The future of management

What do we need from our business schools?

Glenn Corr interviewed by Tony Miller

I have known Glenn since he was a student in my engineering class. We spoke about two broad subjects in this interview. The first is Glenn’s view on the state of management today and what stops it improving. And the second is what subject material is required to be taught at university business schools in order to support this improvement.

Assessment of management

Tony: What is your assessment of management within the companies where you have worked?

Glenn: Mixed but generally positive. I started off leading small teams of five or six staff and then moved onto larger groups of over 1000 workers. For me I didn’t start learning about management and leadership - and I think there is a massive difference between the two - until I had to be responsible for things outside my area of understanding. Typically you begin managing teams of people in the same discipline as yourself. I’m an electrical engineer so you start off managing other electrical engineers. Then you become an engineer manager, managing different disciplines and then you become a business manager and manage areas you haven’t worked in before. And that for me is the real test, when you have to manage people with far more understanding of their areas of expertise, and as you get more senior this becomes inevitable, that you manage large areas of the business you have not personally worked in. You then need sufficient understanding to lead it, without getting into the detail, which is what your team is for.

I think there is a real upper management focus on metrics, measures or key performance indicators (KPIs), whatever terminology is used. I guess my more negative experience of management is that you can get really wrapped up in the measures. The focus is on metrics rather than people. The education I’m currently involved with is nearly all about process and not about how to lead people. But in any reasonable size of organisation a manager delivers through their people, so performance comes through people and when you need change, change comes through people. So I have come to believe in delegating responsibility and decision to the lowest level possible.

Tony: Did you find when you were being managed that there was sufficient delegation?

Glenn: I experienced all sorts. There was delegation so that it was down to you but sometimes this became more like abdication of responsibility at times. That’s good for learning because you are thrown in there and you’ve got to survive.

I’ve experienced management that doesn’t care for the people, just the deliverables. But one of the issues there is that any business is complicated, and that there are massive numbers of variables and interacting parts. Trying to summarise that into a set of measures is very difficult and what often happens is, we measure too many things at a senior level in our attempt to achieve complete understanding.

We need to know what the key components are and how they influence performance. But the details within that – that is why you have experts throughout the organisation and teams who can deliver on understanding their part of the business. So I think the manager’s job is to set the direction and to say what needs to be delivered. This can be done by the manager saying here are a bunch of metrics that I am going to use to assess how well you are achieving our goals. Now off you go and deliver. Or you go to the team and say - you know more about this than senior management so, how can we achieve this? You know what needs to be changed so, what are the measures we need? Then you are relying on expertise rather than assuming that at a senior level, we know how to do it.

So for me, one of the big negatives of management is this Management By Objectives (MBO), which is an incredibly unhealthy approach.

You have to rely on your people

The flip side of managing through people is that you have to be firm but fair. If your business model is that you get good people and you employ people to perform, then you have got to rely on those people. You have to have the right people in the right roles.

And that means that when people do not perform then that must be addressed very quickly. It is not something we are good at in the technical industries. We can fix machines but fixing people we find really difficult. The amount of times when everyone knows there is a problem with staff and no one says anything. Devious plans are made, all in order to avoid having to deal with a particular personnel problem. We shy away from saying ‘look, you are not delivering here’. But what is the fix? Often it is helping educate people, letting them see things in a different way, operate in a different way. Sometimes you just have to swap the people round.

It is amazing how often you can sit and listen to really robust conversations on an operation, where people are expressing their opinions really strongly. In the background there is a people issue that needs fixed and you witness their inability to meet it head-on. Their ability to talk round the issue, to obfuscate, is amazing. So a test for putting a manager into an organisation is how honest you are with and about people.

Tony: This is certainly an issue in higher education, where academics can be very poor at lecturing, and yet no one says anything even though everyone knows from talking with students exactly what the situation is.

Leadership

Glenn: There are different styles of leadership and I appreciate that you need a blend of these styles in an organisation. But I have developed confidence with people and know that I can motivate teams and they are happy that I am their manager. And one of the reasons is that I am just honest with people. Even when it is bad news and they don’t react well to begin with, people respect honesty rather than being misled.

Tony: Speaking as a theorist, I would say that you are not motivating people, so much as creating an environment where their own inbuilt motivation can find expression.

Glenn: It’s people. I struggle to understand this at times. I managed a team for some years before moving to a job in another company. Speaking to the team some time later they said their present manager is competent, plenty of experience, a good guy, but there is now no buzz about the place, just people doing their work. The place feels different. The only change has been in the manager. But where has the spark gone? So yes you are right, my job is to create an environment where people perform.

