Today's Reading


Why write yet another book about management? Because despite all that has been written already, we still labor under the collective hallucination that the management of managers is no different from the management of individual contributors—that management at any level is nothing more than some vague combination of getting people to do things and getting people to collaborate. If a manager gets involved in how his or her reports manage, it goes no further than that; any notion of a need for consistency 'between' subordinate managers is similarly abstracted into platitudes about results and collaboration.

Every day, people are promoted into middle management and into the ranks of executive management without any deep understanding of what the function entails and with no discussion of how the rest of the management team has collectively decided to perform it. As a result, the majority of business runs on what I call the North American Management Model, an assortment of those platitudes that includes "Do what you see fit to get the work done," "Keep your nose in your own business," "Don't let yourself get pushed around by other interests," and "It's better when we work together." These conflicting banalities aren't wholly incorrect, but they tell only a small part of the story, confusing as much as they clarify.

To the extent that anyone tries to go deeper, we assume that research-based tools for goal-setting, collaboration, teamwork, and decision-making apply within management exactly as they would within any other group of people trying to solve a problem.

They don't.

Managers have a much broader charter than whatever issue they're working on at the moment. They have a complex history and future together that doesn't allow truly independent action and can't be re-created in experiments on group behavior. They're constantly asked to figure out how to do things that haven't been done before, typically given fewer resources than they need to guarantee quality results, and frequently blamed for not foreseeing problems that could only have been obvious in hindsight. They also have all the failings and flaws of regular human beings, who are naturally change averse, territorial, and defensive—especially under stress. And managers are almost always under stress.

If I had my way, there would be a sort of fairy godparent of management who would appear to managers immediately upon each successive advancement. "Congratulations!" my magical messenger would exclaim. "Now that your boss has taken care of the administrative part of your promotion, I'm here to endow you with the authority that comes with it. I hereby vest you with a portion of the organization's resources, which may include people, money, equipment, and/or materials. Whatever it is, your organization's aim is to apply those resources intelligently in the pursuit of its goals—which means it's now your job to do so. Here's how: Your resources are at their most useful—and your organization is at its most successful—when you and your fellow managers are making coordinated, difficult trade-offs between attractive, high-value uses of them. As a result, you now exist in a constant state of both cooperation with and opposition to the other managers in your organization. Work with them—and push back on them—to constantly solve and solve again the problem of what to do with the resources under your collective control."

My enchanted emissary would then go on to read all of the content of appendix 5 as an explanation of "how we expect you to behave as one of our managers"—and then disappear, presumably, into a puff of smoke.

Unfortunately, no such magical mentor exists. In its absence, this book is a guide to the real work of management and a three-part revelation for those running teams of managers and those who advise them.

First, management is supposed to be difficult—not just because getting people to do things is difficult and not just because getting people to collaborate is difficult but because the actual purpose of management is to perform an essential function for the organization that is inherently difficult.

Second, managers shouldn't feel embarrassed or inadequate if they're struggling. The work is legitimately difficult, and worse, it's unlikely that anyone has ever explained to them what management is really about or how to thrive or even survive at it.

Third, absent my magical fairy godparent, it's up to every person who runs a management team to articulate the purpose of management, set consistent expectations for how his or her subordinate managers should perform the function, and communicate and reinforce those expectations with everyone.

Throughout the book, we'll be talking about the traditional challenges of management, too: getting people to do things and getting people to collaborate. We'll have to, because those are part and parcel of the job. But what we're really doing here is shattering our collective illusion that they're the whole story. The rest of it—the set of behaviors of a management team that 'understands its own purpose' and 'performs it well'—is a great secret known only to the highest-performing organizations. Often, it's only "known," even to them, unconsciously—as unspoken behavioral patterns enshrouded in the ether of their culture.

It's time to snap out of our trance, rub our eyes, and see management clearly—maybe for the first time.

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