In a recent post, I argued that management advice books—like Good to GreatIn Search of Excellence, or Who Moved My Cheese?—aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

Why?

Because they’re just too full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradoxes to be of much use to anyone.[1]

This week, I’m going dismiss what passes for “conventional management wisdom” these days. Those clichéd or otherwise stereotypical characterizations of what we think managers need to do, or how they should behave.

And I’m going to do so using precisely the same argument.

For every pearl of wisdom that you’ve read, heard, or otherwise come to believe about being a “good manager,” I’ll offer an example of a successful CEO or businessperson who has acted or behaved in precisely the opposite way…and done so without any apparent cost to his or her company, or career.

In fact, in some cases it may have actually contributed to their success.

 

Conventional management wisdom…rebutted

So let’s get right to it.

If you’ve ever managed before—and even if you haven’t—you probably think that in order to be successful, you must have a clear vision or winning strategy for your team, department, or whatever part of the company you’ve been charged with managing.

This idea is all but considered management dogma by many, in part because of such now famous “vision statements” as Microsoft’s (“A computer on every desk and in every home”), Nike’s (“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world; *If you have a body, you are an athlete.”), and The Walt Disney Company’s (“To make people happy”).[2] And such clear declarations of purpose certainly seem to have served these corporations well.

However:

  • According to David Packard, he and Bill Hewlett had no such vision for their company when they first started out. In The HP Way (1995), Packard lists an electronic harmonica tuner and an “exerciser” designed to stimulate muscle development with electric pulses as being amongst HP’s first projects.[3] While their company did eventually focus on electronics, over the years their products nevertheless continued to vary wildly, ranging from audio oscillators, microwave signal generators, and oscilloscopes, to calculators, computers, and printers.
  • Consider too the 3M Company. Not only was their original vision flawed, the company actually came into being as the result of a series of mistakes. According to company lore, the founders’ original intent was to sell a valuable mineral called corundum, which they thought they were mining. In fact, it was something called anthrosite (a mistake they realized only after selling some of it). They then tried to make sandpaper from this material (while keeping their error a secret), but those efforts were also unsuccessful. And the sandpaper they did eventually make (using garnet) at first kept falling apart.[4]

 

Conventional management wisdom also has it that in order to be successful, a CEO or manager must necessarily be charismatic, and perhaps even a bit controlling. That in order to get the absolutely very best out of people (or better yet, push them to their productive limits) you have to be incredibly focused – and maybe even possess a personality that’s a bit larger than life. This stereotype has been reinforced over the years by such outsized CEO personalities as Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Apple’s Steve Jobs, to name but a few.

However:

  • Automattic[5] CEO Matt Mullenweg would hardly seem to fit this description – or at least not according to author and former WordPress employee, Scott Berkun. In The Year Without Pants (2013), Berkin writes that Mullenweg “doesn’t fit the CEO/founder profile of wanting to be at the center of attention at all times.”[6] Mullenweg, he furthermore observes, “often speaks softly and with a smile,” and that “there’s a hint of shyness to him.”[7]
  • Consider too the former president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, Douglas Conant, who wasn’t particularly outspoken or charismatic by his own admission. “I enjoy being by myself,” Conant once confessed.[8] “I oftentimes prefer to listen to people than to speak and I find it very difficult to pretend that I’m naturally out-going when I’m not.”

 

You’ve probably also come to believe that in order to achieve even moderate success in anything—much less in business—you must necessarily possess a certain degree of confidence and/or self-assurance.

And this is for good reason. Pop culture is rife with examples of athletes, entertainers, and the like who do not lack for self-esteem, regardless of whether they are outwardly gregarious (like LeBron James), or are perhaps more quietly confident (like Tiger Woods). The same seems to be true in the business world. For instance, former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz did not suffer from a lack of self-assurance it seems.[9] But nor does Bill Gates, the more reserved former CEO of Microsoft.[10]

However:

  • Not all top level competitors are so confident. Consider legendary Formula One race car driver Jackie Stewart, who once confessed in an interview:

“I had no idea I was gonna [sic] turn out to be as successful as I turned out to be. I mean just in victories, and money, or anything you want. I never thought that I could ever have reached that level, and I never thought that I could keep it at that level. And I always thought that other people were cleverer, better, or more skilled than me to do the job.”[11]

  • And then there is Bill Gates’ own former partner, Paul Allen. Even though Allen himself feels that the mark of a great innovator includes “an aura of confidence,”[12] his memoir reveals something of a less-than-confident side to him. Indeed, his primary thought while demonstrating an early version of Microsoft Basic was: “There is just no way this is going to work.”[13]

 

It is also understood that in order to be a successful manager, executive, or CEO, you must, must, must be willing to work hard, and put in long hours – as well as motivate others to do the same.

