When I was first promoted to manager, which was some years ago now, one of the first things I did was run out and buy a management advice book.
Because, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t have a clue as to what I’d gotten myself into.
How can I be a manager, I wondered, if I don’t even know what it is that a manager does besides…well, “manage”? And reading a few books on the topic seemed, to me at least, to be a relatively painless (and discreet) way of bringing myself up to speed as I settled into my new role.
But I almost immediately ran into trouble.
Instead of offering useful insights into how I might manage more effectively, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t even get straight answers to my most basic questions.
Like how I should manage my time, for instance.
For example, Peter Drucker (management guru extraordinaire and author of 39 books on the subject) was telling me on the one hand that “even three quarters of the working day are useless if it is only available fifteen minutes here or half an hour there.” But on the other, the authors of In Search of Excellence (perhaps the best-selling management advice book of all time) were insisting that effective managers “don’t regularly block out large chunks of time…the average interval devoted to any one issue being nine minutes.” And then there was Kenneth Blanchard and Stephen Johnson’s opinion on the matter to consider – which is perhaps abundantly obvious from title of their best-selling management advice book (The One Minute Manager).
Even more confounding, however, was the fact that many of these so-called management experts couldn’t seem to avoid contradicting themselves…even in the course of their own texts. For example:
- In a passage from Where Have All the Leaders Gone? (2007), Lee Iacocca, the former president of the Chrysler Corporation, growls “talk is cheap” (p. 25). Several pages later, however, he assures his readers that “words matter,” before going on to quote Winston Churchill on the subject: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.” (p. 36)
- In Winning (2005), Jack Welch—considered by some to be the greatest CEO of the modern age—describes his meteoric rise to power at General Electric in part as follows (p. 278):
…in 1973 it dawned on me that I had a shot at the company’s top job—and that I wanted it too. In an act of complete cockiness, I put that down on my performance evaluation under the question about career goals. Eight years later, I got my wish.
Yet shortly thereafter he’s urging ambitious managers not engage in behaviors that might alienate colleagues, and thus undermine their opportunities for advancement. In particular, he warns against “wearing your career goals on your sleeve” (p. 287).
- In Sam Walton: Made in America (1992), the founder and former CEO of Wal-Mart recalls with pride the following aspect of his childhood upbringing: “We learned how much hard work it took to get your hands on a dollar, and that when you did it was worth something” (p. 5). But this tidbit of homespun wisdom comes shortly after Walton boasts of a response he gave to reporters following Wal-Mart’s loss of half a billion dollars in the 1987 stock market crash. According to Mr. Walton himself, he quipped “It’s only paper” (p. 3).
- And then there is Donald Trump, real estate mogul, businessman, host of the reality-TV shows “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” and current presidential hopeful. In Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life (2007), Trump has this to say regarding steadfastness in the face of adversity: “[if] you want to be successful,” he writes on page 63, “you can never, ever quit. You can never, ever give up.” But, he later opines, “there is a time, however, in some endeavors…when it is time to call it quits” (p. 216). Nor would this seem to be a one-time slip of the tongue: “My motto is: ‘Never give up.’ I follow this very strictly. I only give up on something when it is perfectly clear that there is no other option” (same page).
So what’s going on here?
To be sure, I’m not the only one to take aim at management advice books.
In Popular Management Books (1999), Staffan Furusten investigates the supply, production, and effects of these texts – and then concludes that most simply propagate “institutionalized myths, beliefs, institutions, and ideologies about management…” Instead of offering useful advice, he goes on to say, some of the bestsellers in the genre “should probably be seen more as entertainment…”
In Management Gurus (2006), Andrzej Huczynski’s examination of why certain management ideas gain widespread popularity, the author singles out for criticism those books written by so-called “celebrity CEOs.” But it’s not the advice per se that he objects to, so much as it is the possibility that the average person will be able to implement any of it successfully. “There inevitably lurks a sub-text,” Huczynski warns, “that actually implies that you must also be a genius (like the writer) to make it all work.”
In The Halo Effect…and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (2007), Phil Rosenzweig takes aim at the methods and logic (or lack thereof) that many books use in reaching their conclusions. In particular, Rosenzweig argues that many management “researchers” confuse correlation with causation, substitute quantity for quality when it comes to their research, look for simple explanations when a multiplicity of factors may be involved, and connect only the “winning dots.” Only very rarely, he maintains, is the scientific method rigorously applied.
Business theorist Chris Argyris would seem to agree. In Flawed Advice and the Management Trap (2000), he points out that rarely if ever are the recommendations of any of these books assessed in any meaningful or reproducible way. “Usually, the validity of this advice is not tested,” he observes, “nor is the range of its applications specified.”
