I didn’t know very much about the working world when I had my first experience with a really bad manager. I would write a report for him and, shortly after handing it in, he would call me into his office and force me to sit there and watch him read it. “Scottie,” I said, “I could be working on something else until you finish.” He replied, “Why should I waste my time finding you if I have a question?” Today, when I coach young professionals complaining about their “awful bosses” I tell them that this is probably not the worse boss they’ll ever have and they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind, thinking how could it get any worse?
I still get frustrated when I see bad managers get a pass. Working for a tyrant or an idiot can certainly cause employees to dread going to work, but off to work they go anyway. The most dedicated among them probably work hard and try to do their best until a better position comes along.
But defining good management is a complex task, as most executives bring strengths and weakness to their position. You can be a dynamic and energizing leader that has inspired your staff to follow you anywhere but if you fail to fully anticipate the dynamics of the marketplace or the changing needs of your customers and appropriately adjust your strategy, you are showing a glaring weakness in your executive readiness. You may be leading your team, albeit with enthusiasm and vigor, into a slow and steady business decline. We should be realistic: businesses are judged on their financial performance. If you are an executive, you may want to improve your people and management skills because leading with team-focused priorities coincides with your personal values, but if you can’t make the case that a high-functioning, cohesive team improves the financial performance of the company, then you don’t understand business.
I happen to believe that a fundamental aspect of business is people and by that I mean people at all levels. But let me focus today on the people who are leading. To lead – a team, a department, or an organization – is a lonely and humbling task. The first challenge is to chart the way forward. An individual can’t possibly have all the answers alone. Whose opinions do you trust? Who is brave enough to think differently than you do? How do you debate to get to the best outcome? How do you put together an inner circle that looks at the issues from different angles but, when the time comes, will put aside their differences and work for the same outcome? One of the bodies of work I’ve learned from has been that of Patrick Lencioni, particularly his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and I find that his model rings true to my own experiences in putting together groups and teams that got things done. It is hard and constant work to build a well-functioning team at the top.
Companies succeed or fail on the strength of their leaders. I have the privilege of consulting with many financial analysts who talk about the dynamics of the market research industry and how various companies are strategically adjusting to those changing dynamics. I get asked questions like, “Do you think that as mobile survey technology becomes more robust it will impact the business models of the global research companies? Which companies do you think are best positioned to benefit from mobile surveys?” Sometimes the questions are much more basic, “What is the difference between syndicated market research, custom market research, tracking studies and what companies are best positioned in each of these areas?” or “How is global audience measurement changing as digital media breaks down media silos and what do you think will be the impact on each of the global market research companies as this trend continues?”
No one ever asks about management. So I started asking these analysts about how they evaluate management. Many said they only look at the financial performance of a company. Some said they wished they had some way to evaluate management because they understood that good management was the key to business success. One analyst warmed to the question, “CEOs can be divided into charmers who really don’t know what they are talking about and straight – talking guys (emphasis mine) who really tell you what their challenges are. I find that the best predictor is past performance. It gets hard when they are unknown to you. So then we go back to the bottom line.”
But one analyst call will always be memorable. The analyst began the call, “Kathi I would like to understand more about _____company and I understand that you are extremely limited in what information you can share. So I only have a few questions for you.”
“When Mr. Executive started did he meet with you one-on-one?” I answered yes.
“Did that meeting last more than one hour or less than one hour?” I answered more than one hour
“Which of these best describes how much of the talking Mr. Executive did in that meeting?”
Less than one quarter of the talking
About one quarter of the talking
About half of the talking
About three-quarters of the talking
More than three-quarters of the talking
I could barely keep the surprise from showing in my voice. Here was a financial analyst who had a notion about what he believed made a good executive and was trying to include it in his analysis. I answered. The analyst responded, “Thank you. You’ve told me everything I need to know. “
“I believe the real difference between success and failure in a corporation can be very often traced to the question of how well the organization brings out the great energies and talents of its people.”
— Thomas J. Watson, Jr.