By Henry Mintzberg
306 pages, $34.95
'Nothing is more dangerous in an organization than a manager with little to do."
That aphorism comes from a guy who admires managers - indeed, usually rhapsodizes about how important they are, refuses to join the bandwagon extolling the term "leadership" over the allegedly more mundane word "manager," and has spent more than four decades shadowing managers and pondering their vital role.
But McGill University Professor Henry Mintzberg, who was named to 16th spot a few years ago on a list of the top 200 business gurus, is by nature puckish, a provocateur, who delights in thinking contrary thoughts and prodding others to reconsider their established views. So his latest book, Managing, is not only a celebration of the prosaic but important task of management, but also often a barrage of juicy thoughts.
Prof. Mintzberg says the more we obsess these days about leadership, the less of it we seem to get. Moreover, that focus has meant we are now, in his words, "overled and undermanaged," as individuals in senior positions - the leaders we celebrate - try to manage by remote control, disconnected from everything except the so-called big picture.
We therefore have to stop putting leadership on a pedestal above management as the ultimate approach executives must strive for. Both management and leadership are important, although he puts management ahead. Together, he suggests they should be combined into something called "communityship," in which managers work with others around them to improve the organization rather than bullying from above.
It is common for consultants these days to contend "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it." That has led managers to seek metrics to keep tabs on how their organization - and employees - are faring. But Prof. Mintzberg caustically dismisses that popular maxim: "Who has ever really measured the performance of management itself ... I guess that means that management cannot be managed. Indeed, who has ever even tried to measure the performance of measurement? Accept this adage, therefore, and you have to conclude that measurement cannot be managed, either. Apparently we have to get rid of both management and measurement - thanks to measurement."
President Harry Truman was famous for the plaque on his desk that read: "The buck stops here." And many leaders today parrot the same phrase. But Prof. Mintzberg insists too often it's the opposite. Managers pass the buck down, ordering others to deal with it, until the burden rests with the lowest level of supervisors, who must actually wrestle with the matter at hand. The buck stops there. Worse, he notes, thanks to delayering and downsizing, those supervisors these days are overworked and overpressured.
If you're looking for a perfect boss, Prof. Mintzberg suggests you get real. He notes that Superman was flawed too - remember kryptonite? "Successful managers are flawed - we are all flawed - but their particular flaws are not fatal," he notes.
He adds: "If you want to uncover someone's flaws, marry them or else work for them. Their flaws will quickly become apparent." But managers and marriages, he stresses, can succeed.
The book revolves around a day Prof. Mintzberg spent with each of 29 managers, following them around, repeating the "fly in the wall technique" of his 1960s PhD thesis. That initial research led to the pioneering book The Nature of Managerial Work, which first revealed in print what top managers actually do.
As with the first study, what came through most clearly from this round of observations is the unrelenting pace of managing, the brevity and variety of the activities, the fragmentation and discontinuity of the job, the orientation toward action, the favouring of informal and oral forms of communication over more formal mechanisms, the lateral nature of the job through constant contacts with colleagues and associates rather than subordinates, and the fact control is more covert than overt.
Management, you might say, is leadership on the run. Top managers are often thought to be reflective, systematic planners.
But Mintzberg says the reality is "to be superficial is an occupational hazard of managerial work, certainly compared with the specialized work most managers did before they went into this job. To succeed, managers have to become proficient in their superficiality." He also notes that managers do not leave meetings, their e-mail, or telephone conversations to get back to work. Those contacts are the work of managing.
The latest study led him to modify his original model of management, which was little more than a list of tasks. He now shows the manager at the centre of a maelstrom of activity - an important diagramming decision, countering our tendency to view managers at the top of a hierarchy in organizational charts.
A manager's activities occur in three areas: information, people and action. The day revolves around gathering and considering information, working with people, and, of course, taking action.
Managing is sprawling, complicated, contradictory stuff, and Prof. Mintzberg, to his credit, approaches it in that manner. If you're looking for quick, easy answers, don't look here. He has spent a decade ruminating over those 29 days he spent following managers, and delights in sharing his thoughts with those who like him admire managers and want some clues - but understand they will never get certainty - on how to do it better. This will be an important textbook in classrooms bringing together not only his own research and thoughts but also weaving in a century of writings by others. It will also reassure individual managers that what they do is important and not easy, and no doubt provoke some changes in their thinking.
In Addition: Canadian sustainability expert Bob Willard, who spent 34 years with IBM, offers a punchy, practical guide to leading change in your company in The Sustainability Champion's Guidebook (New Society Press, 129 pages, $19.95). He presents a seven-step model of change, seven practices that sustainability champions in companies must follow, seven paradoxes they will face, and seven "derailers" to avoid. As with his previous book, he harmoniously alternates one element of his message on each left-hand page with some background explanatory model or helpful diagram on the facing right-hand page. If you're interested in becoming a champion for sustainability in your company, this would offer useful guidance.
Just In: University of Newcastle Psychologist Daniel Nettle helps you in Personality (Oxford University Press, 298 pages, $17.95) to understand your own personality and that of others, looking at wanderers, worriers, controllers, empathizers, and poets.
In Why Iceland (McGraw-Hill, 230 pages, $28.95) Asgeir Jonsson, chief economist of Kaupthing Bank, explores how one of the world's smallest countries became the economic meltdown's biggest casualty.
Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of Chicken Soup For The Soul, and personal finance author Robert G. Allen combine non-fiction prescriptions for entrepreneurs to develop a millionaire mindset with a fable about women learning financial wisdom in Cash In A Flash: Fast Money In Slow Times (Harmony, 372 pages, $27.95).
In his book Managing, Henry Mintzberg explores 13 inescapable conundrums managers must grapple with. They include:
The syndrome of superficiality:
How to delve deeply on a matter when there is so much pressure to get it done?
The quandary of connecting:
How to keep informed - in contact, "in touch" - when managing by its own nature removes the manager from the very thing being managed?
The dilemma of delegation:
How to delegate to others when so much of the relevant information needed to handle the issue is personal, oral and often privileged information of the manager?
The enigma of order:
How to bring work to the order of others when the work of managing is itself so disorderly?
The clutch of confidence:
How to maintain a sufficient level of confidence without crossing over into arrogance?
The riddle of change:
How to manage change when there is a vital need to maintain continuity?
The ultimate conundrum:
How can any manager possibly cope with all of the other conundrums simultaneously?
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