Tony: This is a problem in general with organisational change and indeed organisational transformation. In practice it appears to be very fragile, because it is dependent on the CEO, or for a team, the particular team leader. There seems no uniformity here. Is it that 80% of managers are controlling and anxious in their dealing with staff, so that when there is a change, the likely direction will be backwards?

Glenn: I have found that with people inherently it is way easier to follow than to lead. People relate decisions to stress. When somebody relaxes and is asked for a decision, the likely response is ‘ah you decide, I’m tired’. So maybe it is the case that only a minority of people are comfortable in making decisions. I’ve found that if you provide people with a little bit of direction, they can then fill in the gaps. It’s rare to find people that just say ‘this is what we’re going to do’. People are often caught up in their day-to-day tasks, considering details of the work. They look to a leader to set the long-term aim, and then to sustain a culture that helps everyone contribute to achieving that aim.

Being such a leader is very hard for middle managers, who are under pressure to deliver performance targets and to make the measurements look good. Personally I’ve found that it is a lot easier being a senior manager than a middle manager. It is a lot less stressful. I have the freedom to make decisions and get resources and I have more people to help get the details right

And being in the middle you get all the rubbish from the guys below, and all the rubbish from the senior managers. Whereas the amount of rubbish from above is much less for senior managers and they are free of having to manage the projects and the processes, which deliver for the organisation. Middle managers are beset with managing the work, and as such have little time for leadership. Senior managers can devote their time to leadership and decision making, which is a completely different requirement.

Tony: Isn’t this really unfair on middle managers. Senior staff can command that a middle manager cuts 15% from their budget and by the way make sure you also continue to meet your current KPIs. Middle managers running a system at above 90% utilisation of assets, are having to rush around just to keep the crises from becoming disasters. They have no time to think long term.

Managing the managers

Glenn: I do think it is massively important how you manage managers. I got accused in my last job of being too soft. Year after year I kept getting the highest feedback scores from the organisation for managers. I was called to head office and told these scores indicated I was too soft on people. Yet the feedback from my team was that I was really demanding: ‘You are fair, but you are very clear on what you expect’. I see my role as setting the direction and the goals, and my job is to help the team achieve that. I then become a coach. But I do demand a lot from highly educated and highly paid staff.

Tony: When you say you demand a lot – in what sense?

Glenn: Once we have agreed what the outcomes will be and the timescales and the rest of it, if we have sufficient resources I expect delivery. I don’t expect excuses. Look stuff happens and we work together round that, but I find that people like a challenge. What I don’t do is come and ask you everyday where we are at, what I will ask you every day is what do I need to do to help. There is no softening of the outcome, but the process to get there will be a whole lot more enjoyable because I’m not sitting in my office waiting for the result, I’m working right alongside them.

And the other thing that you must have is humour. When you laugh we feel good. There should be laughter in the office. One of the feedbacks I got after a project was someone noting that we had a laugh every day. The aim is to provide an up-beat environment where empathy and humour is not out of place. You can actually expect more out of people if you treat them as friends and share a certain amount of banter. I have been told that this approach is not preserving the workforce/management divide, which is just nonsense. So I think you can be demanding as long as you’re fair and transparent, and treat people as people and have a bit of fun as well.

People and systems

I used to think that as long as there are procedures in place then you can swap a manager out and a new one in without it having much effect. But I’ve changed my mind on that. Maybe managers of technical systems can be replaced because operational procedures dominate activity, the same stuff happens every day. But for managers of complex systems, when change happens all the time, you can’t write procedures and a process for every eventuality. There is a danger that you become so caught up in compliance that you don’t perform. So I think that complexity cannot be managed purely by process. Some process is required to keep you within some envelope, but you need competent people.

The oil and gas business is complex and you end up relying more on people than process. Everyone becomes important to the performance of the system. So if you shift key people out, it is not at all surprising that the performance of the system changes, probably for the worse. So I’ve kind of ditched my theory that people do not change the system. I think people massively change the performance of an organisation. If you want to change/transform a business, then change the people.

But there are plenty of negative examples, especially related to mergers, where you take a high performing organisation, or department, and merge it with another of similar size, and whether you mean to or not, you change the work environment. Seldom does the performance of the enlarged unit match that of the two components.

In reality we operate between two extremes of stable hierarchical bureaucracy and ad hoc behaviour; we have an organisational spectrum ranging from one which is entirely rule-based to one which is entirely people-based. In the technical industries we probably err on the side of rule-based organisations and pay the price for it in not being responsive or innovative enough.

Tony: How does what you see in management differ from what you would wish to see?

