Management matters. Above all, managers matter. At least when managers fail, things tend to go wrong.
My first weekly column here was about the damning report on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which claimed that “global management failures” in the oil industry had created the conditions for the deadly explosion and oil spill.
This one – the last of some 500 I’ve written since 2011 – coincides with an inquest into needless baby deaths at a UK hospital. Factors included a dysfunctional “them and us” culture, staffing and training gaps, and a lack of psychological safety. Everything could have been corrected by better hierarchical management and better governance.
Poor management leads, at best, to unnecessary misery for staff, and at worst, as these two extreme cases suggest, to disaster and death.
Yet if managers are in the public eye, they tend to be the focus of customer irritation (“Who’s your manager?”), the target of cuts (big companies always brag about wanting to cut “layers of management”), or the butt of satire: think of Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers or Ricky Gervais or Steve Carell as over-promoted bosses in the UK and US editions of Office. No wonder few aspire to be middle managers, itself more often a term of disparagement, and many are reluctant to do so.
However, to focus on the negative is to miss the essence of what good managers bring. They “add value,” not just in the dry sense of improving a company’s overall results, although they also do that, but by ensuring that team members become the best they can be.
I’ve been asked more than once recently if the rapid acceleration of digital communication during lockdown has made managers redundant. This allowed senior leaders to interact directly with more staff, and vice versa. It also revealed the real redundancy of micro-managers whose authority was based on seeing their team hunched over their keyboards. Without presenteeism to support their sense of importance, these managers were lost.
But the crisis has also reinforced what good managers do. They encourage collaboration, they communicate clearly, they act ethically and with compassion, and they let those closest to the client make the tactical decisions. When they do intervene, it’s mostly as coaches rather than all-knowing commanders, asking open-ended questions without judgment rather than giving orders.
As I have written more than once here, this approach is not reserved for small start-ups. He works in large complex companies such as Ericsson, Microsoft and Spotify. It is also one of the keys to the success of the Ukrainian army, whose field officers have been trained to make decisions on the spot in order to outsmart the inflexible and top-down Russian military juggernaut.
Extensive research, both before and during the pandemic, has shown that good management pays off. Unsurprisingly, better-run companies have coped better during the crisis, moving faster to remote working and selling online. Given that the tools for improvement are simple – goal setting, performance reviews, training programs – it is surprising that more and more companies do not apply them, relying instead on what Chartered Management Institute called “accidental managers”.
What the last two years have also highlighted is the essential human side of good management. As management thinker Peter Drucker has written, management is a “liberal art” because it combines results-oriented practical action with “moral concerns”. It “deals with people, their values, their growth and development”.
Coping is synonymous with managing. There have been many days since 2020 where I think managers have earned credit simply for getting themselves and their teams off the hook. Sometimes it can be as simple as scheduling a regular short chat with people based on the answers to two questions: “How are you?” What can I do to help?”
The great Victorian sage John Ruskin, who had a surprising amount to say about leadership, once wrote that the happiness of workers depended on three things: “They must be fit for it; they should not overdo it; and they must have a sense of achievement. Managers have an essential role to play in ensuring that these three conditions apply, while ensuring that the work is done. The last of Ruskin’s precepts is particularly important, however, because big wins are rare in the workplace. We advance, on the contrary, by small achievements.
So if you are a manager, I salute you for doing vital and difficult work. In the future, I will write more widely and at greater length for the FT, but, for now, to those of my readers – and managers – who have helped me feel that “sense of achievement” over the 11 last years: thank you.