Taking stock: nine maxims for management

I began this blog nine months ago as an outlet during the first lockdown. The aim was to explore my experience of management to clarify my own understanding and improve my work.

Second lockdown has not produced the same surge of creativity, so I thought I’d take some time to see what themes have emerged.

I’ve written a lot about line management, accountability and focus. I am still wrestling with an adequate definition of strategy.

Here are some of the themes on management.

Management maxims:

  1. Line management has a profound impact on people’s experience at work. The collective impact of middle managers may be greater than that of the CEO.
  2. As a manager, your personal excellence is now secondary. What matters is whether your team does great work. Help them do great work. Fiercely protect them from distractions to that work.
  3. Management is hard but not mysterious. Your common sense and humanity will often be a useful guide.
  4. Following your humanity will probably push you towards simplicity and honesty. Everyone who advises you will be horrified at the prospect.
  5. But there are times when your instincts are not a good guide. Most of us have a tendency to avoid conflict and creating disappointment, which can lead to compromise and inconsistency, and which destroy culture in the long run.
  6. You need to communicate more than you think you do. Much more. Even more than that.
  7. Your perspective is inevitably distorted by your power. And the more visible your power, the greater the distortion.
  8. Visibility, confidence and ‘fit’ are seldom correlated with people’s actual performance and impact.
  9. Switching off is necessary to maintain perspective. Your perspective is essential to your good judgement.

Therefore, these may be helpful reflections for line managers:

  • Am I helping people do their best work?
  • Who am I prioritising here, me or them?
  • How would I want to be treated in this situation?
  • What do I least want to do today?
  • What do I know that they don’t?
  • What do they know that I don’t?
  • Who am I overlooking?
  • What do I think about when I am not thinking about work? How often do I not think about work? How often does my team not think about work?

I’ve also also explored the idea of leadership on the boundary of the organisation, choosing what is and isn’t allowed in. Some of the most effective leaders I know are both ferocious guardians – protecting their teams from interruption and distraction, from fads and fashions – while also avid networkers, deeply connected to the outside world and able to marshal resources, ideas and connections. The resolution of this paradox is that what comes in, come in on their terms. They bring it in because it furthers their aims, not because someone tells them they ought to. I think this is particularly true of great head teachers. There is a real danger that schools are either overwhelmed with interference or isolated from assistance.

Theoretically speaking

My notes on strategy, accountability and culture are connected by a common thread on the role of theory. A strategy is a theory about what might work externally. A culture is an implicit (and often obsolete) theory about what works internally. Theories matter when the gap between individual actions and individual results is significant – often due to complexity and uncertainty.

Theory is also where crude approaches to accountability so often fail: in a complex world isolated results are rarely good evidence of correct actions or ability. Just because someone has a good result, doesn’t mean they have done good things. And vice versa. Fate, fortune and friction stand between our acts and our aims. This is Annie Duke’s point about poker: just because you won, doesn’t mean you played your hand well. And just because you lost, doesn’t mean you made bad choices. Like poker, life is a mix of skill and luck. We lose sight of that in our moments of management machismo.

Has any of this helped my own work?

I am increasingly aware that the way people behave towards me is not necessarily how they behave towards other people. I think this has improved my people-related judgement a little.

I have implemented channels for anonymous feedback directly to me.

I used to take a fair bit of ‘semi-leave’, where I would continue to monitor things and check in, even take a few meetings. I do less of that now so I can switch off properly.

Where I know that I am likely to fudge a difficult decision, I am trying to ‘bind my hands’ more with upfront policies and procedures. I find that bold public statements often help commit me, and colleagues, to projects that I might be tempted to let slip.

I am less worried about repeating myself. In fact, I increasingly see it as a virtue in communications.

We have some quite radical long term projects to remove more bias from selection decisions (including for jobs, of course, but also projects and training) and to strengthen managers’ abilities to make the right but difficult choices rather than easy but wrong ones.

I am trying to batch more decisions so I can judge them on relative rather than absolute merits.

I don’t think I have yet got the right model for strategic thinking, but I am experimenting more with framing strategic choices as conditional statements – “if we want x, given conditions y, then z is most likely to work.” We’ll see.

I am not successfully focusing on a few things, that’s for sure. I tend to think in terms of options, assuming that the future is uncertain and that many will fail to come to fruition. It gets quite busy when more pay off than you would expect…

It has been worth writing the blog and I plan to keep it up. I hope it has been helpful for a few of my readers. If there is anything you would like to see covered, drop me a note.

Edited the second maxim slightly from “irrelevant” to “secondary” after a helpful debate with Simon Graffy. There are times when being good at the job you are managing is distinctly helpful! However, over-relying on this or, more importantly, worrying whether people are noticing how good you are – can be highly negative in the long run.

As David Barnard has prompted, the size of the batch is important when it comes to decisions. It’s a tension between completeness and agility.

3 thoughts on “Taking stock: nine maxims for management

  1. Thanks to forward from Keith Hill I’ve just shared this with some of our board and managers of our charity in Kosovo – thanks for the insights!


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