Again, popular management culture abounds with examples of managers and other businesspeople who maintain, and advocate for, exhaustive work schedules. For example, in her book The Mary Kay Way (2008), Mary Kay Ash (of Mary Kay Cosmetics) recounts her decision to start getting up at 5 am every morning in order to squeeze more hours into her workday. This habit, she proudly notes, was adopted many of her top sales directors, who then began referring to themselves as the “Mary Kay Five O’clock Club.”[14]

However:

  • Entrepreneur and self-made millionaire Tim Ferriss would hardly seem to be cut from similar cloth – or at least not if the title of his best-selling advice book, The 4-Hour Work Week (2007), is to be interpreted literally..
  • Nor was Andrew Carnegie much of a workaholic, it seems. According to a recent biography of the 19th Century industrialist, by the age of 32 Carnegie was able to leave the day-to-day affairs of his various enterprises to be managed by others, and instead spent considerable time travelling.[15] In his autobiography, Carnegie furthermore recalls the moment he first realized that he needn’t work hard to get rich:

“It [a dividend check from an early investment] gave me the first penny of revenue from capital—something that I had not worked for with the sweat of my brow. ‘Eureka!” I cried. ‘Here’s the goose that lays the golden eggs.’[16]

 

If you don’t need to put in long hours to be successful, conventional management wisdom would still have you believe that mangers must push themselves and their employees with aggressive goals based on some reliable metric.

This idea—that setting hard numeric targets is critical to success—is an oft-repeated management mantra, and has been championed by everyone from Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of the “scientific management” movement of the late 19th century,[17] to the purveyors of Six Sigma programs today.[18]

However:

  • Ray Kroc, the former CEO and founder of McDonald’s hardly seems to have been driven by the numbers. In Grinding It Out (1977), he claims that as a salesman “I didn’t bother with sales goals… I didn’t need any artificial incentives to keep me working at top speed.”[19]
  • And then there is Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the management consultant to whom some measure of credit has been given for Japan’s industrial turnaround in the 1970s and 80s. In Out of the Crisis (1982), he writes that “the most important figures needed for management of any organization are unknown and unknowable”[20] – a statement all the more remarkable considering Deming was a professional statistician.

 

Surely, you’re probably thinking, there are no such exceptions when it comes to deadlines, or those all-important budgets that managers are charged with enforcing…

  • Well, according to Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, “Apple design projects have no formal start and no predetermined finish.” He then goes on to say, “it’s so very hard to measure [what designers do]. We can be working on something for a long time and still not know quite how its going to work out.”[21]
  • And in Good Profit (2015), businessman Charles Koch (of Koch Industries) argues that “In general at Koch, we have found budgets to be ineffective as a management tool. In fact, they become absolutely counterproductive when they are allowed to create perverse incentives, such as basing bonuses on meeting a budget…”[22]

 

Still, if there’s any one management principle that would seem to be unassailable, it’s this notion that managers must get their employees to come together and work as a team. As Jack Welch repeatedly emphasizes in his best-selling management memoir Winning (2005), “the team with the best players wins.”[23] And self-described team development expert Peter Lencioni insists that good teamwork “remains the ultimate competitive advantage.”[24]

  • However, Ricardo Semler, majority owner of the Brazilian company Semco Partners,[25] would appear to feel differently. “Employees,” he writes, “must be reassured that self-interest is their foremost priority, one they must take care not to replace with company or other interests.” And when it comes to employees getting along with each other, Semler has this to say: “You don’t have to like people to work with them.”[26]

 

Finally, what of a manager’s capacity to lead – the importance of which is all but unquestioned by the global business community. In Becoming a Leader (1989), for example, leadership expert Warren Bennis insists that what most companies need are “leaders, not managers.”[27] He then goes on to praise such CEOs as John Sculley (formerly of PepsiCo and Apple)[28] and James Burke (formerly of Johnson&Johnson) for having strong leadership skills.

However,

  • Nucor’s[29] CEO Ken Iverson would hardly seem to fit what most people conceive of when it comes to strong leadership. In Plain Talk (1998), Iverson writes how all the important decisions at his company were made at the division level during his tenure, and not by him. “Management,” he says, “listens.”[30]
  • Consider too that Bennis himself can be found praising Iverson’s deferential approach, despite the obvious contradiction. Indeed, in the forward to Iverson’s book, Bennis writes: “Over 35 years, Ken never practiced (nor tolerated) a command-and-control style,” and that like Iverson, “good leaders must also be good followers.”[31]
  • And Vineet Nayar seems not to have been terribly interested in taking charge either. While CEO of HCL Technologies,[32] he set up a system in which any employee, at any level, might weigh in on executive matters. In Employees First, Customers Second (2010) Nayar points out that “much more knowledge existed outside my office than within it”[33] and that managers “must avoid the urge to answer every question or provide a solution to every problem.”[34]

 

So what is “good management”?

And so there you have it.

Virtually everything you’ve probably come to believe about what managers need to do, or how they should behave, is not carved in stone after all. Being lazy, or introverted, or having no real vision—or lacking the capacity to lead—is not the kiss of death that you might think it to be for a manager or CEO.

So what now?

Well, fear not. In the next post in this series, I’ll start sorting this all out. I’ll explain why all of this contradiction and paradox—both in what you’ve come to believe about managing, and in what you have perhaps read—is not the dead-end it appears to be. Instead, it’s actually an important step towards understanding what good management really is.

