Last week I argued that you can safely discard that management advice book you may have been reading.

Why? Because as a rule, these books are so full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradox as to render them useless to the critical reader. Like this one, for instance:

  • In Playing To Win (2013), former Proctor & Gamble Chairman and CEO A.G. Lafley writes that during his tenure, P&G’s corporate statement of purpose included producing “products of superior quality and value [my emphasis]” for its customers (p. 19). And yet several pages earlier Lafley describes pricing a skin care product at $18.99 instead of $12.99 because market research showed that “prestige customers would doubt its efficacy” if it were priced “too low.”[1] Savvy marketing certainly, but hardly consistent with a commitment to providing customers with products of “value.”

So why do the authors of management advice books so frequently—and so blatantly—contradict themselves? Well, the reason is not nearly as complicated as you might think:

  1. Virtually all management-advice books subscribe to the same set of underlying assumptions…
  2. …and those assumptions almost exclusively concern what a manager should do as a manager.
  3. Unfortunately, those assumptions also contradict each other…
  4. …making any advice based on them all but guaranteed to be contradictory/paradoxical as well.

In other words, given that the common foundation of these books is a series of contradictory propositions, the proffering of paradoxical advice is, in effect, impossible to avoid.


Blogger’s note: This argument is a bit lengthy to expand upon in a single post, so I’ve split it in two. This week I’ll elaborate on propositions (1) and (2), and list what I’ll call the “Ten Commandments” of good management. Next week I’ll cover (3) and (4), and show how those very same “commandments” contradict each other.


 

Actions speak louder?

Believe it or not, for all their apparent variety, most management advice books subscribe to the same set of underlying propositions and assumptions. (Spoiler alert: they probably won’t come as any surprise to you).

But before I list them, recall again why I started reading management advice books in the first place: I’d just been promoted to manager, and was looking for some guidance in coping with all my new responsibilities. You see, even back then I realized that good intentions probably weren’t going to be enough – in other words, that my simply wanting to be a “good manager” wouldn’t necessarily make me a good manager. As far as I could tell, plenty of terrible managers seemed to be trying desperately hard to be good at it, while some of the better ones I’d encountered didn’t appear to be trying at all.

I also realized that I wanted advice that I could immediately put into practice. That is, I sought actions I could take, behaviors that I could imitate, or things I could otherwise do – and that a “bad” manager would not. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it turns out that I was looking for advice that organizational theorist Chris Argyris refers to as “actionable.” In his words:

“For advice to be helpful, it must specify the intended outcomes or objectives to be produced, the sequence of actions required to produce them, the actions required to test for any errors or mismatches, and the actions required to correct such errors and mismatches.”[2]

This is a bit wordy for me, so let me re-phrase: Actionable advice, quite simply, are things that one might do, or behaviors one might otherwise engage in or imitate. For example, pretty much every management-advice book I’ve ever read insists that it is important for a manager to “make decisions.” This would qualify as actionable advice because relative to “not making decisions” doing so requires initiative or action to be taken on the part of the manager/person attempting to implement it. On the other hand, making good decisions would not qualify as actionable because it is virtually indistinguishable—in terms of the action itself—from making decisions, or making bad decisions.

This may seem obvious, or perhaps an unnecessarily specific, but in the world of management advice it’s actually a pretty important distinction to make. That’s because it allows us to rule out much of what passes for management “wisdom” these days – particularly advice or strategies which rely heavily on jargon, or are largely subjective.

For instance, that a manager must “create a culture of trust” in order to be effective is another pearl of wisdom that many management advice books claim is important to good management.[3] And it’s certainly hard to argue with this assertion. A manager who isn’t trusted by his or her subordinates is not likely to be especially good at managing, to be sure. Nevertheless, “creating a culture of trust” does not qualify as actionable advice because simply telling a manager to create anything, much less something as complex as a “culture,” is a far cry from describing how to go about doing it. Without “the sequence of actions required,” “the actions required to test for any errors,” and “the actions required to correct such errors”—as Argyris contends—this sort of advice is simply just not all that useful.

 

Manage anywhere and everywhere

Just as important to me was identifying principles or advice that I might be able to use no matter where I worked, or what type of company I was employed by. The way I saw it, if I was going to take the trouble to figure out how to be a good manager, I wanted whatever I learned to be something I could take with me wherever I went. What I was really looking for were the “universal principles” of good management – or those concepts that might be of use to all managers, regardless of where they worked, or who they managed.

To be sure, I figured the best way to do this was to read as many books as I could, and by as many different authors as possible. In the end, I analyzed around 60 of these texts (and counting) which, quite frankly, is more than I’d wish on anyone. This included some of the best-selling books management books of all time (such as In Search of Excellence and Good to Great), and many more penned by actual, practicing managers employed a variety of industries, (for example, Lee Iacocca of the Chrysler Corporation, Howard Schulz of Starbucks, and Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics). Admittedly, however, this is still only a tiny fraction of the available books published on the topic.[4] And yet I’ve been encouraged by the fact that so far, the examination of additional texts has not yielded any new concepts or themes.

