Is management a legitimate primary skill?

Crazy management theories

migrating geese
Credit: Wikipedia

Eons ago, in a former incarnation, I dated a woman who was working on a master’s degree in education. I recall one discussion where she explained a core component of modern education theory: certified, professional educators can teach any subject, regardless of whether or not they know the subject.

Hmmmm. Do you buy that one? I sure don’t. If you want to learn how to build networks, you want to learn from someone who has actually done it rather than from someone who is one step ahead of you in a workbook. Surgery? Flying a jet? You need a teacher who has been successful at it.

800px student teachers kindergarten 1898 Ontario Ministry of Education

Management as a primary skill

Like that theory of education, management theory tells us that professional managers can manage anything regardless of whether or not they understand the specifics of the particular discipline they are overseeing. I don’t put much stock in that theory either. Moreover, I don’t even accept the theory that management is a legitimate primary skill.

Everyone should be proficient in at least one discipline, whether it is carpentry, accounting, system administration, application development or basket weaving. Becoming an expert at some craft allows you to develop metaphors and perspectives that translate to an understanding of other skills. A manager who is an expert at one or more disciplines will be a far better manager than someone whose only skill is management. I don’t have any data for you – only personal observation over several decades. My experience has taught me that managers with hard skills generally perform better than those who are generalist managers. Poor management is an epidemic.

The Stouffer’s management training program

After serving in the Korean War and studying at hotel and restaurant management school, my father secured a position as a manager with Stouffer’s restaurants. In the 1950s, people had too much common sense to trust young management graduates to actually know anything, so Stouffer’s put its new hires through a six-month program where they learned every job in the restaurant. A cycle of washing dishes, waiting tables and tending bar prepared the prospective managers to assume their roles with a profound understanding of all the system components.

My father was fantastically successful in the business and ended up owning many prosperous bars and restaurants. He was really good with real estate rental properties, too.

However, when he branched out of his areas of expertise, things didn’t go quite so well. In business school, they taught him that his “management” credits would transfer to other businesses. They didn’t.

They also taught him another really destructive theory – cost management. He is an amazing cost and cash manager but he's terrible at determining value, as were most of the managers of that era. W.E. Deming published Out of the Crisis in 1982, but most managers still act as if Deming never existed. Viewing a business operation through a purely quantitative lens only takes a spreadsheet. Understanding a business qualitatively requires a far more gifted manager.

My dad is 86 and still likes to manage. My wife and I both garden, and he is always giving us horticultural advice even though he has never stuck his hands into dirt in his life. Once a manager, always a manager. Educationally, my father would have been better served if he had learned some hard skill first – maybe even gardening! Management is a poor choice for a primary skill, but it makes a great secondary skill.

24-year-old management consultants

These days, no MBA graduate would tolerate the Stouffer’s training program. The MBA’s helicopter parents would be calling HR to negotiate a corner office and a signing bonus. Forget about starting at the bottom washing dishes. Believe it or not, some large corporations now have parent orientation programs! It’s like kindergarten orientation all over again, but for 24-year-old MBAs. Why would anyone hire someone whose mommy is calling HR to negotiate the compensation package?

If you have ever worked with or hired a large consulting organization, you may have experienced this phenomenon: Seasoned partners seal the deal, but once the ink is dry, the twentysomething consultants show up to do the work. Or, as in another case I recently experienced, consultants from halfway around the world fly in with temporary visas. (If you haven’t watched House of Lies yet, you should check it out.) Who in their right mind would pay attention to a 24-year-old right out of grad school?

Twentysomethings with prestigious MBAs are smart and eager, but do they really know anything? They don’t have the years or decades of experience required to address the behavioral and psychological pathologies that are core components of the typical business operation. They also haven’t survived utter and complete failure. Understanding the big picture of a complex operation requires total comprehension of the details.

Where am I going with all of this? Learn a real skill and become an expert at it. Only then will you have the perspective to learn and apply management skills. You’ll be a better manager for it. Next time, we’ll discuss who should manage IT departments.

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