Myths of Management


Stefan Stern and Cary Cooper have recently published an excellent book, ‘Myths of Management: What People Get Wrong About Being The Boss’.  It's an elegantly written, provocative, and entertaining distillation of the truths behind the management hype.  It features interviews with several distinguished management thinkers such as Tom Peters, Charles Handy, and Herminia Ibarra. My interview is reproduced in full below. What struck me, on reading all our interviews together, was how remarkably varied our responses were to Stefan's deceptively simple questions about management and leadership. 

SS: What do you think when you hear the word ‘management’?    

LE: I think the term management is essentially meaningless. You can only understand management in juxtaposition with other concepts like administration and leadership. What we would have called administration 50 years ago is now being called management. And what we might have called management 20 years ago is now being called leadership. In business schools, courses that were once called the management of something or other now have to be rebranded as ‘leadership’, in order to get people to sign up for them. If you add the word leadership to an executive education course you can immediately charge considerably more for it. So, just as personnel management has become HRM, and public relations has become communications, management is starting to morph into leadership.

It’s terminological inflation – now the term leadership has been debased we’ll have to invent another one.

Putting it really simply, I think management is about working with other people to try and get things done. It implies there’s some degree of top-down hierarchical control, but not necessarily – we’re all familiar with the concept of managing upwards, that is still management. People sometimes talk about management as ‘doing things right’ and leadership as about ‘doing the right thing’, or they juxtapose efficiency and effectiveness, or they talk about maintenance and change, but ultimately these are rather dull distinctions. I think we just need to understand that the terms management and leadership are used in a variety of different ways; no one can come up with a definitive definition, and it’s a mistake to pretend that you can.

There’s a nice quote in a great book by David Knights and Hugh Willmott called Management Lives – and they say: ‘Management is part and parcel of life and how it’s lived.’ If you start with a definition as broad as that, you can take it anywhere you like.

A lot of people would equate management with an MBA, but the M does not stand for management – it stands for ‘master’s’. The BA stands for ‘business administration’ – which is funny because no MBA student would like to think of themselves as doing administration. So we still carry the legacy of this old terminology.

SS: Some people agonize about the differences between management and leadership, but is that helpful?

LE: I’ve done a lot of research on leadership. It’s very hard for an interviewee to explain when they’re leading and when they’re managing. And if they don’t know, why should we try and impose these artificial distinctions? You can charge a lot more if you’re giving a speech to practitioners about leadership. In fact no one ever asks me to give speeches about management, they always want me to give speeches about leadership, because it’s sexy and cool. What I am trying to say is, there are a lot of business schools and academics who have a vested financial interest in promoting this premium concept called leadership.

SS: How are management and leadership seen in the context of a professional services firm (PSF)?

LE: If management implies a degree of hierarchy, then to describe yourself as managing people implies that you think you’re above them in some way. And in a PSF context that’s quite a difficult distinction to articulate and sustain, particularly in a professional partnership where you have been elected by your peers. The partners have not really made you the boss of them. What they have done is allowed you to do some ‘administration’ on their behalf. So if you start behaving as though you’re their boss they will be uncomfortable. But in the next breath they will blame you for being an ineffective leader.

SS: So they feel like they want something called leadership which will be embodied in or characterized by certain quite purposeful decisions and announcements…

LE: … but only if they are decisions and announcements that professionals agree with. In a professional context leadership needs to have an inspirational element to it so that professionals are prepared to cast themselves in the role of follower. In professional service firms management of other people is good, because other people need to be managed. ‘I am led, he is managed.’

There are parts of our that life we want to be administered, parts of our life where we might want to lead or be led, and parts of our life where we need to be managed, though we might not accept that. Professionals tend to call that last bit bureaucracy.

SS: In a PSF you don’t want your high fee earners to get bogged down in management.

LE: It’s about freeing up the time of the ‘talent’. The talent chooses certain people to manage them, like a rock band has a manager. That’s very different from saying ‘I will follow you’. In effect the partners are paying the person who is leading the firm, because the person who is ‘in charge’ is taken out of full-time fee-earning work, to manage them. The most traditional partners would say that this person has now become a significant cost to the firm, and they are willing to accept that because it is important that other people get managed. But there’s absolutely no acceptance that this implies a power relationship.

I actually try to avoid using words like management and leadership and I talk more in terms of the activities of senior executives, because that’s much more neutral. Senior executives will be doing a mixture of leadership, management and administration, with different people at different times. The skill is to understand intuitively which to do when and with whom.

SS: Some of the senior people you interview often seem to be reluctant to admit that they are in charge.

LE: And the question to consider is: do they actually mean that, or is it part of the game that they have to play, to imply a degree of modesty and diffidence? But in a crisis, partners want to believe the senior partner or managing partner is in charge.

So it’s about having the sensitivity and subtlety to know who needs to hear what and when they need to hear it. Making these finely tuned judgements all the time.

Even in the big four accounting firms, which sometimes are regarded as being more corporate, the leaders may be frustrated because their partners can’t be bothered to open e-mails they send them. There may not be active resistance, but the amount of passive resistance in a partnership can be phenomenal.

Of course, corporates are infinitely complex and subtle too. But my research has shown that politics are endemic in partnerships, it’s a way of life, it is the lifeblood of these organizations. Professional service firms are designed to be inherently political environments. And the people within them play politics so naturally and so easily that they don’t necessarily recognize that this is what they’re doing. It’s how you get things done and naturally exert influence, in an environment where authority is contingent and autonomy is extensive.

