Thinking like a manager

Today's obsession with leadership has taken the focus off the critical importance of good management.

Everyone wants to be a great leader, but nobody aspires to be a good manager anymore, says Jonathan Gosling and co-author Henry Mintzberg in November's Harvard Business Review. But leadership without the foundation of good management can be destructive, says Gosling, director of the Centre for Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter in England. He talked with Kathleen Melymuka about what it means to think like a manager.

Q: Why is thinking like a manager so important?

IT managers will appreciate that a lot of work goes into maintaining an IT network that nobody knows about till there's a big systems change. But maintaining the continuity of activity is seen as second-rate, where blitzing with change is heroic. It's kind of a miracle, really, that people come to work and do so much productive stuff together. And it has to do not only with being led; it's about careful attention to keeping an organization together.

Q: You offer five "mind-sets" to get managers on the right road. What do you mean by a mind-set?

Habitual turns of mind. Some people, for example, tend to be habitually reflective. Whatever's going on, they will ponder, and you see that they're making connections in their internal world. Others are much more action-oriented. They just want to get on and do it. We think it's very important that people find different mind-sets in themselves. We're trying to help the reflective person to find in herself the pleasure of action and practice it and get at home with it.

The first mind-set is reflective. How would a reflective mind-set help an IT manager do his job better? In relation to working with salespeople, for example. The salespeople just keep banging their fists, and you, as an IT manager, keep saying, "Let's be realistic about it. This will take time." The reflective mind-set will think, "How am I responding? How do I appear to them? I wonder how I can communicate more effectively with them so they can see things from my position?"

Or during a change process, it's often helpful to think, "Have I been through this before in some other situation? What can I learn from history?" It also has to do with the process of setting strategy and vision, and increasingly IT managers are involved in strategy. Here it asks, "What does this company really stand for? What should we be doing? What values are important to us? What are our capabilities? What would we have to do to get there?"

Next is the analytical mind-set, but you want managers to get beyond traditional analysis. Can you explain why and how? Analysis is a hugely powerful process for taking a complex situation and breaking down the constituent parts. But taken to extremes it becomes a pleasure all its own. You can analyze every bit of work and put a cost to it and forget that the whole point is to serve customers.

Analysis is like the left hand in a piano piece: You also need to be collaborating with the overall business mission. And some problems are about making choices between paths of action with uncertain outcomes. The kind of analysis there is rather different. For example, should we relocate IT services to Bangalore? It's relatively straightforward to look at cost but much more complex to evaluate long-term strategic implications like company identity and employment issues.

Q: You want managers to have a worldly mind-set rather than a global one. What's the difference?

Broadly speaking, we're interpreting "global" as seeing the globe as a unity converging toward more and more common ways of doing things, looking at different parts of the world as extensions of a single marketplace and seeing each exchange relationships as part of that global marketplace. If you're actually put in charge of a joint-venture operation in Korea, however, you will find the world looks quite different from there. The market looks different; people behave differently; the reason they're in the joint venture may be different from your reason. You see that the world is made up of a host of different interest groups and value systems.

A manager has to give people a sense that they belong to the community they know but [that] what they belong to is meaningfully connected to this bigger system of things. That's worldliness.

Q: In the collaborative mind-set, you say you move from managing people to managing relationships. What's the difference, and why is it important?

If you talk about managing people, it's as if the manager sits outside the set of relationships and as if people were not willful characters of their own. It's a very depersonalizing experience to be managed in this way. It's much more rewarding to say, "How do we together make this place work?" Really what they're doing is trying to finesse the ways in which people relate so that out of that relationship comes productive work.

Q: You say that the action mind-set can benefit from a little humility. What do you mean?

Often there's the notion that I, as the boss, made this place change. But as another member of the staff, I imagine you made quite a lot of changes yourself. So let's be clear about exactly what it is that allows productive change to happen. It almost always requires a combination of all the mind-sets we've discussed, but it's not all about the great chess player sitting on high moving pieces around.

Q: This is a lot to juggle. How do I put it all together?

When you think about your own job, you probably already exercise all those mind-sets in part. If you really like that little bit of time in the morning in the car reflecting and getting ready for the day, then maybe if you take a five-minute walk in the middle of the day, that might help too. What about analysis? Maybe your IT department works fine together but not so when it comes to working with outsourcers and vendors. How can we improve those relationships? And it goes on from there.

Two takes on management

Jonathan Gosling says the old ideal of the "heroic" manager has to give way to the "engaging" manager. Here's the difference:

Heroic

  • Separated from those who develop products and deliver services; a VIP.
  • Hierarchical; the higher he gets, the more important he becomes.
  • Imposes strategy from on high.
  • Embraces change while others resist it.
  • Allocates resources, including human resources, based on facts from reports.
  • Rewards leaders based on performance; what matters is what can be measured.
  • Thrusts his will on others.

Engaging

  • Integrated; finds value in helping others get work done.
  • Networked; works from within, not from above.
  • Helps strategies emerge from the network of problem-solvers.
  • Nurtures change from inside the network.
  • Inspires people to engage their positive energy based on judgments rooted in context.
  • Rewards everyone who improves the organization; human values matter.
  • Earns the respect of others.

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