Being a manager, I’ll argue next, is not about knowing what to do, as most people assume.

It’s about knowing when to do it.

 

Next in the seriesIt’s not what you do. It’s when you do it…

 

Endnotes

[1] For more on how I came to this conclusion, please see my post “Why you can throw out that management advice book (Parts 2 & 3).”

[2] http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/06/microsoft-has-a-new-mission-statement-and-its-basically-the-same-as-its-old-one/; http://retailindustry.about.com/od/retailbestpractices/ig/Company-Mission-Statements/Nike-Company-Mission-Statement.htm; http://www.fastcompany.com/1821021/defining-your-companys-vision, respectively. Retrieved March 23, 2016.

[3] Packard, David. 1995. The HP Way. New York: HarperBusiness, p. 39.

[4] “3M at 100 – on the right path for growth? Minnesota Public Radio, Andrew Haeg reporting. Aired June 10, 2002; http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/200206/03_haega_3Mhistory/. Retrieved Feb 23, 2016.

[5] Automattic is the company behind the open-source blogging software WordPress. The company employs 430 people and is currently valued at $1.16 billion. (http://recode.net/2014/05/05/wordpress-parent-automattic-has-raised-160-million-now-valued-at-1-16-billion-post-money/. Retrieved March 23, 2016.)

[6] Berkun, Scott. 2013. The Year Without Pants. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss, 2013, p. 140.

[7] Ibid., p. 140&141.

[8] Conant, Douglas. “Are You an Introverted Boss?” Harvard Business Review (online version), April 4, 2011. https://hbr.org/2011/04/are-you-an-introverted-boss/. Retrieved October 1, 2015.

[9] Lutz’s 2003 book on management and leadership is titled Guts: 8 Laws of Business from One of the Most Innovative Business Leaders of Our Time, and includes claims such as the following: “This book is full of contradictions because Bob Lutz has never been hobbled by a slavish concern with consistency.”

[10] From YouTube: “Q and A with Bill Gates on self-confidence and succeeding in an extroverted world.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S9A1RcEN5w. Retrieved Feb. 23, 2016.

[11] From Roman Polanski’s documentary “Weekend of a Champion” (2013), bonus material, 125:52.

[12] Allen, Paul. 2011. Idea Man. London, England: Portfolio/Penguin, p. 222.

[13] Ibid., p. 81.

[14] Ash, Mary Kay. 2008. The Mary Kay Way. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. 64.

[15] See Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw, 2006, (New York: Penguin Books).

[16] Carnegie, Andrew. 1920. The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie and the Gospel of Wealth (John Charles Van Dyke, ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 43. (Page numbers refers to Digireads.com edition, published 2009)

[17] Taylor, Frederick Winslow. 1919. The Principles of Scientific Management. (Cosimo Classics edition published 2006, New York).

[18] Pande, Peter S. Robert Neuman, and Roland Cavanagh. 2000. The Six Sigma Way: How GE Motorola, and Other Top Companies Are Honing Their Perspective. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[19] Kroc, Ray. 1977. Grinding It Out, p. 64. (Page number refers to St. Martin’s Press edition, NY, 1987.)

[20] Deming, W. Edwards. 1982. Out of the Crisis. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, p. 20.

[21] Tyrangiel, Josh, “Touch me harder: The grinding work behind a single iPhone feature,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Sept. 14-20, 2015, p. 47.

[22] Koch, Charles. 2015. Good Profit. New York: Crown Business, p. 164.

[23] Welch, Jack, with Suzy Welch. 2005. Winning. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., p. 7.

[24] Lencioni, Patrick. 2002. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco: Jossey-Boss, p. vii.

[25] Semco Partners is a privately controlled Brazilian company which, under Semler’s leadership, grew in revenue from $4 million (US) in 1984, to $212 million in 2003. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ricardo_Semler. Retrieved Feb. 24, 2016.)

[26] Semler, Ricardo. 2003. The Seven-Day Weekend. London: Random House, p. 39.

[27] Bennis, Warren. 1989. On Becoming a Leader. New York: Basic Books.

[28] In Bennis’ defense, his book was published prior to Sculley being fired by Apple (but nevertheless after Sculley fired Steve Jobs). For more perspective on why was fired by his own company, check out my post “What’s the deal with Steve Jobs?”

[29] Nucor is the largest producer of steel in the US, and the largest recycler of any material in North America. In 2015, the company reported $16.4 billion US in revenue. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nucor and http://www.nucor.com/investor/news/?rid=2133153. Retrieved March 23, 2016.)

[30] Iverson, Ken. 1998. Plain Talk, New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., p. 36.

[31] Bennis, Warren. From the foreword to Plain Talk by Ken Inverson. 1998. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. viii.

[32] HCL Technologies is a multinational IT services company headquartered in India. In 2015, the company reported $6.1 billion (US) in revenue. (http://www.hcltech.com/investors/fast-facts. Retrieved March 23, 2016.)

[33] Nayar, Vineet. 2010. Employees First, Customers Second. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 146.

[34] Ibid., p. 13.