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John Pope

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The management world is still turning


In days long ago we recruited people as managers because of their character, as shown by their attitude and achievements. It was at the end of WWII when there was much to be done; the view was that well proven leadership and a good strong character were the qualities most needed for responsible jobs.

That approach seemed to work reasonably well and those who had served in the armed forces, had shown leadership and faced up to real hardship were seen as very suitable management material.  In general they were successful. Those who went into Personnel had gentlemanly manners and in dealing with people had an approach of ‘iron hands in velvet gloves’, which was generally very effective.

Times changed
Standards of management started to drift down in the late 1950s and 60s, and there were many moves to different techniques and more systematic approaches in the attempt to be more systematic.

The supply of war-tested material started to dry up and the National Institute for Industrial Psychology (NIIP) told us that when recruiting and selecting people we should start by first having well defined job specifications which comprehensively set out all that a manager had to do in each position. We should also have personal profiles setting out the qualifications and experience needed for each position. In some ways this was a reaction against ‘recruiting for character’ which was felt to be too vague and difficult to define to be useful. The recruitment processes changed and became more complicated and drawn out. It was no longer seen as good enough to make unscientific assessments of character and potential, just as it was seen that job evaluation and detailed analysis of work and responsibilities were essential.

The management world changed
It was eventually recognised that many jobs changed faster than it was possible to keep the job specifications up-to-date. The work needed to set up or maintain similar approaches became too great. Along came competencies – key and otherwise, and the struggle to define what general abilities a manager had to have – and the different competencies needed, as shown by analysis of the essential demands of particular jobs. 

Then the world changed again
Constant changes of organisation and cutbacks meant that previously stable management and organization structures had to change. Since it took some time, and circumstances changed so quickly, it became difficult to maintain an organisational structure which was sufficiently well understood to be well enough documented.  It was believed that core competencies were the basis for most positions in management but that some would need special competencies. As usual with most management theories, competency-based approaches grew and grew, some became unwieldy, some became discredited.

Now it is a tougher world
Many businesses are in deep trouble, and will be for some time; many will have to downsize, trim off some of the fat, change business priorities. I doubt it can be done if we have over-complicated structures or organization processes. Some of the usual procedures in managing change will have to go. There will have to be short cuts, and there will be trouble. British Airways is going through some such troubles at present as it attempts to change long-established practices and staffing.

Challenges and opportunities

In this tougher world it will not be enough to improve existing systems, increase productivity and reduce costs.  Low cost foreign competitors have already shown they are generally able to break into our usual foreign and domestic markets and match our efforts. Organisations will have to find, and manage new opportunities.
Will we need a different sort of manager?
Many experienced managers believe that there are plenty of challenges around, some of which will be unexpected and which will not have been faced before. It is certain that the qualities of leadership and character will be of the utmost importance in taking an enterprise in a new direction where much is unknown. The qualities of the leader, rather than technical ability or competence will be extremely important.  In effect we will be paying more attention to the personal attributes of the individual.  Some use psychometrics to assess suitability in the attempt to add some rigour to the interviewers’ somewhat subjective judgements.

What sort of manager will be needed over the next ten years? Will we need smooth, conciliatory people who know their way round the organisation and are good at writing staff papers? Maybe, but probably not many and we probably have quite enough already. 

I suspect we need more of those who, if they had lived 300 years ago might have become pirates, or 200 years ago become single-minded entrepreneurial engineers. What did those people have in common?  Drive, initiative, energy, impatience, vision, and the ability to cut through difficulties. I hope there will be enough of these around and that their character will not have been diluted by ‘conformism’.

How will we identify them?
The new challenges will force us to change our approach to the selection and development of managers at all levels. We shall still need some who are administrators, and those who ‘make sure the sums add up’ – especially in the accounts department. However, we will need – in due proportion – those who, as managers should always have done, ‘make new things happen’.  I think this means that we should go back to recruiting for character.
Character may be difficult to define but for practical management purposes I think it is shown by the willingness to face up to difficulties, hold fast to purpose and to a clear set of ethical principles which include openness, honesty and fair treatment in all dealings with people at every level. While various personality profiles and psychometric tests yield some information it is not too difficult to cheat if the subject repeats a suitable mantra beforehand, as WH Whyte pointed out years ago. Good actors can change their apparent personalities at will – not all of those actors are on the stage. Tests can be useful but should be taken with ‘a pinch of salt’. The difficulty in identifying strength of character may be that those coming into employment may not have had these qualities and competiveness tested and some may have had their enthusiasm dampened down. Too many may not have had to face the tough challenges which test and strengthen willpower. 

Evidence of real and substantial achievements under unexpected difficulties should be the deciding factor in selection.  But there is a wider consideration; we need to assist managers develop, and we have to make sure there is a pool of talent from which to select when tough jobs have to be done. We should take care that those who show promise get a diet of progressively more challenging projects and opportunities to show their character so we know when they are ready to tackle ever more difficult jobs.

John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of businesses, managers and management teams for most of his career. To know more about John’s work and services please visit the website. His book ‘Winning Consultancy Business’ was published in July and is now available through his website. He can be contacted at [email protected].


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