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On The Crap Advice Novice Managers Get

“He’s a manager now, he does manager things.” Photo by Phil Dokas via Flickr.

It is easy to blame it all on Mark Zuckerberg, who turns 30 today. Mashable had fun with his irreverent approach to work attire, the hoodie which symbolizes “corporate is a waste of time.”

As a cultural influence Zuckerberg promotes an “open and connected” world, i.e. no distinction between your personal and professional identities or past and present identities. You are always one and discoverable. On this there is intense debate, particularly since he personally lives such a private life.

As a boss, too, he seems rather traditional – getting positive reviews for listening thoughtfully, focusing on the work and making a decision. See for example “Working With Zuck” and the multiple answers on Quora.

But Zuckerberg does represent social flattening, even subversion of traditional hierarchies, and the hoodie is his way of showing it. Other executives build this concept into their business model. For example Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey is a fan of the idea of extreme social bonding with employees.

“I know this sounds weird, but there’s something about sleeping in the same house and then fixing breakfast or dinner together that is very much a bonding experience.” – BBC, 7 April 2014

Consider what a high and exploitive bar that is. Beyond technical proficiency or emotional intelligence. You’ve got to jump through the hoops of high school, college, and standardized tests, only to have to shape yourself into some kind of perfect Play-Doh, able to make it through Weekend at Bernie’s.

“This level of personal interaction, says Mr. Mackey, prevents staff compartmentalising (sic) their work life and personal life, and means workers can relate on a deeper level.” – BBC, 7 April 2014

So in the name of egalitarianism, you are stripped of your private self, forced into emotional bonding (bondage), and then hired only on probation. After a time, peers conduct a secret vote as to whether to keep you.  (Luckier Amazon recruits get $5,000 to go away.)

This is immoral, scarily sophisticated service economy thinking, “be likable or die.” Other messages: Be productive or die, on our kind of team. You are lucky to be here, and the profits accrue to Whole Foods. When we toss you out, that part of you that bonded with us stays here as well.

Steering this kind of ship (generally, and correcting it back to a more ethical place, which seems imperative) is actually harder than running the ordinary, top-down, command-and-control type of vehicle. In fact I’d argue that it brings up problems most managers would never have thought of.

Yet management headlines with their current “soft” focus make the whole thing look easy. They vastly underestimate the task. Worse yet, they mislead people into thinking that it’s somehow “wrong” to actually be a boss. For example:

Don’t misunderstand me – culture is all, or nearly all. As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Here’s a useful article on that.) But you’ve got to know what you are doing. And take responsibility for doing it right, and consider the consequences of what you do.

Certainly Whole Foods is succeeding. As BBC notes, it has held Fortune’s “Best Companies To Work For” status for nearly two decades, versus as Gallup found, in the U.S. employee disengagement stands at a huge proportion, 70%. In a tough economy, Whole Foods had its best sales year ever in 2013.

And they build their culture carefully. It’s deliberately “egalitarian” (even though it’s not – there is still a 19 times pay differential between the average employee and executive staff). Those who don’t fit in, get voted out by their peers, not by management. A precise number of teams manage each store relatively independently, and innovation starts at the edge not the core.

So casual on its face. But the result of nonstop effort. Similar to writing – a Great American Novel is never really a fluke. Lena Dunham, the creative force behind Girls, told Vogue that she writes all the time. All the time! Think about that. She is consumed by this thing – it isn’t something she can toss off naturally in five minutes, even if it seems very natural.

Great managers work hard to become excellent at being excellent. They learn to provide staff with goals, objectives, priorities and expectations. To motivate them. To monitor their performance. And to distribute rewards and negative consequences fairly. There is no getting away from these tasks, no matter how “egalitarian” you are.

You can’t drive a car just by watching movies about cars. Similarly managers should educate themselves on management, and not take it casually or for granted. Even a little bit makes a difference that everybody can feel and appreciate.

* All opinions my own.


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