The value produced by managers is difficult to quantify and varies greatly. For the most part, the value a manager produces depends a lot on their personality, which is a product of their attitudes about people, the work at hand, and their general background and experience. Since the essence of the job is the coordination of the efforts of others, communicating effectively and maintaining the commitment of others who will get the work done are of critical importance. In corporations it is rare for a manager to produce much product-related value by themselves. The real value of management is in uniting people who know what to do in coördinated efforts that multiply the value of individual results. Other ways a manager can contribute are in development of strategy, bringing in outside knowledge including customer and business environment-related information, removing inhibitors to productivity, and generally enabling people to contribute to the satisfaction of customers and the success of the business, however they might be able to do this. It is important to recognize that approach is an individual thing, and different managers will have different ways of dealing with people and issues that may be equally effective but strikingly different to the observer.
The value of the manager’s work can be reflected at many levels in both business and society. The work of the manager can have large or small impact on the output and relative success of workers, the manager’s own department, the larger organization in which she or he works, and in society outside the company, depending on the circumstances. If the manager’s work only made a difference within the area of responsibility for which they have formal authority they may not be seen as a very productive manager at all. The best manager not only creates a highly productive, highly efficient operation, but constantly learns and passes their knowledge on to increase value in other people and other parts of the company. Helping others advance ensures the smart manager can be promoted, too, as they have already prepared their potential replacements.
How do most managers get their promotions? Many people get promoted to management essentially by mistake, sad to say. This may sound odd, but I am including cases where they were promoted because they knew someone in particular or had performed well in a previous job that was not deeply involved with people, not because they had demonstrated the savvy, temperament, or knowledge required for the job of manager (factors which are poorly or not at all evaluated by many organizations). It is common for someone who excelled in a technical area in which they worked with machinery or process designs, for example, to be rewarded with a management position for which they are poorly suited.
Why do the wrong types of people so often end up as managers? Unfortunately, some managers pursued a technical education and spent years excelling in their craft in part because they were uncomfortable dealing with people, and then were rewarded for their successes with a promotion to a job managing people, the very thing they spent their life avoiding. In part this is because many managers fail to understand those who work for them or how to appropriately reward good performance. Sadly, this results in many managers being unprepared to deal with the complexities of people and groups of people. They end up feeling responsible for organizational results but uncomfortable with the job, and can be strikingly inept at handling the uncertainties and emotional aspects of the people reporting to them. This is a major problem in many cases as it demoralizes the people around them and working for them, and can drive out those best-quality workers who can most easily find work elsewhere. This can have significant negative impact on productivity and product and service quality, which in turn affect customers, market share, and profitability. Unfortunately, given the difficulty of assessing management effectiveness, most companies fail to understand the connections, identify the problems (which are complicated and non-trivial), and address them. Also, most companies either don’t understand the need for training managers or provide non-mandatory or poor quality training, not being able to evaluate the quality of various available training programs. In addition, superiors often see no other way to reward workers for technical success except by promoting them to management, which is a systemic problem in many organizations.
Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Once in the position a manager tends to stay there, and the position itself can enable them to be “in the know” and “in the inner circle” as well as have access to higher level management unavailable to most employees, all of which gives them an advantage over other potential candidates. In fact, the privileged information a manager has is often the biggest differentiating factor between them and non-managers and this leads some managers to hoard information with sometimes disastrous effects on the organization’s morale and productivity. A smart manager doesn’t waste time defending their job but instead creates a team spirit among their subordinates by actively sharing information with them and involving them in finding creative ways to please customers and surmount the challenges faced by the organization.
Effective communication is a key management skill. Effective management communications involve more than just telling people what to do or when or where to do it. As W. Edwards Deming said, you can’t do a job properly unless you understand why it is needed as well as how, what, when, who, where, etc. A smart manager makes sure everyone knows why work is needed so they feel valued and involved in the organization’s success. The difference in productivity and morale between an employee who knows why they are doing what they’re doing and one who does not is usually quite noticeable.
Effective communication is bidirectional. One of the most important skills for a manager is effective listening. Everyone has ideas for making things better, and a smart manager listens closely to everyone including subordinates. Normal people want to feel good about themselves, which includes feeling like they contribute things of value to their employer and others, and a smart manager harnesses this need in part by listening to what people tell them, helping make their ideas realities, and ensuring they are recognized for their contributions both as individuals and in groups. Keeping employees aware of the strategic challenges facing the organization, customer and other external perceptions of the products and the company, and the goals of top management enables them to work more effectively on behalf of the firm, but feeding employee ideas and suggestions back into the management structure generates real value for the company, the employees, customers, and society in general. The manager who ignores employee suggestions or fails to recognize employee contributions ensures substandard performance and results, and hands the advantage to competitors who do involve their employees in every possible way to achieve success.
Finding good managers and management prospects is a challenge. Evaluating people for management positions is subject to the same problems as management itself, unfortunately, and management recruiting is often carried out using other criteria, leading to the hiring of people initially seen as potential management “stars”, but who later produce lackluster results. Organizational culture is such an important factor that a star in one organization often fails to perform well in another. A savvy manager who understands the importance of factors like morale and creativity may find themselves relatively unsupported in a culture that fails to understand these things. Similarly a manager who fails to understand the importance of effective listening may flounder in a highly collaborative culture where open communications are expected and understood to be an important strength of the organization. The task of the recruiter is a daunting one complicated by the reluctance of most organizations to furnish any details about current or past employees, and often the best candidates are found via referral by other employees. This illustrates how effective listening and sociability are major assets for anyone in a hiring role.
The greatest potential value of a manager lies in the intangibles. Understanding the technical nature of a product or service and the structure and practices that provide them is only a part of a manager’s responsibility, and probably a smaller part than those skills and values that add up to “savvy”, the understanding of people and what motivates them. Most business schools quickly pass over this aspect of management because it isn’t as easy as the manipulation of numbers and similar technical work, and because it’s a “foggy” area of knowledge that is hard to pin down. That means that most good managers acquire their savvy through experience and the modeling of the behaviors of other effective managers, if they are lucky enough to have had contact with some. Unfortunately, savvy managers are scarce and most people either never have contact with one or fail to understand the source of their success. Those who have the good fortune to work for a good manager are more likely to pick up skills, understandings, and attitudes that will enable them to do well as managers themselves, fortunately, and this is probably the biggest single source of good managers.
Management savvy wins. In the end, it is management savvy, the understanding of human nature, effective communication skills, and creative thinking that succeed. By comparison, almost anyone with sufficient background and study can master the technical aspects of the work of an enterprise, but this may be responsible for only a small part of the results. Mobilizing and inspiring people and coordinating their efforts to achieve strategic goals is the majority of the manager’s true work, and is an area often misunderstood or neglected. Ignoring these areas often creates opportunities for competitors and drives away the most creative and productive employees, but investing in them builds organizational competence that enables strategic and tactical flexibility, and better products that will attract new customers and please existing ones. The study of human psychology, while no guarantee of success, is a significant strength for any manager and should be valued by those hiring them. Good temperament and positive attitudes towards people in general, along with technical and organizational skills, may be among the best indicators of future management success.
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading. — Tim