Those “concepts and themes” that I did identify seemed to be best expressed as a list of responsibilities or duties for a manager to follow – and which I’ll describe now. These are things that most any manager would seem to need to be able to do, and do well, in order to succeed. And while each responsibility might not have been specifically articulated in each and every book I read, most could be inferred from context. In that, every text I examined was clearly informed by all ten responsibilities.

And so, without further ado, I offer for your consideration (in no particular order):

The “Ten Commandments” of good management

1. To make decisions

As mentioned previously, every management-advice book I’ve ever read seems to agree that “making decisions” is absolutely critical to managing well. For instance, in Managing (2009), organizational theorist Henry Mintzberg sums up this widely-held sentiment as follows: “If managing is about getting things done, then managers have to be decisive…”[5] Indeed, so critical is this one responsibility perceived to be that many consider it preferable for a manager to make a bad or ill-informed decision, as opposed to making no decision at all.

2. To delegate

The ability to delegate tasks effectively is also considered critical to good management. Again, Mintzberg’s opinion is perhaps representative of the broader management-advice literature. One of the absolute best ways for a manager to “get something done,” he writes, is by “delegating,” which means “the manager assigns a task to someone else.”[6]

3. To hire and fire

That hiring and firing is considered especially critical to good management probably doesn’t come as a surprise. According to Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit (2004), “few managerial decisions are as important as hiring”,[7] an opinion that is all but universally shared. No less important, in the minds of many, is terminating the employment contract of unmotivated or otherwise poor-performing individuals. When “no amount of coaching, extra training, feedback or haranguing can get an employee’s performance up to an acceptable level”, these same authors write, dismissal may be the only “feasible course of action,” though it may also be “one of the most difficult and painful tasks in any manager’s life.”[8]

4. To monitor and evaluate

Monitoring and evaluating employees is also considered essential to the management function. As Bob Nelson and Peter Economy explain in The Management Bible (2005): “An organization’s overall performance depends on each individual who works within it, so monitoring employee performance is a critical skill for every manager,”[9] an opinion that is perhaps representative. As a consequence, one of the challenges managers face is devising both meaningful and objective criteria with which to do so, and that correlates positively with the organization’s overall performance.

5. To motivate

According to the management advice literature, persuading employees to perform at or near their potential is an absolutely essential skill for a manager to possess. This may mean getting employees excited about doing their jobs, or otherwise generating enthusiasm for the work.[10] As the authors of The Management Bible bluntly put it: “Motivating employees is what it’s all about…”[11]

6. To instruct/train/provide expertise

Taking responsibility for training one’s subordinates is also seen as singularly critical to good management. As the authors of The First-Time Manager (2003) contend, “even the most experienced person coming into a new situation needs some basic training”[12] and that, they add, is “your responsibility” as a manager.[13] Some would furthermore argue that an individual should not be considered for promotion until he or she has mastered all of the skills, capacities, and techniques required of those they will manage so as to be able to better handle this responsibility. However, as jobs in the modern age become ever more technical and/or specialized, and this expectation becomes increasingly unrealistic, a manager need not be held to such a high standard. Instead, he or she might simply provide access to such training offered by an appropriately qualified surrogate.[14]

7. To mentor

Although similar in some respects to instructing or providing expertise, a manager’s responsibility to serve as mentor deserves special distinction. Mentoring, according to most management advice books, has more to do with developing an employee for his or her own sake—as opposed to the organization’s—with the business benefiting indirectly as a result. Indeed, the authors of The First-Time Manager are not alone in conceiving of the “manager as a mentor,” and as the appropriate response to the understandable desire on the part of an employee to “grow professionally.”[15]

8. To communicate

The ability to communicate is perhaps singularly important to the management function. In order to delegate, motivate, or execute any of the other commandments/responsibilities on this list, a manager must necessarily be able to communicate, and communicate effectively. This is a skill/trait the authors of Manager 3.0 (2013) can’t seem to emphasize enough. “Communicate, communicate, communicate,” they insist,[16] adding “never underestimate the power of direct and sincere communication.”[17]

9. To lead/set goals/provide vision

The importance of leading is again almost universally espoused by the mainstream management advice literature. According to management guru Peter Drucker, “the task,” quite simply, “is to lead people.”[18] And one of the ways to do this seems to be by setting meaningful and achievable organizational goals, the development of which, Drucker maintains, “is part of a manager’s responsibility; indeed, it is his [sic] first responsibility”.[19] The authors of Manager 3.0 agree; they encourage readers to consider their “leadership legacy” and to strive to be “a leader whom people want to follow [author’s emphasis].”[20]

10. To ensure organizational success

In the end, managers are responsible for ensuring the success of whatever organizational division or subsection with which they have been charged – a fact that perhaps goes without saying. As Peter Drucker once put it, “…the manager is duty bound to preserve the performance capacity of the institution in his care,” further insisting “To jeopardize it, no matter how noble the motive, is irresponsibility.”[21] Indeed, so important is this one responsibility thought to be that a manager who seems ill-equipped for the position, or otherwise incompetent in some way, may nevertheless be retained based solely on the successes (actual or perceived) that he or she has achieved for the organization.

