Monday, September 25, 2006

Bad role models make for poor management

I have read too many theories and ideas on management style for my own good.  Most of these theories suggest things like: listen to your people, work out what motivates them, give them good work, don’t order them around and so on.  Truth is: I agree with all of this, it makes sense to me to treat people with respect, assume they are cleaver and work with them rather than ordering them about.

Some people will say I’m just an idealist.  They may say that that kind of thinking is what separates books and ideas from the practical realities of life.  Some may go as far to say that because I believe all this “west coast” stuff I don’t understand how real management works.  And these people will point out to armies of managers and companies they have know who don’t take this advice.

Well, I can’t argue with the numbers.  I’m sure many managers and companies don’t take this kind of advice.  I’m sure an awful lot of them don’t even know about these ideas or even think about “management style” and what works. 

So what is the alternative?  The alternative, which I’ve taken to calling the “Hollywood style” or “Default management” (for reasons which will become clear in a moment) is all about Command and Control.  Its about telling people what you want them to do and just expecting them to do it.  As in a Hollywood film the manager always knows what is best, time is always pressing and the grunts on the ground just have to do it – if they don’t then just hold a gun to their head.  O, and everyone understands exactly what the manager wants. 

Managers who subscribe to this theory probably don’t know they even have a style.  They just do what they think a “manager” should do.  There are two sources for this theory.  

The first is Hollywood.  The all action hero, bursts onto the scene, tells people about the way it is, doesn’t explain how he is going to fix it but starts telling people what they should do: “secure the roof”, “get the women and children out the fire escape”, “stay low”, “cover me”.  He rushes off, beats the baddy and saves the day.  It is only him, the guy in charge who understands what needs to be done, everyone else falls in line, everyone does just what he asks and he saves them.

The second source is the way the military operates.  Or rather, the way us non-military types think the military operate.  Having seen a selection of old war films we think we know that the Generals at the top know everything, they tell the Colonels, who tell the Sergeants, who tell the men.  And then the guys on the ground just do it, they execute the plan – and its the plan that is all important.  In this model the CEO is the General, managers are Colonels and the guys on the guys at the code-face are the ones that get shot. 

For the record, I’ve read a little military history and I’ve known a couple of ex-military people, from what I can tell this isn’t necessarily how it happens but it is the model many people have in their head. 

So, getting back to managers.  It seems to me that many people get to be managers without actually discussing what it is a manager does.  They need to manage and they adopt the ideas and style they’ve seen in Hollywood films and what they think military commanders do.  Consequently this becomes the default management style for most people.

Tech companies, at least the software companies I’ve spent most of my life working for are particularly bad like this.  Software guys tend to get promoted because they are good technically, faced with the need to manage they use the default style.  Meanwhile, people who do think about this stuff are see as non-technical and consequently don’t get the chance to manage any other way. 

The more people who adopt the default style the more it seems like the style we should all follow – safety in numbers – while we deprive ourselves of role-models.

Unfortunately this means many people have bosses who have picked up everything they know about management from Hollywood films and out dated versions of military command and control.  Thus, these people never get to deliver their best which is a shame for them, their managers and the companies who employ them all.