The Secret of Management, or How to Manage More by Managing Less

Editor’s note: Sometimes, readers ask about past TLNT articles that they have heard about but may have missed. That’s why every Friday, we’re republishing a Classic TLNT post that some of you have requested.

By Thomas O. Davenport and Stephen D. Harding

In one study of manager roles, a participant used an automotive metaphor to describe his job:

“I try to keep things running smoothly. Basically, we have this really high-powered technical engine — a Maserati — and when you see that Maserati running and racing and really impressive, you don’t see me driving it, you don’t see me as the car or the engine. I’m the mechanic that comes in at night that does the tune-ups so that the next day it’s running smooth.”

This idea conjures up images of high performance and winning races, themes consistent with the manager’s contribution to organizational effectiveness and competitive success. But notice that the manager-as-mechanic, who makes sure the machine runs flawlessly, works so subtly that he makes his contribution not only off-hours, but also offstage.

This metaphor reminds us of the idea that, for a host of reasons, 21st Century managers must do what they do away from center stage. With this in mind, we might also think of the effective manager as:

  • Sculptor, crafting job roles that fit both individual needs and organizational requirements.
  • Catalyst, initiating action in the workplace but doing so without direct involvement.
  • Conductor, orchestrating the efforts of others and the environment in which they perform for maximum effect, while not actually playing the music
  • Broker, acquiring resources and creating internal and external relationships that make people more effective.

These forms of manager behavior don’t just produce good feelings among employees, nor do they merely improve a manager’s ability to contribute to strategic success. Ultimately, they represent the only feasible approaches for responding to the inherent ambivalence people harbor toward leaders.

The managerial balancing act

Our analysis of employee commentary about their managers tells us that people want managers to spend the right amount of person-to-person time (not too much, not too little) and make the time valuable for the employee (whether gratifying to the manager or not). Managers who strike this balance give people the ability and the confidence needed to work autonomously.

Managers benefit their people most when they manage the task environment, the learning environment, the reward environment, and the change environment. They manage everything except the people (who aren’t assets to be managed anyway, as we said in Chapter One).

These effective supervisors are indeed environment engineers, constructing he organizational landscape to create a fertile ecosystem in which employees can flourish. Gary Hamel and Bill Breen, in TheFuture of Management, echo the manager paradox when they describe the need for a light-handed approach to management and leadership: ” The most valuable human capabilities are precisely those that are the least manageable (italics original) … getting the most out of people seldom means managing them more, and usually means managing them less.”

To be sure, managers must exercise power — but not in the way usually ascribed to the manager’s job.

Rather than power over, a manager who effectively leads from offstage will focus energy on power to — to obtain resources, to clear obstacles, to build network links, and to identify information sources. An employee at a high-tech client of ours said it succinctly in written comments he gave on a survey: “My manager’s success should depend on my success. He should be held more seriously accountable for focusing ‘down’ than focusing ‘up.’

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We took pains in Chapter One to differentiate managing from leading. We emphasized the difference to make a point: that they are separate disciplines, each necessary for enterprise success, but not to be confused with each other. So, you might ask, as they oversee the execution of tasks, build employees’ ability to perform, deliver and engaging deal, and energize change: are managers managing or leading? The answer, no surprise, is both, often seamlessly.

Where managers succeed — and fail

For example, a supervisor who involves employees in deciding how work will get done must focus both on the process (a managerial task) and the person (a leadership activity). By crafting a job with high autonomy for an employee, she is practicing both one-person-at-a-time leadership and managing the improvement of work processes.

On one hand, a manager’s efforts to energize change could focus on improvements to procedures and systems (managing). On the other, those improvements will likely falter without involvement from employees who have the practical knowledge to help plot the way to the future. In these situations, an effective manager entwines the strands of management and leadership to create a single cord. The two threads remain distinct but combine for added strength.

Although we find this configuration of elements logical and compelling, we continue to see that, from the employee perspective at least, managers often fail to deliver the full benefits of this way of managing.

What goes wrong? Why can’t managers consistently live up to their potential as sources of competitive advantage? What must organizations do to give their managers a fighting chance to do their best work and make their greatest contribution?

We will tackle those questions in the next chapter.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Manager Redefined: The Competitive Advantage in the Middle of Your Organization, by Thomas Davenport and Stephen Harding Copyright (c)  2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

Thomas O. Davenport is a senior practitioner in the San Francisco office of Towers Watson. He provides advice on human capital strategy, employee and organization research, and leadership development. Contact him at Stephen D. Harding is a senior practitioner in the London office of Towers Watson. He has consulted in employee research and organizational behavior for 20 years, managing employee research projects throughout Europe.