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Improving Your Practice of Management

Recently, we looked at evidence that there is a dearth of applied management skill — in part because of vast chasms between education and actual practice – unlike professions like medicine, law and accounting. Yet, while most management education fails to develop them, there are empirically identified practices that lead to effective management.

Knowing about these practices doesn’t hurt, but merely knowing about them doesn’t help. In the practice of management, managers must learn how to use them to be effective.

For well over half a century, management theory has asserted that managers operate in four major activities: planning, organizing, leading and controlling (or monitoring). This fairly describes the domain of management work, but it doesn’t provide any guidance on how to be an effective general manager.

Peter Drucker1 asserts eight guidelines for effective management, clearly a more actionable list of what and how managers should think:

  1. Ask what needs to be done

  2. Ask what’s right for the enterprise

  3. Develop action plans

  4. Take responsibility for decisions

  5. Take responsibility for communicating

  6. Focus on opportunities, not problems

  7. Run productive meetings

  8. Think and say “we,” not “I.”

The profile of an “ideal” management practitioner is more fully captured by the managerial mindset, which all general managers should seek. Embedded in Drucker’s guidelines is much of the mindset we develop at LeaderPoint — the template for what general managers should know how to do, what they should value, and the beliefs they must bring to the role of being in charge. Reading Drucker’s guidelines is helpful, but contemplating the managerial mindset may better serve managers willing to learn and reflect on their own development.
  • What effective managers must know how to do…
    While managers often tend to have a bias towards action and solving problems, effective general managers look for opportunity and are able to develop plans to seize it. There is a lot of literature on change management, but general management is always operating in an environment of change. The inclination and ability to identify new opportunities for a department, business unit or company must be ongoing.

    Planning alone is not sufficient; managers also must know how to bring people together to implement the plans — using common ends, clear communication channels, and when necessary, leadership. They must also know how to look into work contexts to identify and remove any barriers that prevent progress towards the required outcomes.

    Finally, great managers can envision the successful future to be brought about through people’s efforts, and then articulate that vision to help people see purpose in the work — even when necessary changes to plans cause frustration or temporarily impair their effectiveness.

  • What effective managers must value…
    Just like groups of doctors or lawyers tend to have very common value sets — things they place importance on when doing their craft — great leaders share a unique set of values in the practice of management.

    They value achievement of the common end over personal success. This may seem to be a contradiction, because often people who move up in management tend to be personally ambitious. Yet, effective managers set clear targets that are driven by some common end, creating a meaningful purpose for those who must do the work. Whether specific to a project, department or business unit, this commonality of purpose is more important than the manager’s career.

    They value performance over popularity. This means that in order to engender performance necessary to get required results, effective managers will sacrifice their own popularity if necessary. If the manager is overly concerned with being liked, it will undermine people’s ability to focus on what must be done, disrupting their efforts. Managers must place utmost importance on results and achieving them.

    They value integrity over being right. Business environments change constantly, and decisions are fraught with uncertainty. Thus, managers make imperfect plans, and they often make decisions that later information shows to be faulty. Effective managers do not insist on being right, but instead admit their errors, and then make necessary changes to plans and direction when situations require it.

    Finally, they value trust over control. Essentially, the general manager creates leverage through the ability to work through others, but placing too much importance on being in control (a sensible value for both doctors and lawyers) will always undermine efforts to develop the human capacity needed to grow results. Instead of seeking to control everything directly, effective managers build a management system that establishes clear accountability, while providing critical feedback to those responsible for getting results.

  • What effective managers must believe…
    In order to work through the efforts of others — and to trust management systems that allow people to grow and develop — managers must believe that important outcomes can actually be assigned to other people (as opposed to dealing out lists of small tasks). Only then can others truly take responsibility for accomplishing those significant outcomes.

    Managers must further believe that people are many times more effective when they commit to an effort through free-will choice, rather than being coerced. Finally, they believe that people can and will cooperate when they have a shared purpose.

Exceptional managers develop and apply this complete mindset — the set of knowledge, values and beliefs — when they are in charge. Any lack of management skill (e.g., planning), misplaced belief or inappropriate value can compromise results.

Sadly, this mindset cannot be taught or trained through typical education or academic study, partly because more than half of the mindset is affective – dealing with attitudes and emotions — not cognitive. The mindset must be acquired through experience, which takes time and reflection.

Improve through Practice
Using the managerial mindset presented here as a guide, regularly reflect on your practice of management in each of the three areas. Look for specific actions, and reflect on what you did, how you did it and why you did it. Get some feedback from the people you interacted with. Don’t ask how you did, but ask how it went for them. Talk to other managers about what you did. Take notes. Plan for what you will do differently next time. Yes, there will be a next time!

1Peter Drucker, “What makes an effective executive,” HBR’s 10 Best Reads on Leadership (2011)

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