World-renowned business thinker and corporate strategist Henry Mintzberg first came to prominence with his book The Nature of Managerial Work. Since then he has written number of books covering diverse range of subjects from corporate strategy to the ordeals of international travel.
Currently the Cleghorn professor of management studies at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, he is also visiting professor at number of business schools including INSEAD and London Business School. He was the driving force behind the creation of the International Masters Programme in Practising Management.
Mintzberg has deserved reputation for provocative and controversial thinking. Yet, while he may be controversial his observations are invariably amusing and insightful.
During visit to London, Mintzberg spoke to Steve Coomber about variety of subjects including what it takes to be an effective manager and why an MBA is not necessarily part of that equation.
What are the key skills that successful managers need?
I’m always reluctant to talk about what the key skills of effective managers are, as it becomes an infinitely long list. I think it’s more about what the characteristics are that lead to effective management. Managers need to be informed and they need to know what’s going on at the ground level in their organisations.
Effective chief executives are candid and thoughtful. They don’t follow the crowd. They think things through for themselves, something fewer and fewer chief executives do these days. They are not big on managerial correctness; they know what they think is right. The key factor for me is that they do what they do based on deep tacit understanding of what they are managing – both the industry and the company itself.
Are these the kind of skills you get from taking an MBA?
No, you don’t get any of it. The MBA does exactly the opposite; it trains people out of context. It gives them the impression that they can manage anything because there is no context in an MBA programme. Even when people have experience it is rarely used. The traditional style MBA doesn’t use experience at all.
Take case studies for example. Learning from case studies isn’t experience, it’s voyeurism. People who are already practising management can learn from cases written about other people. But people who haven’t practised management can’t learn from them that easily. Worse still, case studies are not used just to expose people to other kinds of experience; they are used to force people to make decisions based on the most superficial of knowledge. What do the people know about these companies that they are forced to make decisions about? They read 20 pages the night before.
When Business Week did survey of MBAs while ago, the MBAs named their favourite chief executive. It was top-five list and none of them had an MBA.
In your new book you outline three different types of management style: calculating, heroic and engaging. What is the difference between them?
We’ve long been dominated by calculating managers, right back to Robert McNamara, ex-Ford president and Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam war, and his obsession with numbers. Then there was ITT and Harold Geneen with all his numbers. Now it’s in the form of shareholder value. Everybody is looking at the stock price every few hours. It is like playing tennis and watching the scoreboard instead of the ball. That is the calculating manager.
Heroic managers are ultimately not much different but they think they are artists, they think they are very creative. So they come out with these strategies like at Vivendi, AOL Time Warner, or AT&T. They come out with all these lovely looking strategies, which ultimately are not that interesting. I call them pretend artists. These are the heroic managers, engaging in the great massive mergers with all the drama that entails.
Finally we have the style I prefer, which I call engaging. This is where managers and chief executives first go about engaging themselves. They know the industry. They know the people. They are committed to the company. They are not there for few years just to drive up stock prices and run off with their bonuses. And by engaging themselves, they engage other people.
You suggest that the dominance of the MBA as an educational standard has corrupted managerial practice. Why is that?
Because you have people coming out thinking they are prepared to manage and they are not. Even worse, you get people coming out who don’t even go into management, they go into consulting or finance. They do run around management and end up leaping from consulting or financial jobs into chief executive chairs. The performance of many of them is just plain dreadful. There are exceptions but lot of them fail terribly.
But what is it about an MBA education which you believe often makes people ill equipped to be leaders in corporations?
Confidence without competence. Which to me is equivalent to arrogance.
MBA courses tend to attract people who aren’t necessarily sensitive to people issues. We have lot of evidence that these are people more concerned with numbers, and getting themselves ahead, than dealing with people. There’s wonderful quote which comes from an interview with Harvard professor John Kotter. He did study of the Harvard MBA class of 1974, tracking their careers. journalist asked him if the people he tracked were team players. He said no, they want to run the team, create the team and lead it to glory rather than be member of someone else’s team. And that is the antithesis of team working.
We talk about top managers but anyone who’s on top of the team is outside it and doesn’t know what is going on. We describe organisations as networks and we talk about top managers but anybody who’s on top of the network is outside the network. That is exactly what the Kotter quote suggests. These people don’t want to be part of the team, they want to run the team. It’s the obsession with having to be in charge. You know leadership should be earned. Leadership shouldn’t be granted because you have degree and an old boys’ network.
So how do you earn leadership?
You earn leadership from those that you lead. You earn leadership from earning the respect of the people. Kofi Annan was put into his position at the United Nations with tremendous support from the UN staff. He earned his leadership. McKinsey & Co elects its senior partner, its chief executive in effect, by vote of the senior partners. I wonder if it has ever recommended that to any of its clients.
Can you learn leadership or do you think it’s an innate quality?
You learn it through experiences, exposures and challenges. Nobody has ever been made into leader in the classroom. Courses that claim to create leaders are dishonest. You can’t create leader in the classroom. If people are already in positions of leadership you can enhance their managerial skills and their understanding of their job.
I am totally against this notion that you can separate managers from leaders. This implies that leaders don’t have to manage, which means that leaders don’t have to know what is going on intimately in their organisation. Which is wrong.
They have to be connected and management is the way in which they are connected. Nobody wants managers who aren’t leaders. So why would we want leaders who aren’t managers, leaders who don’t know what is going on, who aren’t connected? It’s phoney distinction.
What are the key issues facing CEOs today?
If you are in publicly traded company, it’s probably coping with shareholder value. Trying to get past the short-term pressures, the need to impress the media, for example, and really build the company substantially.
How can senior management best cope with disproportionate emphasis on shareholder value?
Taking the company private is one way. Another way is to open up the repre