Management is not a Dirty Word

What is the problem with management?
In the course of my consulting practice I often come across these plaintive cries:
• We need to transform our leadership.
• We need to be more dynamic.
• We need new models for transforming our organisations.

These organisations then throw themselves into the latest [expensive] leadership fad, and take their pick from Action Leadership, Authentic Leadership, Complexity Leadership, Conscious Leadership, Distributed Leadership, Servant Leadership, Transformational Leadership or any of a dozen other promises of magically transforming methods. Each one professes to have the magic ingredient that all the other have somehow missed. These organisations spend a fortune on training, usually with an overseas consultant, and then when it does not have the desired result, they run off after the next fad. Personnel departments demonstrate their indispensability in this way.


I also see the infiltration of the ubiquitous life coach into organisations. These doughty individuals are armed with expensive certificates of competence and membership of august coaching organisations. They are often refugees from large organisations which could not afford their salaries. They too ply their trade with excellent margins and average results.
All these interventions are laudable, and in the right context will lead to results. The problem is that organisations are unable to extract the full value from these initiatives.

What is missing?
They are missing a set of skills and behaviours that are critical for every enterprise and social organisation. They were indispensable for pre-colonial Khoi-khoi in southern Africa. They were essential for Genghis Khan in his westward explosion towards Europe. Zheng Heh applied them in his remarkable travels far from China. They are relevant to an asset manager in Sandton and they are valid for the harassed municipal manager of an impoverished Eastern Cape town.
They are timeless. They work. And without them you cannot build great leadership in your organisation.
They are what constitutes good management. And without good management you cannot be a good leader, or transform your organisation. People easily see the disparity between what you say and what you do. For many people ‘management’ is a dirty word. For them it conjures up the image of a controlling, demanding, irrational boss. A boss who is insensitive and unsupportive.

The point I want to make is: If you haven’t mastered management, you cannot master leadership. And I am not referring solely to the c-suite. This applies to all levels and all pay grades.

Acknowledgement of Communication
There is a lovely tradition in the merchant marine. The officer of the watch on the bridge of an ocean-going vessel will wish to make a course correction.
“Alter course three degrees to port.” comes the instruction to the helmsperson.
“Aye aye, three degrees, port.” comes the reply from the helmsperson.
See what happened here? Communication passed from one person to another and the recipient acknowledged receipt. Simple, precise. Regardless of whether it was a calm day or a raging storm. The officer of the watch knew that the helmsperson had heard the message.
How many times do you sent mails, left messages or sent texts, and you receive no acknowledgement? And then when you follow up a week later, only to be told – send it to me again!
What is the message implicit in this lack of action?
You are not important enough for me to respond to you. You are irrelevant.
Does this make me to want to communicate with you in future? Does this make me respect you? No, of course not. You have destroyed your credibility as a manager through hundreds of similar actions. So every time you talk about leadership, the rest of us roll our eyes and wait for it to pass.
George [not his real name] travels regularly between South Africa, Turkey and Canada for business supposes. In spite of straddling several timelines I have never had to wait more than six hours for a confirmatory response.

What to do about it:
Make time at least once a day to make sure you have sent out all your responses. You might do it at the end of the day before you leave the office, or you my do it first thing the next morning. Scroll through your devices for texts and mails over the last 24 hours and make sure nothing is hanging. A short “Duly noted” is sometimes sufficient. You may have to promise action by a future date, whatever you have to do – do it.
If you are responding to mails on a laptop, beware the dreaded ‘fold’. That is the roll of emails that disappears below the bottom of the screen or monitor. Sort you mails by date and then go through each one and respond. It’s also a good time to delete irrelevant mail-garbage.

Meeting Management
Of the last thirty meetings I have attended, only one started on time. And it also finished on time. The rest started late, really late, like about thirty minutes late on average. Consider the waste of time and resources. The other problem is that meetings are often poorly chaired. The discussion wanders all over the place and doesn’t address the matters that the meeting was called to address.
We all see this and we do nothing about it.

What to do about it:
I am not going to belabour this. Start your meetings on time, and stick to the agenda. Prepare for the meeting regardless of whether you are chairing the meeting or an attendee.
There are many excellent videos, some very funny, on YouTube to help you improve. Use them. They show you how to do it much better than I can.
And please, don’t blame the traffic for being late. Manage your time better and leave sooner.

Performance Management
Many devotees of Transformed Leadership proclaim loudly that performance management is dead. They believe that organisations can achieve extraordinary goals without structured processes to hold people accountable. I have yet to see this in practice.
For those who haven’t drunk this Kool-Aid™, performance management usually conjures up the completion of clumsy forms and the uncomfortable once-a-year review to determine your next – if you are lucky – salary increase.
Performance management is the day to day back and forth communication with your team. It is a series of continuing conversations about setting and understanding goals, providing feedback and support and adjusting actions to meet changed circumstances. How much time do you spend with each member of your team clarifying goals, providing supportive feedback based on their experience and competence, and helping them grow in rewarding and interesting jobs? Do you really understand the continuum between micro-managing and abdication? Does the person you report to share the same view?
One of the reasons you have so little time for your team is that you are stuck in draggingly unproductive meetings. See the connection?

What to do about it:
This is a complex issue. I spend many hours with clients helping them get this right. It’s hard, very hard. But when it works the results are breath-taking.
My suggestion to you in the short term:
Make sure you have a quality one on one discussion with your supervisor for two uninterrupted hours at least once a month. Discuss goals, priorities and the quality of performance. Listen to the feedback. Take it in. And take action to make sure the problems don’t recur.
And go the same with each person who reports to you. Make the time to do it. It’s your job.

Decision Making
If I have one universal criticism of middle and senior management in my clients – it’s that they struggle to take decisions.
Oh my goodness, they dither and dawdle. Take your pick from the following:
“Give us a proposal to take to the committee.” “We have to wait for the next EXCO for a decision.” “The CEO is overseas.” “We are doing a study and based on the outcome we will decide what to do.” “We are not going to take a decision until the new financial year.” “I am waiting for my boss.”
These are not the considered responses to major capex or organisations resulting initiatives. They are about the day to day operational decisions of the organisation. The mantra in many organisations seems to be: let’s delegate this upwards to a committee or boss. And important decisions get delayed and the costs, both human and financial, mount up.

What to do about it:
I have news! You have to take decisions. That’s why you were appointed. If you were having open, productive, performance management [that terrible term again] conversations with your supervisor, you will know the limits of your decision-making and your budget.
Don’t commission work if it is not within your authority to approve it.
Your personal actions and decisions must be in line with the strategy of your organisation. Your operational budget and performance goals have been created to achieve this. If you need to get someone else’s approval to do the work you were employed to do – something is very wrong.
Taking decisions is tough, and you will make mistakes, but you will get better.

In Conclusion
Get the management disciplines right, and the leadership impact will follow.
I have yet to have a conversation with an experienced, successful leader of a large, complex organisation who does not wholeheartedly attribute their own success in part to what we have discussed above.
It’s a long process. Start small and work at it very day.
Let me know how you get on.

Author: James Forson

James Forson spends a great deal of time near the centre of an intricate Venn diagram where management consulting, fiction and business writing, social investment governance, home-grown vegetables and procrastination overlap.