Glenn: I really like the idea of an apprenticeship approach to developing managers. We need managers who have real expertise in certain areas, and who can then build a generalist, systemic viewpoint over time through planned experience of all the other aspects of the organisation, especially the commercial and legal side. Managers need to be able to drill down – to survey the mountainside and see the rabbit. And they must have the expertise to assess when the level they have drilled down to can be handed over to the experts in that area. Sometimes you have to stay at that level of detail until you are sure that the issue is understood and being properly dealt with. You can get leaders that don’t want to get involved in the detail or want to spend all their time at the detail level and then crash into the mountainside because they didn’t keep an eye on the bigger landscape.

Tony: That’s why they produce so many measures, to allow them to see the rabbit. But the downside is that if you offer loads of measures you end up not seeing anything. Impact of measures 

Glenn: I once owned a Saab that had a gazillion lights on the dash, telling you about everything. But it had a night button which when you pressed it switched off all the instrument panel except the speedo. In many ways management need a night button. There are data that a leader needs to know on an ongoing basis and keep tabs on, such as output levels, op-ex costs, capital committed, plant uptime etc.. But the data need not be comprehensive for all levels.

Masses of measurements funnelling into upper management, and then presented on spreadsheets, does not provide information to the organisation in a meaningful way.

  • The ‘Tops’ have too much data and miss the signal.
  • The rest do not have enough data to see the signal.

It’s up to managers, because they come up with ‘these are the five million things we’re going to measure this year and I expect everyone to understand the measures’. Why? Knowing metrics we have no influence on is of little use. We do require those measures that support the work we are responsible for. So we need a revolution in the way we choose and manage our metrics, and the way we get information from the metrics. We get this consistently wrong. In my experience of being an asset director – a hugely enjoyable experience – the biggest frustration has been the amount of data we pass up to the corporate level. It is a one-way traffic of information that doesn’t change performance. So we are using time and effort to measure stuff that we just throw away. It is deeply frustrating and demotivating to people who spend their time doing things that they know does not impact the life of the business. Formal education of managers

Tony: Change of subject. You did an MBA not too long ago, which you passed with distinction. First of all what was your general experience of the course?

Glenn: I can only speak personally here. I attended the course as a part-time student, taking evening classes. I really enjoyed the course at Robert Gordon University and got a lot out of it. Interestingly I now teach on the MBA at Aberdeen University as an Executive Fellow.

The students fell into two categories: those that were there purely to get the qualification and progress to employment, and those who were already in employment, at the start of their managing career, and wanted to gain some expertise in the various aspects of managing an organisation. I did it because I wanted to know what I didn’t know. The students of the first kind tended to be happy with whatever was taught, their aim was focussed on passing the exams. Being in the second category I had a very different outlook. The course was very intensive and a lot of work, which was bearable, except when you were taught something that either didn’t relate to your needs or was taught badly. 

Tony: Can you give us more detail on what subjects were taught, and the usefulness of the subjects to your day job of being a manager?

Glenn: I loved the economics and corporate finance courses. Absolutely brilliant. Tremendous lecturers and delivering material I still use today. On the other side a researcher presented one module on Knowledge Management and that sadly was – for me – a waste of time. We had a module on Human Resource Management, which disappointedly was based on Harvard Business Review publications, and case studies of certain large organisations; it concentrated on the difference between soft and hard HR theory, which at one end was being nice to people and at the other end being demanding and ruthless about results. This to me was academia imploding; to me it was of no value. There was nothing on the legal status and obligations of running a business, which I would have liked to hear about, along with ideas of motivation, leadership, management styles, conflict management and employment law;

Management is an applied science and the real disappointment was that some of the lecturers had no experience of management, and could not or would not apply their own theories in class to real life situations. Students seeking guidance, applied to their own situations at work, were left with questions unanswered. This happened about 50% of the time. Which I guess is not too bad given the excellence of the other 50%.

Tony: Any advice to the MBA course team?

Glenn: Engage with the students. Have a module on understanding people (psychology), include team dynamics and the skills needed to interface positively with people, such as conflict resolution and negotiation skills. This is an area that occupies most managers. I would have loved to hear from a manager of 20 years experience, and listen to the lessons learnt during that time. When I think of the challenges I face in senior management, 99 times out of a hundred it is to do with a person or people. But the MBA program I took – some years ago now – had none of that. Have a module on the basic laws governing the running of a business. And finally, choose lecturers who can provide practical advice.

About the interviewee

Glenn is area manager for Enquest Ltd, one of the largest independent oil and gas development and production companies in the UK. He has held senior positions with Maersk Oil and Det Norske Veritas and took a two year break from his oil industry career as regional director of the National Trust for Scotland

He can be contacted through LinkedIn: Glenn Corr.

Glenn is a fan of Billy Connolly, Glaswegian comedian, musician and actor.

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