What Inexperienced Leaders Get Wrong (Hint: Management)

There are an awful lot of leaders in trouble these days. Not just those under attack for ethical lapses, accounting problems, or excessive compensation – retired college presidents are the latest to join corporate executives in the latter category. The trouble I’m referring to is getting new ideas implemented and brought to scale. The leaders range from entrepreneurs with great ideas but a flaw preventing expansion (Tesla?) to new CEOs with a vision their stakeholders won’t rally behind that won’t guarantee results anyway.

Much has been made of the distinction between leadership and management. Too many managers, not enough leaders, the critics say. Leadership is uplifting, they imply, while management is boring — just a bunch of rigid bureaucrats spinning red tape, or emphasizing efficiency over effectiveness. But my work with numerous top executives shows that this is a false choice. Great leaders also have managerial inclinations. They are practical as well as visionary. They care about efficiency. They might not be the ones to roll up their sleeves for the tasks of execution, but they know what to ask of those who do. These abilities grow with experience.

As the world now knows, U.S. President Obama has stumbled in the implementation of his signature health care reform idea, the Affordable Care Act. This time his problem is not politics; it is management. The President and his aides failed to understand the basics of execution. Some of the same citizens who once supported a new-to-the-Senate outsider with fresh ideas now wonder about why they elected someone with no experience running anything.

It would be ironic indeed if a presidency that won because of information technology (effective digital campaigning) is laid low because of information technology (a website that failed to work). But as any experienced manager should know, IT is a classic illustration of the difference between bold strokes and long marches, one of my favorite managerial frameworks. Bold strokes are decisions that can be made at the top, implemented pretty quickly by command — acquisitions, divestitures, real estate purchases, layoffs.  Long marches take time and the involvement of many people who must produce new elements and coordinate their actions before the change can be successful. In merger integration, for example, IT systems integration often takes the longest, sometimes years. And despite cautious execution, systems still often break down and must be fixed. Good managers know that switchovers to new systems sometimes require running the old and new in parallel for a while, until all conversions are secure.

And that is just IT. There is much else to know about the long march of execution on the human side. When I applied my “Ten Reasons People Resist Change“ framework to the launch of Microsoft’s Windows 8, I was astonished that the resistance-provokers were everywhere in the product design and its implementation – and indeed, the product fell far short of expectations and went back for a re-do. It appeared that Microsoft wanted so badly to make a bold stroke, to change everything instantly, that executives failed to strategize about what would work or not work for consumers, and over what time frame.

Good management is a series of well thought-through actions including phases, communications, checkpoints, customer-impact-testing, metrics, contingencies, and feedback loops, designed to produce specified results on time and on budget, based on known circumstances. Where circumstances are unknown, as with innovations, then good management proceeds in a series of pilot tests, rehearsals, or rapid prototypes, in which early feedback at a small scale improves later execution at a bigger scale.

Good management is not just details left to technocrats. It is good for customers, constituencies, and the public. Britain managed an Empire not because of a great leader at the top, but because of an effective civil service well-trained in management. Some scholars have argued that countries in Africa and other parts of the developed world that were once governed by the British were left a legacy of administrative capabilities that make them relatively better managed today.  In contrast, bad management hurts everyone. It wastes time and money. It fails to produce results while crowding out alternatives.

Evidence of managerial experience (and what was learned from it) would be a good prerequisite for leadership. Lawyers and doctors must pass tests before practicing their professions, but there is no managerial exam to pass in order to get a license to lead. My HBS colleagues Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana created the MBA Oath as a managerial equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath for physicians, whose first provision is do no harm. The MBA Oath, now invoked at graduation from many business schools, includes a provision about being a good steward of the resources with which one is entrusted. That’s management.

Vision, symbolism, inspiration, and other items associated with leadership are vitally important, no question about it. But I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far, pushing new ideas at all costs rather than touting the virtues of smart execution.

Let’s bring management skills back into leadership. While asking managers to become more visionary, let us also insist that leaders should be able to manage well.

Read Original Post from the Harvard Business Review


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