And finally, Brad Jackson simply wonders if anyone actually reads these books, much less follows their advice. “On a very basic level,” he writes in Management Gurus and Management Fashions (2001), “no one appears to be sure who reads [management books], let alone understands why they read them and what they do differently as a result of reading them.”
None of these critiques, however, address what I had run into.
Contradiction and paradox
To be clear, my own objection to management advice books is not that individual authors will contradict each other on occasion.
Yes, it’s frustrating to get three different opinions on how to manage your time from three different books. But this is just simple disagreement – something perhaps to be expected given the apparent complexity of the managerial role.
More perplexing, however (and considerably more frustrating), are instances in which the supposed “experts” who write these texts contradict themselves – and without any apparent awareness of having done so.
For instance, in Built to Last (1994) Jim Collins commends the work ethic of J. Willard Marriott, Jr., the executive chairman of Marriott International:
“[Marriot] lived a relatively modest lifestyle guided by what he calls ‘the Mormon work ethic’ (seventy hours per week) that drove him to personally visit up to two hundred Marriott facilities per year—and to expect similar travel schedules from other top managers.”
And yet in Good to Great (2001), Collins can be found praising Colman Mockler (the successful former CEO of Gillette) for taking precisely the opposite approach:
“Even during the darkest and most intense times of the takeover crisis of the 1980s and despite the increasingly global nature of Gillette’s business, Mockler maintained remarkable balance in his life. He did not significantly reduce the amount of time he spent with his family, rarely working evenings and weekends.”
Obviously this is not two or more thoughtful individuals disagreeing with each other. This is someone blatantly contradicting himself. So not only is any “advice” that Collins hopes to convey with each passage rendered useless to the critical reader, it also calls into question Collins’ very credibility as an expert on managing.
I know – you’re probably thinking I’ve simply stumbled across an outlier or two. These are occasional slip-ups in what are otherwise coherent texts. Well, consider the following:
- Also in Built to Last, Collins praises The Boeing Company’s willingness to cut its staff when it had to, noting that “during the three year period from 1969 to 1971, Boeing laid off a total of 80,000 people, roughly 60 percent of its workforce” (p. 100). But on page 104, Collins speaks highly of the “guarantee of steady employment” that Proctor and Gamble offers its employees.
- On page 115, Collins reprints “the Wal-Mart pledge”—which employees were known to recite at company meetings—as an exemplar of CEO-inspired company loyalty. This pledge was typically followed by the invocation: “So help me Sam.” But on page 135, Collins ascribes Nordstrom’s extraordinary commercial success in part to creating “a zealous and fanatical reverence for its core values…rather than demanding slavish reverence [my emphasis] for an individual leader.”
- On page 10, Collins argues that the idea that successful companies ”focus primarily on beating the competition” is a “myth.” But on page 95, he nevertheless applauds GE’s aspirations of becoming “#1 or #2 in every market we serve…”
- And I couldn’t help but notice that in the preface to Built to Last, Collins writes “At it’s deepest level this is not a business book” (p. xiv). His publisher, however? HarperBusiness.
And just so you don’t think I’m picking Mr. Collins here:
- In their book, In Search of Excellence, Peters and Waterman argue that “the picture of the thing is not the thing” (p. 3). Except when it comes to the organization chart it seems: “Get the strategic plan down on paper and the right organization structure will pop out with ease…” (p. 4).
- On page 12, the authors claim “that concept of innovation [my emphasis] seemed to us to define the task of the truly excellent manager or management team.” And yet several pages later they’re arguing that one of the fundamental attributes of any excellent company is “sticking to the knitting” – or staying “reasonably close to the businesses they know” (p. 15).
- On page 30, Peters and Waterman are openly critical of what they call the “numerative, rationalist approach” to managing, in which the only measure of business performance is that which one can “put numbers on.” This is the “paralysis through analysis’ syndrome,” they warn (p. 31). But they then quickly backpedal, arguing later on that same page that “we are not against quantitative analysis per se,” adding “we’re advocates of sound analysis.”
- Finally, in the last chapter of their best-seller, these authors articulate that principle which they seem to feel best summarizes the management practices of excellent companies. And that is: “simultaneous loose-tight properties.” This means having “firm central control” while at the same time allowing “maximum individual autonomy,” (p. 318) and being “simultaneously externally focused and internally focused” (p. 323). They also insist it means adhering to the “smart-dumb rule” (p. 324) which they themselves confess as being a “strange contradiction.”
…and still more contradictions
Nor is it just Collins, Peters, and Waterman (and Iaccoca, Welch, Walton, and Trump) who are guilty here.
