I think we all have seen plenty of dysfunction in the upper ranks of business. This may sound obvious but what this means a lot of dysfunctional people are actually chosen for upper level positions. It is curious because I struggle to believe we are oblivious to the spectrum of dysfunctionality. So why would any executive actually choose a person with some type of dysfunctional leadership qualities to take an upper level position?
I actually believe it is because we are breeding a brood of dysfunctional managers <or less competent managers if want to be kinder>.
This thought reminded me of an article the Economist had about the British East India Company (article: “the company that ruled the waves”).
In the early 1800’s before there was email and fax machines and overnight delivery and twitter this private company successfully, and effectively, managed a far ranging organization across oceans & continents when the only means of communication was letter <or in person> by ship or overland <think months>. The success of the organization was dependent upon autonomous management. And the British East India Company was quite successful. Yes. Of course there were immense management mistakes and there were also the ‘unmanageable’ factors … hurricanes, war with France, privateers, etc. but in general the upper level positions were manned by competent decisionmakers who balanced autonomy and the overall organizational needs and vision.
A couple of things I can think of:
- Traditions & values. The tradition & values of the organization <lets call them attitudes> were so intertwined into the individual’s learning & values that not only ‘in the field’ likeminded managers were consistently reproduced but the ultimate leaders in London could confidently predict the behavior of those in the field.
- Distance honed responsibility. Without constant communication and feedback in the field managers had to make decisions on their own. They were responsible for their actions … to the home office as well as to the livelihoods of those immediately affected by the decision.
Therefore, with few communications, business was conducted … successfully. This suggests that the immediate and constant communication/feedback does not necessarily create better managers. In addition you would have to assume the depth & breadth of the constant communication <beyond the time consumption> does not help develop managers who take risks, learn on the job and take responsibility.
I thought of my own experience … and I envision I would have become a really crappy upper level manager if I had learned my management skills in today’s world of instant feedback/input.
In my 20’s I had three out of town clients and a team in the home office which I didn’t see all the time. For several years I had to delegate & trust a team, make decisions in the field, access my own managers based on assessed importance to do so … oh … and assume responsibility <for the good and the bad>.
Note: I am not old enough to have worked at the East India Company in the 1800’s.
My guess is that delegating did not come naturally to me and if I hadn’t been forced to learn to do so, and inevitably learn how to trust a team, I most likely would have never learned it.
This is not research proven but I imagine most people who actually like to make decisions suck at delegating <and have to learn to do it>.
Interestingly <and I am not sure it is exactly the same these days for young people in business> at that time moving up in an organization was often a battle of attrition.
Most people who moved up did so based on their decisions balance sheet. In my words … decisions were not ‘blurry’ … they were yours.
Today? Decisions are often made within ‘smart systems’ in which there are immediate communications gathering consensus and gaining input. In other words … decisions are blurry. And, depending on the organization, the smart system can be used by someone to smartly shirk decision responsibility and place it in the hands of the system. Just to conclude that thought … that means a person’s resume is then stacked with blurry decisions <of which no sane interviewer would ever admit to>.
I am not anti-email. I believe it actually, when used correctly, enhances efficiency.
And I say that despite the fact I do believe “real time decisions” are not often necessary <we treat each decision like it has to be made in real time and often it doesn’t> as well as they are bad decisions <made without the use of information that could be easily available if you take the time to get it>. Regardless at no time prior has there been an ability to access a store of information and a computing capability with to enrich decisions … almost instantly. Therefore, if used correctly a smart system can enhance decision making ability.
But emails <and instant communication> have several costs – from the honing of managers to poor time utilization.
Email use is a hidden cost for many businesses but a formula developed by researchers in the UK/Australia assessed how much of an employee’s salary is effectively paying for their email use.
The formula, reported in the International Journal of Internet and Enterprise Management, estimates that email use costs anywhere between £5,000 and £10,000 (about 8k to 15k) per employee each year.
The survey of company email use revealed typically that almost one in five emails was cc’ed unnecessarily to staff members other than the main recipient. 13% of received emails were irrelevant or untargeted and a mere 41% of received emails were for information purposes. Less than half of emails (46%) that required an action on the part of the recipient actually stated what the expected action was. And 56% of employees remarked that email is used too often instead of telephone or face-to-face. Ironically, almost half of employees (45%) felt that their own emails were easy to read.
This post isn’t about emails it is about developing good managers.
In a business world where it appears to me that hiring practices seem to initially filter <and increasingly post initial> almost exclusively on experience and qualifications assuming it is the most important factor of all that ignores a reality where someone’s experience and/or qualifications is often … well … not really theirs. Oftentimes someone’s experience is simply experience of shared decision making responsibility – their main qualification is delegating risk and responsibility. And, yet, their qualifications are a list of ‘accomplished deeds.’
We are breeding a group of managers whose strength is not making decisions. <yikes>
I truly believe you can take a person who is very smart who has the right attitude and train them to do a fantastic job, and be an excellent autonomous decision maker, if they have the right attitude. I personally prefer filtering on personality as a slightly higher selection factor than related experience.
Even if we resolve the ‘teaching manager’ issues disfunctionality in upper evel positions wont ever completely go away. Why?
well. Let me give this one a shot from personal experience not offering any solutions but rather offering ‘whys’ <and, by the way, I am not proud of number 2>.
Although I believe it is fairly rare that a totally incompetent ‘dysfunctional’ person is elevated to a meaningful position <unless nepotism or favoritism is involved but let’s disregard those two> here is how I know I have been personally involved:
- 1. You believe you can fix them. The person is productive at some valuable aspect. Maybe even REALLY valuable. You convince yourself you can either fix the part that is obviously dysfunctional or supplement that person with someone who can fix it <deal with it> as part of the ongoing process.
- 2. Horse trading <the one I am not proud of>. Even with the greatest psychological/competency tests in the world you can still torture the numbers/information until they say what you want. Therefore a number of candidates get placed in a subjective discussion pool. In the end, sometimes, you are horse trading positions and people to get what you want, i.e., put someone here and you get someone there. Doesn’t matter if it is a small or large organization … I believe we all do it with good intentions (or how about … belief what we are doing will better the company).
- 3. Not ‘placing out’ flawed employees. Not many organizations have a ‘planned place out’ system for employees as they move up higher in the hierarchy. As people rise, and earn their stripes, we begin seeking to place them in an organization and not ‘place them out’ at any point. They have proven some value and therefore get assessed on value provided and not on value not-provided (or value they impede).
- 4. Today’s “speed to solution’ needs. Experience seems to count even more today than ever because of leaner organizations. at the expense of originality or innovation we are putting higher & higher value on speed to solution (getting something done). If you are good at the speed to solution we seem to be able to overlook a slew of dysfunctional attributes.
Of course, none of these suggests that the decision maker is oblivious to the dysfunction and that is an entirely different issue.
In the end I believe this creating dysfunctional managers is a big issue now … and certainly in the future.
And I truly believe the incompetence is being driven significantly by instant overcommunication (which probably has some underlying issues like ‘less tolerance for mistakes’ and the concept of ‘share responsibility’ as well as managers who just don’t know how to delegate and instant communication continues to feed that behavior).
Somehow we need to resolve this issue or the only non-dysfunctional managers who will be in the upper level will be those who truly manage by numbers <because we know numbers never lie>. And that, my friends, is scary. The number crunchers will rule the world.