 

And the “Golden Rule”?

Finally, if these responsibilities may be likened to the “Ten Commandments” of good management, then management’s “Golden Rule” could be considered:

To solve problems

It is perhaps obvious that a manager acting on any one of these commandments/responsibilities typically does so in response to a particular organizational problem, dilemma, or impasse. An underperforming employee, for instance, might prompt a manager to attempt to better motivate (#5) or more closely monitor him or her (#4), if not think about replacing that person (#3). Tackling a new project may involve setting new goals for the team (#9), delegating certain tasks to specific individuals (#2), all the while ensuring everything is accomplished within the allotted time frame and budget (#10). And so on. Thus the day-to-day activity of a manager might therefore be accurately reduced to the singular task of problem solving – and it is in part due to their presumptive authority to make decisions (#1) that places problem-solving responsibility squarely on a manager’s shoulders.

So that’s it. Not surprised by any of this? You shouldn’t be; there’s plenty of precedent for these principles, themes, commandments, or whatever you want to call them – some dating back almost a century.[22]

And are these the things—or the actions—that you, as a manager, should be doing or engaging in on a regular, or even daily basis?

Absolutely.

Unfortunately, however, being a “good” manager is not quite so easy as all that. Simple checking off the ten duties on this list is hardly the recipe for good management that you might hope it to be. And that’s because these “Ten Commandments” suffer a serious, if not entirely obvious flaw.

They contradict each other.

Next week: Throw out that management advice book (Part 3): The paradoxes

 


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.


 

References

Argyris, Chris. 2000. Flawed Advice and the Management Trap. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barlett, Christopher (subject advisor). 2004. Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Belker, Loren B., Jim McCormick, and Gary S. Topchik. 1981. The First-Time Manager (6th edition). New York: AMACON.

Berkun, Scott. 2013. The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss.

Drucker, Peter. 2001. The Essential Drucker. New York: Collins Business (2005 edition).

George, Bill, with Peter Sims. 2007. True North. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss.

Hill, Linda. 2003. Becoming a Manager. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Karsh, Brad, and Courtney Templin. 2013. Manager 3.0: A Millennial’s Guide to Rewriting the Rules of Management. New York: AMACON.

Lafley, A.G., and Roger L. Martin. 2013. Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Mintzberg, Henry. 2009. Managing. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (2011 edition).

Nelson, Bob, and Peter Economy. 2005. The Management Bible. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Endnotes

[1] Lafley, A.G., Playing To Win, p. 12-14.

[2] Argyris, Chris, Flawed Advice and the Management Trap, p. 9.

[3] For example, see: Berkun, Scott, The Year Without Pants, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss, 2013).

[4] As noted in a previous post (see post #1 – What is good management?), there may be as few as 10,000 or as many as 80,000 books on managing currently in circulation.

[5] Mintzberg, Henry. Managing, p. 187.

[6] Ibid., p. 60.

[7] Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit, p. 18.

[8] Ibid., p. 140.

[9] Nelson, Bob and Peter Economy, The Management Bible, p. 145.

[10] For example, see: Sirota, David, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer. The Enthusiastic Employee, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing, 2005).

[11] Nelson and Economy, op. cit., p. 61.

[12] Belker, Loren, Jim McCormick, and Gary S. Topchik. The First-Time Manager, p. 67.

[13] Ibid., p. 66.

[14] Hill, Linda, Becoming a Manager, p. 132.

[15] Belker, McCormick, and Topchik, op. cit., p. 133.

[16] Karsh, Brad, and Courtney Templin, Manager 3.0, p. 75.

[17] Ibid., p. 78.

[18] Drucker, op. cit., p. 81.

[19] Ibid., p. 118.

[20] Karsh and Templin, op. cit., p. 70.

[21] Drucker, op. cit., p. 59.

[22] In 1937, management theorist Luther Gulick summarized the totality of the management function as planning, organizing, structuring, directing, coordinating, reporting, and budgeting – a set of responsibilities for which he coined the somewhat awkward acronym “POSDCORB.” Source: Gulick, Luther, and Lyndall Urwick, eds., Papers on the Science of Administration (New York: Institute of Public Administration, 1937), p. 3-13. As reprinted in Classics of Organization Theory (5th Ed.), Jay M. Shafritz and J. Steven Ott, eds., (Philadelphia, PA: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001), p. 79-87.