The curse of the accidental manager

On July 12th, the FT published an article headlined “The UK’s productivity problem: the curse of the ‘accidental manager”, you can find it here –

Are pork pies good for you?

It is somewhat disquieting to read that the “Peter principle”, see, continues to thrive in UK business.  Our poor productivity performance arises because too many people gain promotion into managerial roles beyond their level of natural competence.  However, in the firm featured in the FT article performance is improving.

It strikes me, however, that simply hanging up figures of Superman (is this unconscious bias by the firm’s leaders?), and doling out pork pies are rather superficial practices.  The only likely outcome of this epicurean approach is hardened arteries.

The firm’s performance growth is due to its managers doing something much more profound, i.e. the way they “serve” their employees, see Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership,

At the simplest level, they should be talking to their employees as equal partners striving for success.  When this is achieved, I hope they’re rewarded with more than cholesterol laden pies!

The art of conversation

What needs to be in place for these productive conversations to occur?  The business appears to have a singular aim, namely to grow.  The old saw of sales being vanity, profit sanity and cash reality continues to play true.  I have seen too many vain businesses run out of reality (the doubling of return on assets indicates the featured business to be sane, which I hope continues).

When conversations pivot on such a single aim and consider what needs to be done and how, there is focus of attention.  Note I use the word “conversation” in its plural; performance can’t just be discussed once a year.  It needs to be a consistent and constant habit within the business.  Adding a “please” when asking someone to do something or a “thank-you” when it has been done, makes a huge difference.  As the article says, a 0.1% change in the quality and tone of behavioural engagement pays rich dividends in getting more done and to higher standards.  In one measurement process I use, I have witnessed raising behavioural quality by 10% sees business climate improve by 20% and performance by 40%.

While I am no fan of procrastination, nor am I one of ruthlessness as the article describes US managers.  A leader is there to serve not dominate; tolerance and understanding of circumstances are required more so than an ability to churn out “pink slips”.

In the long-term, command and control does not reap rewards.

We know where we are going but not where we are starting from

I have experienced over three decades of “continuous improvement”, starting with Philip Crosby’s “price of non-conformance”, see

The crucial feature of any quality process is that it must start with a clear definition or specification of the current state; to head off to somewhere new and, hopefully, better, you need to know your starting point.  Otherwise, your journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step being taken in entirely the wrong direction.

This “map reference” for the origin of the improvement journey is best defined by the people in the know, i.e. those doing the work.  People tend to like being asked their view about things especially when they can speak openly about their personal experience.  It is amazing what can be learned.  Enacting suggestions from those doing the work is hugely positive; when someone sees their idea implemented they are encouraged to make further suggestions.

Learning rather than indulging in tourism

The article talks about learning from other business, which appears to be retracing steps back to the 1990s fad of “benchmarking”, which when done well yields results.  When it falls back to being “industrial tourism” it doesn’t.  I have seen many instances of business leaders encouraging their people to go out and be more observant when they deal with other firms.  In his book Drive, Dan Pink, see, cites autonomy as one of three drivers of motivation.

Asking employees about their experience when they’ve bought something and had to return it enables real conversations to occur about the firm’s own service experience.  Did they get a sharp intake of breath, “Let me check with my manager”, or an apology and initiative to put things right straight away?  The right thing is done in the right way.  Disney call these conversations “good show, bad show”, let’s adopt the good and reject the bad.

The inclusive manager

This is where someone who wants to be a manager will out-perform the accidental one.  Having trusted and trained (the order is key) their people to treat customers (internal as well as external because they appreciate an internal cock-up eventually leaches out to the external customer) well, they frequently talk through different instances in order to learn.  One hotel group calls this “asking why five times”, which is a far more human way of describing root-cause analysis.

Such conversations represent the “manager as coach”; they’re accepting they are accountable for their people’s performance and enabling them to accept their own responsibility for delivering great work.  They are re-stimulating childlike inquisitiveness, often suppressed by contemporary exam focused education.

