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A thought on the contribution of management by Ian Critchley

We’re nearing the end of this series responding to the statement that “There is no such thing as Management”.

Today’s post, our 11th so far, comes from Ian Critchley (@iangcritchley), a fellow coach and supporter of the EMCC. Ian’s narrative provides a really interesting way to frame our thinking on the capability & contribution of management. I hope you enjoy it!

A thought on the contribution of management

I’ve enjoyed reading the posts so far and in each there are things that resonate with me.  So, “There’s no such thing as management”?  Then I guess it’s bad news for anyone with the term “manager” in their job title.

I had one of those once. I often reflect back on it, and how much I learned whilst doing it, and how much more I’ve learned since leaving corporate life that I wish I’d known before.  The thing is, the role of “manager” is usually vaguely defined, but by its nature entails some element of “leadership”, also vaguely defined.   “Oh, my manager’s just not a leader”, usually means “my manager just isn’t managing”. Conversely “X is a strong leader” is often reserved for someone with the seniority and clout to get the managers below them scurrying in all directions, if not necessarily doing the right things.

At least, that’s how it appeared to me at the time. But as a manager who was considered to be “doing OK” amongst other “adequate” to “good” managers working for a very demanding director, and who each had their own strengths and blind spots, I had one thing in common with all of them – absolutely no guidance or support to learn or excel at my job. I’d been approached and invited to take the job on the basis of my reputation for being good at other things. Now if that’s the case in most organisations, it’s hardly a surprise that there are a lot of mediocre and ineffective managers about. And that is what I think is really the issue – not that there is no such thing as management, more that really good management talent is scarce simply because managers don’t really know what to do.  There’s plenty of theory about what to do, but there’s not much support in making it personally relevant in the workplace.  Managers are left to work it out for themselves, it takes a long time and many don’t get much beyond perpetuating how they were managed previously, or trying to emulate others they’d like to be seen as because they’re “strong leaders”.

A man I met on holiday one time told me about some research he knew about from Harvard back in the 1970s. They’d looked at the differences people make at work and called it “contribution”, as opposed to what people do at work (performance). It rang bells with me – the “performance bonus” I’d get by delivering my “performance targets” and driving to “performance indicators”, which incidentally made no difference to what the business was there to achieve.  If I performed well I was rewarded, all without making any obvious contribution to the year-end results.

It got worse. He then told me that they’d noticed 4 “phases of contribution” that we operate in. In phase 1 you are learning how to contribute – and contribute little at this time. In phase 2 you are making your individual contribution as a specialist in your field e.g. engineer or accountant, etc – and the contribution you make relates very much to how you are managed. Most people’s careers are spent doing phase 2 work, thank goodness – they are the ones who get the work done.  Phase 3 is about contributing through others by making the combined contribution of others greater than the sum of its parts – i.e. management, and this where it gets a bit messy. Everyone is taught how to contribute in their phase 2 job and they become increasingly expert at it over time.  Few are taught how to contribute in phase 3 by managing the contributions of others and where their eye is not on the task any more, but on what the business needs from them and their team, and how to achieve it. Consequently many accept a management role and immediately get back amongst the technical doings and tasks still as the expert.  They flounder around in a phase 2/3 no man’s land that they don’t know how to escape or excel in, where they fiddle with technical details, attend valueless meetings, process mountains of email, cover their behinds and maintain their silo walls hoping they don’t get found out.  The longer they get away with it, the more they convince themselves they’re doing a good job and do more of the same.  This is far from contributing through others though.

Guilty as charged. I did a lot of that and what’s worse my director thought I was “doing OK”. God knows what some of the others were doing, and the fact that I didn’t know speaks for itself. I wasn’t a phase 3 manager and neither were any of my peers. We were all floundering in the no man’s land had we but realised. If only I had known and had someone to coach me along a bit, things could have been so much more productive and probably much more enjoyable.

The 4th phase is about the contribution of the person setting the direction and strategy of the organisation. This should have been our director and to a fair extent he achieved that but because of the shortcomings of his management team, he was often drawn down into matters he shouldn’t have had to even think about. The Harvard research showed all this as being common to the point of normal amongst organisations, and its continuation over the last 40 or so years shows that nothing has changed, apart from some of the things that managers fill their time with.

Is there a solution to the scarcity of phase 3 managers? Yes there is, and maybe something for another post sometime.

Is there no such thing as management? I believe that there is an essential thing that we call management, but it falls into the sub-categories of “phase 3” management (which includes an aspect of providing leadership) and mis-management, that are presently very imbalanced. If we could get rid of the latter, the answer to the question might be easier.


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