Management matters. Above all, managers matter. If nothing else, when managers fail, things have a tendency to go wrong.
My first weekly column here was about the damning report into the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which said “overarching management failures” in the oil industry created the conditions for the fatal explosion and oil spill.
This one — the last of some 500 I’ve written since 2011 — coincides with a probe into the needless deaths of babies at a UK hospital trust. Factors included a dysfunctional “culture of ‘them and us’,” staffing and training gaps, and a lack of psychological safety. All could have been corrected by better line management and governance.
Bad management leads, at best, to unnecessary misery for staff, and at worst, as these two extreme cases suggest, to disaster and death.
Yet if managers are in the public eye at all, they tend to be the focus of customer irritation (“Who’s your manager?”), the target of cuts (big companies are forever boasting about plans to remove “layers of management”), or the butt of satire: think Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers or Ricky Gervais or Steve Carell as the over-promoted bosses in the UK and US editions of The Office. No wonder few aspire to be middle managers, itself more often a term of disparagement, and many shy away from it.
To focus on the negative, though, is to miss the essence of what good managers bring. They “add value”, not just in the arid sense of improving the overall results of a business, though they do that too, but by ensuring team members become the best they can be.
I’ve been asked more than once recently whether the rapid acceleration of digital communication during lockdown made managers redundant. It did allow senior leaders to interact directly with more staff, and vice versa. It also exposed the actual redundancy of micro-managers whose authority was based on being able to see their team hunched over their keyboards. Without presenteeism to shore up their sense of self-importance, these managers were lost.
But the crisis has also reinforced what good managers do. They encourage collaboration, they communicate clearly, they act ethically and with compassion, and they let those closest to the customer take the tactical decisions. When they intervene, it is mostly as coaches rather than as all-knowing commanders, posing non-judgmental, open questions rather than issuing orders.
As I’ve written more than once here, this approach is not just the preserve of small start-ups. It is working at large, complex companies such as Ericsson, Microsoft, and Spotify. It is also one key to the success of the Ukrainian army, whose officers in the field have been trained to take decisions on the spot to outwit the inflexible, top-down Russian military behemoth.
Extensive research, both before and during the pandemic has shown that good management pays off. Unsurprisingly, better managed companies managed better during the crisis, switching more quickly to remote working and online sales. Given that the tools for improvement are simple — target-setting, performance reviews, training programmes — it is astonishing that more companies fail to apply them, relying instead on what the Chartered Management Institute has called “accidental managers”.
What the past two years have also underlined is the all-important human side of good management. As management thinker Peter Drucker wrote, management is a “liberal art” because it combines practical results-based action with “moral concerns”. It “deals with people, their values, their growth and development”.
Coping is a synonym for managing. There have been plenty of days since 2020 when I feel managers have deserved credit merely for pulling themselves and their teams through. Occasionally, that can be as easy as scheduling a short, regular chat with individuals based on the answers to two questions: “How’s it going? What can I do to help?”
The great Victorian sage John Ruskin, who had a surprising amount to say about leadership, once wrote that workers’ happiness depended on three things: “They must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it.” Managers have a critical role in ensuring all three of those conditions apply, while still making certain that the job is done. The last of Ruskin’s precepts is particularly important, though, because grand victories are rare in the workplace. We advance, instead, through small achievements.
So if you are a manager, I salute you for doing a vital, difficult job. In future, I’ll be writing more widely and at greater length for the FT, but, for now, to those of my readers — and managers — who have helped me feel that “sense of success” in the past 11 years: thanks.