SS: Are these still attractive organizations for young people to go and join and commit to?

LE: Well, ‘commit to’ is an interesting question. I wouldn’t encourage any young person to commit to any organization, because organizations nowadays are not willing to commit to them. I think that’s an important thing for young people to remember – much of what is said to them during the recruitment process is essentially garbage. People may be a professional service firm’s ‘greatest asset’ but they are a very expendable asset.

That’s just how the professional world is now. It wasn’t always thus, but it is now.

The elite firms are very good at creating the impression of being very glamorous. These are the firms people want to work for. They do pay very well. They have great-looking offices. They are good at creating the sense that, if you’ve joined us, you’ve made it, you’re part of the elite. And for many people that is hugely attractive and they are very happy to pay the price that goes with it.

Louise Ashley and I have done some work on this, looking at how these firms use signifiers of cultural capital to attract undergraduates. So during the recruitment and training programme they take the graduates out to glamorous locations, restaurants that their mum and dad might have heard of, saying: ‘You can be a part of this one day. Come here and succeed and one day this will be your life.’

SS: It’s a sales pitch in a way?

LE: It’s a very explicit sales pitch. And it’s seductive. I was part of it – I became a strategy consultant straight out of my MBA programme. Before the days of Uber and Deliveroo it was amazing to work late in the office and just pick up the phone and order a taxi just to bring you your dinner – and then charge it to the client. It can take your mind off the fact you’re working in the office till past midnight. That’s a nice feeling when you’re very young, and you haven’t been born into wealth, it makes you feel like a special person if your client is paying £50 so you can eat chicken chow mein without leaving your desk.

SS: Managing ambitious young people like this can’t be easy, can it?

LE: There will be people who approach this in a very transactional way, who know what they want to get out of the firm. They want to get some money for a few years, and they want something good on their CV while they work out what they really want to do with their life. And then they go off and do it.

But it can go wrong. When I was a don at Oxford I used to get lots of young people coming to me with their job offers from McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, saying ‘which should I go to, what shall I do?’ I would give some extra advice to the male students: do it if you like, but don’t settle down and have children quickly. Because I was aware of lots of guys who’d taken these kinds of jobs straight out of university on a temporary basis because it seemed like an appropriate thing to do, then somehow they’d got drawn in to the lifestyle, the money, and then they ended up marrying their university girlfriend, then the kids started coming, and 20 years later they were still doing a job they’d never really enjoyed, working for a firm they didn’t like, but they’d put all their kids through private school. And I’d say, ‘But you’ve always hated this job’, and they’d look at me slightly sadly and say, ‘Yes, but my children have had a good education.’

Then there is the phenomenon of the ‘insecure overachiever’, which I have been researching recently. The insecure overachievers are much more complicated and much, much more valuable to elite professional service firms. Many of these organizations deliberately set out to target and recruit them. They look for them at university, they look for people with a pattern of phenomenal achievement, but also underneath that, an underlying pattern of insecurity. And the deal they make with these people is: we will make you feel special because we want you, but in return we can ask you to do anything for us. The people then join the firm and are made to feel special but then they realize you don’t get to stay unless you perform extraordinarily well. These organizations have very strict ‘up or out’ pyramids, so of the 100 people they take at graduate level only 10 will likely ever make it to partner – sometimes even steeper than that. Very few will make it to partner.

So the firms amplify the individuals’ insecurity, they increase the insecurity so that people are competing with each other to make sure that they’re the one that gets ahead. And this becomes a powerful control device which obviates the need for management. You don’t need to manage people like that. The implicit message is: ‘All your fears about inadequacy – we can assuage those by telling you that you are good enough to be a partner here, but we’ll only continue to say that to you if you continue to out-perform.’ That’s what I mean by the insecure overachiever: people will drive themselves and drive themselves relentlessly in order to be allowed to stay. The insecure over-achiever has his or her own internal sense of what good enough is and that can never, ever be satisfied.

SS: Lastly, do even the elite firms have to worry about robots and automation replacing them?

LE: The clue is in the word ‘elite’. The elite firms will never be substituted by technology. But they will have to change to respond to it. Technology is never a substitution for brilliant people. Technology, typically, has been a substitution for essentially routinized tasks, and there is a lot of extremely routine work that is done within a lot of these firms, though they may be reluctant to acknowledge that. It’s one of the reasons they need to hoover up so many graduate recruits every year.

Technology can replace that. But when you as a chief executive face a hostile takeover, if you want to raise billions of dollars to fund your expansion, or when you are worried you might be up in front of the SEC for some bad accounting practices, you are not going to ask a computer for the answer.

There will always be a place for truly professional work. I think what we may see in the future is a return to more traditional ideas of what professional means, which does convey expertise, status, income obviously, maybe even vocation. Along the way a lot of the expansion into fairly mundane, mediocre, less well-paid, certainly less interesting work will fall by the wayside as it starts to become replaced, not necessarily by technology alone, but by technology in tandem with less highly trained, less highly paid paraprofessionals.

SS: So it’s almost back to the future, the specialness will reassert itself potentially?

LE: Well, that would be nice.

This extract from Myths of Management by Stefan Stern and Cary Cooper is ©2017 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.