- In Guts!: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World’s Hottest Car Company (1998), former President and Vice Chairman of Chrysler Bob Lutz writes “while a good leader can and does command a spectrum of styles, he or she should never [his emphasis] succumb to consensus-driven management. That to me is a place leaders don’t want to go!” (p. 170). But in the very next paragraph he admits “Sometimes, consensus has its place…”
- In Losing My Virginity (2004), Richard Branson writes “Throughout my business life I have always tried to keep on top of costs and to protect the downside risk as much as possible. The Virgin Group has survived only because we have always kept tight control of our cash” (p. 263). And yet he follows up these thoughts on fiscal responsibility with this confession: “But I also know that sometimes it is essential to break these rules and spend lavishly.”
- In Idea Man (2011), Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen insists that the mark of a “great innovator” includes “an aura of confidence” (p. 222). But if you grant that Allen himself is a great innovator (as I would), his recollection of an early demonstration of Microsoft Basic is particularly interesting. His primary thought at the time by his own admission? “There is just no way this is going to work” (p. 81).
How about some “old school” examples?
- In The Prince (1513), Machiavelli singles out the example of Duke Valentino (aka Cesare Borgia) as “worthy of being noted and imitated”:
“[The Duke] seeing the need for a sound government…appointed for this purpose Messer Remirro de Orca, a cruel and resolute individual, to whom he granted the fullest of powers… Later, judging that such excessive power was no longer necessary and fearing that it would arouse hatred…he then determined to free himself of all popular suspicion…[by having] Remirro’s body, cut in two, placed on view in the public square…with a wooden block and a blood-stained knife resting beside it.”
And yet Machiavelli later asserts, “…it cannot be called a virtue [for a leader] to slay one’s fellow citizens, betray one’s friends, to act without faith, without pity, without religion.”
- In The Art of War (~500 BC), Sun Tzu delineates some very specific tactics that generals should adhere to in times of war, including: “camp in high places” but “pass quickly over mountains” (?), “do not climb heights in order to fight,” “after crossing a river you should get far away from it,” “when you come to a hill or a bank, occupy the sunny side,” and so on. Sound advice, I can only assume. And yet he also insists “Do not repeat the tactics that have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”
And a couple more from the “new school”:
- In Pour Your Heart Into It (1997), Starbuck’s CEO Howard Schultz attributes the extraordinary growth of his company to “a team of smart and experienced [my emphasis] managers” (p. 5). But on the very next page he credits his frontline employees for this success – many of whom are quite young, and have, in his words, “no more skills than my father [a high school drop-out] had.”
- In Delivering Happiness (2010), Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh describes the beginning of the end for him at LinkExchange (a company he founded and later sold to Microsoft for $265 million) as a personnel problem: “The bad news was that many of them [new hires] were motivated by the prospect of either making a lot of money or building their careers…” (p. 48). But Hsieh’s own top priority after graduating from college? “My goal was to find a high-paying job. I really didn’t care what my specific job function was, what company I worked for, what the culture of the company was like, or where I ended up living. I just wanted a job that paid well and didn’t seem like too much work” (p. 29).
And for you academics out there:
- In Managing (2009), McGill University’s Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies Henry Mintzberg observes that “Organizations need order.” But in the very next breath he also ventures, “They sometimes need disorder too…” (p. 180)
- In Images of Organization (1998), Distinguished Research Professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business Gareth Morgan argues that when it comes to managing, it’s helpful to “view organizations as cultures” (p. 111). But later he notes that “culture…cannot really be managed” (p. 145).
This also appears to be an equal opportunity phenomena, in case you were wondering:
- In The Mary Kay Way (2008), Mary Kay Ash insists that “The individual who thinks only ‘What’s in it for me?’ will never make it in our Company” (p. 116), adding “to succeed with her business, she must think in terms of what’s good for her people, not herself” (p. 119). But she later warns, “I always say that each Beauty Consultant must ensure her own survival” (p. 122).
- In Lean In (2013), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg describes how impressed she was with a job applicant who began her interview by asking “What’s your biggest problem, and how can I solve it?” instead of telling Sandberg “all the things I’m good at and all of the things I like to do.” Sandberg hired her, effusing “It was a killer approach” (p. 52). But on page 69, she repeats some “great advice” she got while working at the US Treasury: “He [the chief of staff] told me to figure out what I wanted to do before I went to see people who had the ability to hire me.”
