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July 25, 2006

Professional Managers - a 21st Century Oxymoron

One of the great myths of the late 20th Century is that there is a such a thing as a "Professional Manager", someone who is not an expert in anything except the management function. In short, someone who knows nothing whatever about the actual operation of the organisation, company or service except how to "manage". Interestingly, at a recent seminar on "modernisation of management structures" - shorthand for "get rid of anyone who actually knows how whatever we do is done, and replace them with people who know how to run meetings and write memos" - and had one speaker stand up and tell us that the difference between a "Leader" and a "Professional Manager" is as follows:

When a group is lost in a jungle, a leader will climb the tallest tree, survey the tree tops and then tell his team "we are in the wrong jungle". A Manager will reorganise his team, set tasks and targets, and manage the team out of the jungle.

Funny, he seemed to think that the burst of derisive laughter from almost all of us present, was approval and agreement. It took a while to disillusion him.

The problem is obvious to those who care to look closely at what is happening in public services, in commerce and in industry. "Professional Managers" breed bureaucratic procedures - PRINCE 2 is an obvious, if somewhat extreme example. Because they have no understanding of the functions they are supposed to be "managing" the people they "manage" spend inordinate amounts of time explaining why the procedures they want to put in place will not work, cannot work or will simply prevent anyone from doing the job which is the primary function of the organisation. Prime examples are "Health and Safety" policies which prevent people from changing light bulbs until scaffold towers have been erected, safety harnesses donned and a safety net installed. Another is the manager who demands "make a business case" for everything from buying new batteries for the torch you need to check the interior of a roof void as a building inspector to building a new office extension - but will happily approve the employment of another dozen or so "administration officers", "personal assistants" or the redecoration and refurnishing of a suite of offices for another batch of like minded paper shufflers while essential plant and machinery continues to break down because it is not properly maintained because "we have to make economies" or it is considered "non-essential" to the "core business".

In short, there is no such thing as a "professional manager", there cannot be, since a manager who does not fully understand what it is that they manage, how it is done and how it needs to evolve, is not a manager at all. This is why we see the ever increasing reliance on "committee decision making" - shorthand for "if the committee made the decision I can't be blamed if it goes wrong" - and for "Quality Management Systems" so that we can have "audit trails" to the person to blame when it goes wrong. This myth of the "professional manager" is a pernicious one because it eventually leads to a state in any organisation where communication fails because they peiople who know what the organisation does refuse to talk to the "decision makers" because its a waste of time trying to tell them about things they don't understand. Eventually the organisation splits in two halves, with management thinking all is rosey and the working end knowing its not, unable to do anything about it and just keeping things going because they need to job and the income.

Look at some of the really big business failures and at some of those that have come close to failure and what do you find? Boardrooms stuffed with Accountants, Lawyers and "Managers" who have never had contact with the shop floor and have no understanding of it (The failures in the Home Office provide another excellent example - most of the senior civil servants who write the rules and procedures have never processed an asylum seekers application and wouldn't even know what it looked like!) and senior management who are likewise "professional managers" selected for their ability to speak the language of the "bottom line" but with siometimes even less knowledge of the shop floor than the Board.

Another indication of the "Professional Management" is the myth that they do listen. Staff Opinion Surveys are now another of the tools used by these "professionals" and in a recent one done in a place I work for, 87% of staff said they had no confidence in the management team, 3% opted for "no opinion" and 10% said they thought management was wonderful. Unsurprisingly the staff of the management suite equals about 10% of the total staff. Now a leader would be worried by this, but not this crew of "professional managers" - they blithely announced that they had noted that staff didn't understand some of the "tough decisions" they are making, but were encouraged by the fact that 13% of the staff were fully behind them and they would work on encouraging the rest to swing behind them too. Watch this space, the site the organisation currently occupies will be a business park within the next five years.

"Professional Manager" is a complete oxymoron, you simply cannot be professional if you do not have a good working knowledge of the thing you are managing. There is no "two week course" which will make you an expert in any field - if there was I'd have applied to be First Sea Lord years ago - I rather fancy myself as an Admiral of the Fleet. After all, its only a management function sending ships around the workld and managing their supply and crewing. Isn't it?

You can be a "professional" and a "manager" - but you cannot be a "professional manager".

Posted by The Gray Monk at July 25, 2006 08:14 AM

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It's taken me ten years to grasp that real life apparently hasn't happened unless there was a meeting about it, with an agenda announced beforehand and minutes that basically are the agenda all over again. All new MBAs are taught that meetings are the only way to cover your back and they will not do anything that you think they promised to do... unless it was promised in a meeting. I think there's a reason why it's called a "BROWN table strategy". It certainly resembles one brown thing that springs to mind...

Posted by: groendraak at July 25, 2006 11:33 AM