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The manager myth

Blame the shortage of managerial skills on poor business leadership, says Jerry Schuitema.

Swellendam: – We were a motley group if ever there was one – the class of ’83 that made up the Senior Management Development programme at the Oxford Centre for Management studies. It was later renamed Templeton College, and despite losing its more elitist nomenclature, it has remained one of the world’s leading “management schools”.

The thirty or so of us came from all parts of the world and were all senior employees of various organisations – some at executive level. The fellow student who stood out most for me was Jannie the Bulgarian mainly because no-one really knew what he did for a living or what position he held. At the time things at home were at a political knife’s edge, and I vaguely suspected that Jannie may have been on a secret mission to do me harm. So I started watching him closely to ensure that he did not carry an umbrella . Instinctively he started watching me back and the time spent in each other’s company was with increasingly uncomfortable and furtive vigilance. 

Then there were the two Koreans, whose names escape me so I’ll call them Park Won and Park Tu. They did not understand a word of English and recorded every lecture to review each word and phrase with a Korean dictionary at night. At one time, Park Tu was determined to find a local barber, although he clearly did not need one. He returned rather disgruntled and subdued which puzzled us all, until someone explained that Korean barbers offered many “extras” with their hairdressing services. Others in the group included three senior British naval officers including an admiral, a BBC engineer, a Unilever economist, a senior banker, and a Japanese Tobacco executive. I was something of an outsider, having been the first recipient of the Rosholt fellowship in executive Journalism. I was certainly not earmarked for an executive career in an organisation that I was increasingly at odds with and because of my fraternal link to an anti-apartheid activist.

The point is not to invite you on a nostalgic journey, but to highlight that in those days management training was a process that started in-house at first line supervisory level. As you progressed, you were encouraged or assigned to follow programmes at institutions outside. By then you had already proved your management and leadership potential and everything you learned could be tempered and made to fit with your real experience in the workplace. The “certificate” was never the issue. The purpose was to enhance experience with further empowering knowledge.

In the decades that followed, this approach was completely reversed and there was an explosion of “management” programmes, workshops, courses and degrees with the holiest of grails being the M.B.A. – the master’s degree in Business Administration. This brings me to the brink of the fires of hell which is the debate about the real value of these lofty titles in establishing or running a business, whether a panel-beating shop or a giant corporate. The fact is that such a debate is raging and this link is only one of many of authority that challenges the value of an M.B.A while the counter argument is offered here. The pertinent question is whether the M.B.A. bubble has burst and whether we are world-wide in a “certificate surplus”.

What may be interesting, more for its “gee-whiz” than scientific or empirical value is to determine the number of M.B.A. graduates among South Africa’s or the world’s 20 best and 20 worst entrepreneurs. Just an idle thought!

It is always extremely difficult to question the validity of any form of education or training. It is outright heresy in these days of “education above all else” and the “certificate culture” that sees folk buy them off the internet or forge them on their CV’s and are even prepared to practice medicine with false documents. Education and knowledge are not necessarily the same things. The former is a process, the latter an intellectual asset. Most comments to my previous article seemed to have missed the key postulate that ultimately passion and meaning are far more important than titles and certificates. This does not mean that they are mutually exclusive, simply where the emphasis should be. Sadly, we may have “evolved” to the point where meaning based on contribution is an out-dated concept.

In the end, only those who possess these certificates can attest to their real value – not from a reward point of view but whether it made them more productive. Was it enriching or was it enabling? And can they distinguish between the two? Whether they will do so absolutely objectively is another matter. One does not lightly denigrate a costly item in one’s possession. Education is a huge industry in any society. It is extremely susceptible to spin and the virus of vested interests with “management” training the most vulnerable of all.

Is there such a science? I found the following quote in the Wall Street Journal quite intriguing:

“The economic crisis has exposed long-standing flaws not just in the modern approach to business education but in the very idea of business education.”

One can’t overstate the value of operational or functional knowledge such as accounting, law, science or engineering, and one must also be careful not to understate the negative effects of the brain drain, BEE or affirmative action. But these affect skills across the board and the real question is whether the concept of a “management science” is a not a myth.

One manages things. One leads people. The most important role of good company leaders is to enable others – firstly their customers, and then in the care and development of subordinates. Leaders should cultivate leaders and this implies that their ultimate success will be reflected in the extent to which they have made themselves dispensable and have created worthy successors. These skills should largely be developed internally including providing for a healthy level of turnover and cross pollination within similar industries.

Being service driven requires a lot more than functional or operational knowledge – it requires passion, customer empathy and a thorough knowledge of one’s product or service. These attributes either exist naturally or take time to develop. One simply cannot recruit an executive from say the construction industry to head a retail giant if that company is primarily service or purpose driven and not profit or shareholder value driven.

The title “manager” can be found at all levels up to Chief Executives, many of whom head up companies today. The “professional manager” cannot be equated with business creators and builders, those with entrepreneurial flair who cut their own paths, often making a huge difference to the business scene and to our lives. They stand outside the market and are seldom for sale to the highest bidder. To subject them to the rules of supply, demand and price would be as silly as saying that Michael Jackson’s earnings were a reflection of a shortage of pop-stars.

To enhance shareholder value and the profit track record that inevitably follows the meteoric successes of great entrepreneurs, futile attempts are made to replicate this flair, through head hunting and misguided bonus and share option schemes. These have done little more than create an artificial shortage in this category and contribute to an explosion in executive remuneration and income disparities.

If management as a science is a myth, then so is the published shortage of 216 thousand “managers” in South Africa. At the very least, the shortage of managerial skills, experience and knowledge cannot be blamed on anything else but on a failure by business to develop these skills themselves and on poor succession planning.

In essence, the shortage of these skills reflects a failure of the most important tenet of sound company leadership – the care and growth of subordinates.

*Jerry Schuitema is an award winning veteran journalist, author, retired management consultant and former economics broadcaster who focuses on behaviour in business and economics. He can be contacted on FaceBook  | E-MAIL | Blog

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