And finally, at least one CEO can’t even seem to help contradicting the very title of his own book…repeatedly:
- In Only the Paranoid Survive (1996), former Intel CEO Andrew Grove recounts the following anecdote from his tenure at the company: “The other night, I checked my (e-mail) and found a message from our sales manager in charge of the Asia-Pacific region… He passed on some breaking news…his tone was quite concerned, almost scared…” Grove’s “paranoid” response? “My immediate reaction was to shrug off his news” (p. 109).
- And on page 152, Grove tells this story: “Some time ago a business reporter told me of an encounter with the head of a major Japanese corporation… When he [the reporter] asked questions that clarified the strategy of the corporation, the other man angrily retorted, ‘Why would I tell you our strategy? So I could help our competitors?’” Nice and paranoid, right? Not according to Mr. Grove: “I think this man wouldn’t talk about his strategy not because he was afraid of helping his competitors but because he didn’t have one…”
So there you have it – paradox and contradictions galore. But why? How is it that these management “experts,” who are undoubtedly well-intended and thoughtful individuals—and undeniably successful—come to so frequently contradict themselves, all the while seeming to remain blissfully unaware of that fact?
Well, next week I’ll explain why all of this isn’t just the result of poor editing (although that’s certainly part of the problem). In fact, I’ll make the case that, based on what most people understand to be “good management,” the proffering of contradictory or paradoxical advice may actually be impossible to avoid.
But in the meantime, my advice to you?
Throw out that management advice book you’re reading.
Bloggers note: Portions of this post were first presented for critical review at the 7th International Critical Management Studies (CMS) Conference in Naples, Italy, on July 13, 2011.
Allen, Paul. 2011. Idea Man: a Memoir by the Co-Founder of Microsoft. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.
Argyris, Chris. 2000. Flawed Advice and the Management Trap. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ash, Mary Kay. 2008. The Mary Kay Way. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Blanchard, Ken and Spencer Johnson. 1981. The One Minute Manager. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Branson, Richard. 2004. Losing My Virginity. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Collins, Jim. 1994. Built to Last. New York: HarperBusiness Publishers, Inc.
Collins, Jim. 2001. Good to Great. New York: HarperBusiness Publishers, Inc.
Drucker, Peter F. 2001. The Essential Drucker. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. (Cited page numbers from Collins Business edition, first published 2005.)
Furusten, Staffan. 1999. Popular Management Books: How They Are Made and What they Mean for Organizations. New York: Routledge.
Grove, Andrew S. 1996. Only the Paranoid Survive. New York: Currency-Doubleday.
Hsieh, Tony. 2010. Delivering Happiness. New York: Business Plus.
Huczynski, Andrzej. 2006. Management Gurus (Revised Edition). New York: Routledge.
Iacocca, Lee, with Catherine Whitney. 2007. Where Have All the Leaders Gone? New York: Scribner.
Jackson, Brad. 2001. Management Gurus and Management Fashions. New York: Routledge.
Lutz, Robert A. 1998. Guts: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World’s Hottest Car Company. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. 1966. The Prince, translated by Daniel Donno. New York: Bantam Books. (First published 1513.)
Mintzberg, Henry. 2009. Managing. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Morgan, Gareth. 1998. Images of Organization: The Executive Edition. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Peters, Thomas J. and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. 1982. In Search of Excellence. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. (Cited page numbers from HarperBusiness Essentials edition, published 2004.)
Rosenzweig, Phil. 2007. The Halo Effect. New York: Free Press, A Division of Simon Schuster, Inc.
Sandberg, Sheryl, with Nell Scovell. 2013. Lean In. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Schultz, Howard and Dori Jones Yang. 1997. Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time. New York: Hyperion.
Trump, Donald, and Bill Zanker. 2007. Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Tzu, Sun. 2002. The Art of War. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. (Originally written around 500 B.C.)
Walton, Sam. 1992. Sam Walton: Made in America. New York: Bantam.
Welch, Jack, with Suzy Welch. 2005. Winning. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
 Drucker, Peter F. The Essential Drucker (Collins Business Edition), p. 239.
 Peters, Thomas J. and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence, p. 7.
 Furusten, Staffan. Popular Management Books, p. 142.
 Ibid, p. 58.
 Hucszynski, Andrzej. Management Gurus, p. 66.
 Argyris, Chris. Flawed Advice and the Management Trap, p. 94.
 Jackson, Brad. Management Gurus and Management Fashions, p. 39.
 Collins, Jim. Built to Last, p. 197.
 Collins, Jim. Good to Great, p. 61.
Peters and Waterman, op. cit., p. 324-325.
 For a similar analysis of Sandberg’s book specifically, please see “Lean Where?” by Amanda Hess, at Slate.com: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/03/sheryl_sandberg_s_lean_in_gives_contradictory_advice.html. Retrieved January 20, 2016.