Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Passion for Management - To err is human, to forgive divine

I have included this quote from Alexander Pope, English poet & satirist (1688 - 1744) because it captures some of my key messages.

Many years ago I was appointed a sub-monitor at a boy's school. I was a day boy, the school largely boarding, and still run very much on traditional lines. As a sub-monitor I took prep and was responsible for general discipline when on duty. At first, I really struggled.

Looking back, I would have been much better off if my role had been defined in management terms as compared to the school's semi-military discipline approach. At the time I struggled as a sub-monitor, I was already a patrol leader in the scouts and reasonably good at it. There I had a different structure, a better defined role with a focus on the development of my patrol, and a place in decision making.

The hierarchical days of the school are long gone. Today we talk of teams, of mentoring, of individual authority, of empowerment. Experts explain why generation y needs to be managed in different ways from past generations. Yet the reality is, at least as I see it, that management has never been poorer.

Now there is something funny here.

When I look at my daughters - 17 and 19 - and their friends, I see management skills at least as good, better I think, than mine were at the same age. The modern younger generation, at least in Australia, with their tribal focus are well able to create and manage activities of all types. That is what they do. Further, they use computing and communications technology automatically as a tool, a means to an end.

It is the generations immediately above that have the real problem.

Those of my generation had the opportunity to acquire management skills in bits through experience. Those who entered the workforce a little later have had to suffer through process re-engineering, thinned out management, the substitution of systems for people, the obsession with that which can be quantified. Their scope to learn management was severely reduced. And management can really only be learned through doing.

In these circumstances management training becomes a second best alternative, a way of coping with a sometimes impoverished working environment.

I find two major difficulties in providing management training.

Number one is the difficulty that people find in applying the skills I teach in any meaningful way. There is simply not the opportunity to practice. To overcome this, I try to show them ways of applying skills outside conventional management paradigms.

Number two is simply fear. Fear of being let down, fear of being judged, fear of making mistakes. This one is really hard. Here I try to explain that to be human is to err, to forgive define.

As a manager you will make mistakes. So long as you have tried, so long as you learn, then forgive yourself. And forgive those working for you who have tried to apply the same standards.

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