I first became a manager in my 20’s and, back then, I probably wasn’t a very good one. Nothing really prepares you to lead other people. There is, of course, no shortage of advice out there, but most of it is more myth and lore than anything else and not very helpful.
Henry Mintzberg wrote, “The great myth is the manager as orchestra conductor. It’s this idea of standing on a pedestal and you wave your baton and accounting comes in, and you wave it somewhere else and marketing chimes in with accounting, and they all sound very glorious.”
“But,” he continues, “management is more like orchestra conducting during rehearsals, when everything is going wrong.” In many ways, being a manager is the art of figuring out all the stuff that nobody ever told you. Your job is to solve problems that no one else can and there are no hard and fast rules for that, but here are 6 things that I wish I had known starting out:
1. Your Information Is Wrong
In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes an exercise he was asked to observe for the Israeli Defense Forces that was intended to identify potential leaders. When he wrote his evaluations, he was confident that he was singling out those who were destined for greatness.
But when he followed up, he found that his judgments were little better than blind guesses. He would have done almost as well if he had just flipped a coin. The problem is that we’re wired to jump to conclusions if our evidence is consistent, even if is incomplete. He calls this phenomenon WYSIATI (what you see is all there is).
The machinery of our brain is naturally geared towards making quick judgments. We tend to lock onto the first information we see (called priming) and that affects how we see subsequent data (framing). Then we will seek out information that confirms our conclusions and ignore contrary evidence (confirmation bias).
Having research to back up an assertion means nothing. We have a tendency to use data for support rather than illumination. If you haven’t looked (and looked hard) for contrary evidence, you might as well be shooting in the dark.
2. Your People Have To Be Right
The two basic jobs a manager does are to plan and make decisions. While others can focus on the work at hand, you need to look ahead for potential problems and opportunities. So every good manager needs to get the best information available and make thoughtful decisions based on that information.
However, as I noted above, despite your best efforts, your information is usually going to be wrong. Besides our natural tendencies toward bias, there will also inevitably be problems with how the information is gathered and analyzed. Most of our information is also backward looking, so unforeseen events can render it invalid as well.
So not only is your information usually wrong, your plans are too. Adjustments will need to be made and that’s best done by those who are closest to the problem. As Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg put it in How Google Works, “Since the plan is wrong, the people have to be right,”
Good managers are not merely supervisors, they’re coaches. Once the plan is in the field, you are on the sidelines. If you’re people aren’t able — and empowered — to make good decisions, you won’t be able to achieve much.
3. You Don’t Find The Right People, You Develop Them
Some years back, I found myself working for a struggling company. At executive board meetings, there was a never ending litany of complaints about the performance of our people. My colleagues thought that if we could only recruit “quality” people, then all of our problems would be solved.
I remember thinking. “Wait, we recruited these people. We trained them. We manage them. If our people aren’t good enough, it’s not their fault, it’s our fault.”
The truth is that talent is overrated. There are really very few jobs that can’t be learned in six months and mastered in two years. So instead of instead of looking for people who worked in the same job somewhere else, I’ve found that it’s best to look for two qualities in new hires: Curiosity and temperament.
If someone is eager to learn new skills and can work well with others, chances are they can be trained to thrive at any position. On the other hand, if someone has done the same thing for the last ten years, it will be much harder to take on new skills and challenges. I’ve also found that a poor temperament can do serious damage in a team environment.
4. Great Teams Will Outperform Great People
We’re raised to focus on individual achievement. You apply yourself, do your homework and perform well on exams in order to get into a prestigious university. Then you repeat the process in college and possibly graduate school before moving on to a successful career. That’s been the formula for success: Work, achieve and reap the rewards.
However, one of the realities of our modern age is that collaboration has become much more important. In fact, a study in the prestigious journal Nature showed that an average paper has four times as many authors as a generation ago. Scott Page, an economist at the University of Michigan has also found that diverse groups perform best.
Interestingly, the Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning initiative, which seeks to help prepare students for future careers, puts a special emphasis on teamwork skills. It’s received heavy support from business organizations like Autodesk and the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, because they recognize how much they need workers who can collaborate.
The reality is that today we’re tackling issues that are much more complex than in the past and solving tough problems often requires more than one person, As MIT’s Sandy Pentlandhas put it, “We teach people that everything that matters happens between your ears, when in fact it actually happens between people.”
5. You Mission Drives Your Strategy
Strategy has long been considered a rational exercise. You comb through the data, build Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint charts in order to seek out a competitive advantage. Analytical skill, not emotional motivations, is what’s supposed to determine your course.
Yet in reality things don’t work that way. The truth is that your mission drives your strategy. That’s what motivates your employees, customers and partners. You can add up the numbers anyway you want, but if your organization isn’t aligned with your stated strategy, it is very unlikely to be effective.
Great businesses, in the final analysis, are built by passion. Strategies can come and go, but the mission of the enterprise is fundamental to directing action. Unless your people are committed to the purpose of the enterprise, they will not perform at their highest level.
6. Culture Can Be A Springboard Or A Prison
We often hear about how great companies have great cultures. Places like Google and Zappos are renowned not only for being incredibly profitable, but also for being great places to work. That’s led many to believe that building a strong culture is a essential for building a strong business.
But a culture can also hold you back. Blockbuster and Kodak both had strong corporate cultures and in both cases, ingrained attitudes contributed to their downfall. Excessive reverence of culture makes it difficult to adapt to new realities and therein lies the dilemma.
A corporate culture, properly understood, is how an enterprise values its mission and has little to do with specific strategies and practices (like retail stores or photographic film), nor does it depend on perks like ping pong tables, relaxed dress codes or pet friendly policies. A strong culture is based on values.
Values, unlike perks, cost something. They determine what you will and will not do. When people at Google commit to not being “evil,” that constrains them and requires commitment. That’s how you build a strong culture.