Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Unsophisticates

The greatest managers I've known have not been "sophisticated."

That doesn't mean that they belch at lunch or can't pick out a decent wine or have never read Dickens. It means they have a passion for the basics of management and leadership that leads them to extraordinary performance.

You can quickly spot the skeptics. They scoff at allegiance to simple concepts such as the Phoenix Fire Department's mission statement (Prevent harm - Survive - Be nice), but when you get past their snickers, you find they ridicule the very qualities that their organizations lack.

If it's so obvious - you feel like shouting - then why aren't you doing it?

Extraordinary managers know how difficult it is to get across a simple program or concept. They know that egos are fragile and schedules are filled and as a result people half-listen or strive to protect turf and preserve comfort. The simple idea is soon restrained by footnotes, caveats, and amendments and many a brilliant beginning has been drastically modified in the field.

A good example is diversity management. At its best, it is a beneficial program. At its worse, it is a zealot's dream. But no one would argue that it is uncomplicated. The sophisticates rush to implement diversity management programs when the much simpler concept of equal opportunity has yet to take root. They bring in corporate anthropologists to discuss the nuances of culture at the same time their first line supervisors are grappling with how to keep Tom from discriminating against Mary.

The great managers know this. As was once said, the young men know the rules and the old men know the exceptions. The great managers know that clarity and reliability are closely related to simplicity and that it is possible to be too clever by half. They avoid complication.

This simplicity produces a direct nature. These managers don't sit behind closed doors trying to figure out what employees want; they ask them. They don't develop a new departmental policy to deal with Maria's misconduct; they talk to Maria. They don't conjure fears of litigation to justify not taking action against jerks; they take no-nonsense steps.

Over the years, I've found that these managers have another characteristic: The employees respect and trust them. That's not surprising because with these folks, what you see is what you get. They don't say Yes and do No. You always know where you stand; unlike the smooth talkers, who can always find an escape clause.

In short, the great managers and leaders still believe in things like honor and loyalty.

You know, all that unsophisticated stuff.

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