It Aint Rocket Science

By John Hollon

Jul. 14, 2008

I never cease to be amazed at the sheer number of business and management books that get published every year. There’s no management topic too obscure, no strategy too minor to merit its own hardcover. Every week, three or four are sent to me for review or possible use in Workforce Management (the stack of them just from 2008 is approaching the ceiling in my office), and I know that is just the tip of the business-publishing iceberg.

    The reason so many get published is pretty simple: People are hungry for good management. Everyone is looking for the magic formula that will help make them that great manager who can drive workers (and the organization) to the next level.

    But the more I wade into the river of management books flowing through my mailbox, the more I’m convinced that all too many of these titles really miss the point—that good management is really pretty simple.

    I’ve been writing about it the last few years here in The Last Word and in my blog, The Business of Management ( bizmgmt). As I look back over what I’ve written, I see that I come back to the same issues and themes. These are, for the most part, drawn from my own experience and education, but I’ve never really tried to quantify them into a list of “best practices” until now.

    So that you don’t have to dig through one of those many business books that keeping getting published, here—free of charge—are my top management tips:

    You must be able to manage expectations. There’s a fine art to this, and it generally takes time and practice to figure out how to do it right. But remember that your credibility—and sometimes your job—is at stake if you can’t deliver on what you say you can do. The trick is to under-promise and over-deliver, to set expectations where you can reasonably meet and exceed them.

    Never forget the “no-surprise rule.” This is one of the first rules of management I ever learned, and it’s simple: Don’t let the boss be caught flat-footed by something you should have let her know about. If you have to choose, over-communicate rather than under-communicate, and tell the boss everything until you figure out what he wants to know.

    Know what you don’t know. Be realistic about what you’re good at, and what you aren’t. Great managers like Warren Buffett become great because they know in their hearts that they don’t know everything. They put great people who know what they are doing in charge and get out of the way. If someone as successful as Warren Buffett can take this approach, you can too.

    You always need a Plan B. No matter how smoothly things seem to be running, managers should always be thinking “What if?” You need to develop contingency plans that will keep things going when the much-feared worst-case scenario really does come to pass.

    Learn the art of the apology. Attorney Steve Paskoff notes that apologies can be a powerful tool for conflict resolution, but only if they’re part of a cultural change. “You need your corporate leaders to say, ‘If we make mistakes, we fix them.’ If someone says there is a problem, you need to listen to what they have to say. And if you have a problem, you need to bring it up, because we’ll listen.”

    Treat people right. This sounds deceptively simple, but I am amazed at how few businesses and managers actually practice it. I reflected on it a few weeks ago when Herb Kelleher finally stepped down as chairman of Southwest Airlines. “You have to treat your employees like customers,” Kelleher would always say. “When you treat them right, then they will treat your outside customers right. That has been a powerful competitive weapon for us. … Our people know that if they are sick, we will take care of them. If there are occasions of grief or joy, we will be there with them. They know that we value them as people, not just cogs in a machine.”

    If you focus on these simple rules, I guarantee that you will be a better manager—and you won’t need to wade through the latest management book to get there. Take what you would have spent and buy lunch for an under­appreciated team member.

Workforce Management, June 9, 2008, p. 42Subscribe Now!

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