Importantly, they’re exhibiting openness and acceptance of difference by valuing diversity and inclusion, both that which is directly apparent and that which is less overt in the individual’s psychological composition.  Inclusion and diversity lie at the heart of many decades work by Ian Dodds, who was the recipient of the Lotus Award Winner 2017 Lifetime Achievement for Pioneering Inclusive Cultures.  You can reach Ian at

Growing pains

As businesses grow it is essential that its organisational shape has both flexibility and cohesion.  This does not mean building an old-fashioned hierarchical pyramid, but it does mean defining roles with clear purpose and objectives that need to be aligned with corporate ambitions; e.g. vision of success delivery, including growth and profit.

These profiles need to spell out the skills, knowledge, experience and, most of all, behaviours required to be successful in the role.  The recruitment and selection process must be thorough in the way it uncovers the extent to which the applicants possess the required qualities.  (I covered this in my last blog.)

Recruit for attitude, train for skills

Behaviours positively differentiate performance from the threshold level attainable through skills, knowledge and experience.  Cutting corners here risks introducing a bad apple into the barrel; if you only employ a small number of people, that one wrong decision to introduce a contaminate can be far more damaging than when someone below par is recruited into a workforce population of hundreds or thousands.  The cost of a sacrificing your standards can be catastrophic.

A famous story from the early years of SW Airlines saw a person come for an interview to be a pilot.  He displayed conceit and arrogance to the receptionist when announcing his arrival.  The applicant was invited to take the lift to the floor in which the interview was to take place.  In the time the lift took to travel between floors the receptionist told the recruiting manager what had happened.  That manager welcomed the applicant pilot and told him the interview would not take place because of his attitude.  He was taken back down in the lift and escorted him out of the building.  The manager thanked the receptionist for her perceptive feedback.

While it is one of the less appealing words in the modern business lexicon, give some thought as to how you will “onboard” the new person.  At one US telecoms firm I visited, they put far more effort into welcoming events than they did leaving parties; perhaps the first taste of the corporate pork pie?

What will you do to explain your values and expectations of new starters?  If they are to be Superman (but why not Wonder Woman or Black Panther to stretch the demographic range?), are you going to provide the metaphorical pants to wear on the outside, i.e. ongoing access to learning and development?

The FT article talks about the pace of change; the need for continuous improvement at the level of personal capability has never been greater.  Not providing opportunity to grow is akin to giving kryptonite to Superman.

The BFB’s choreography 

Where and when does performance get talked about?  At every opportunity and not downwards from boss to direct report across the boss’ desk.  If the boss is not serving or meeting the needs of the people who report to them, those individuals should feel able to give that upward performance feedback.  Likewise, between peers.

There is a “choreography” to these conversations; feedback may be a gift, but the recipient must be ready to receive it.  Generally, it is more effective for the person wanting to give feedback to ask the other person for their assessment of the situation.  In instances when constructive feedback is warranted the recipient already realises this and welcomes the opportunity to talk things through.  Where praise is going to be given, a recipient who is modest may wish to brush it off, which risks losing the opportunity for broader learning by not identifying and understanding causation.

Going back to the word “ruthless” to describe US managerial practice, I recall 1980s Citibank CEO John Reed talking about a three-step process; first failure to perform is probably unintended and needs to be handled swiftly and deftly (gross misconduct or negligence are different, however); a second occurrence of the same failure is a “corporal” offence and needs a firmer hand to be taken; a third occurrence is a “capital” offence demanding exit.

This approach strikes me as being firm yet fair; the exercise of “tough love” in an adult/adult manner not parent-child admonishment.  Or, as a colleague once described my father after his death, “He was the best effing bastard (BFB) I ever worked for.”

What the FT article paints vividly is how easy it is to be a FB; it is the hallmark of the accidental manager.  I aim to develop BFBs and reduce the prospect of more accidents occurring.




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