employees this way tend to defer to the employee when it comes to dealing with the employee's area of understanding or expertise.  Micromanagement becomes nearly impossible.

    This way of thinking quickly permeates itself into hiring practices.  Companies that think of employees as children tend to hire immature and irresponsible people.  By contrast, when companies expect adult behavior, they tend to find and hire… adults.   A higher level of performance starts showing up everywhere from the loading dock to the boardroom. Employees at all levels take charge of their own destinies and stop acting like crybabies when things go wrong.

    Concept # 5: Use Technology to Create Flexibility

    The introduction of technology into companies that adhere to the old beliefs (like business is a battlefield) has been, by and large, disastrous.  What happens in this case is that technology is harnessed to strengthen management's control and further infantilize employees. What's worse, the more the technology become a tool of control, the more it's used to automate processes, casting them in concrete. The end result is a brittle company that finds it MORE difficult to change and adapt.  At so that it becomes cast in concrete.

    This mechanistic way of thinking turns technology into a major drag on morale.  Employees feel dehumanized into mere attachments to the computer system, the needs of which become far more important that the needs of the employees themselves.

    As a result, employees distance themselves from the corporate goals and may even indulge in sabotaging the computer system.  Ironically, this often confirms management's belief that employees can't be trusted, further ossifying the entire dysfunctional mess.

    Using technology to enforce process can have a disastrous impact on a company's ability to sell.  Oftentimes, sales teams are pressured to adopt high-handed CRM concepts that force them to follow machine-like processes that are frequently at complete odds with what actually need to be done to make a sale.  As a result, the sales team must constantly work to subvert the system in order to make quota.  Insane!

    The sad thing about all of that is that technology, if applied correctly, can automate repetitive and boring work, thus freeing human beings to be creative, to build relationships and have meaningful conversations.  However, that only happens if management gives up the idea of using technology centralizing control.

    In other words, when it comes to technology, think "iPhones for everyone" rather than "corporate standards for ERP".  The more light-handed a company is in its use of technology, the more productive it becomes.  The other four concepts listed above become much easier to implement, because technology encourages that way of thinking, rather than reinforcing fundamentally dysfunctional management behavior.

    Thanks to Geoffrey James / BNet / CBS Interactive

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