Approaching the end of my schooldays, other than a vague inkling that farming would feature in some way in my future, I hadn’t the slightest idea as to the career path I’d follow.
Mentioning this to a school career guidance counsellor, she grimaced and pointed out that farmers needed business skills, and as bookkeeping wasn’t one of my chosen subjects, she strongly recommended I avoided anything in commercial farming.
“How about becoming a teacher?” she suggested.
“Why not?” I thought, and off to university I went to prepare for a teaching career.
It didn’t last long. Exposure to the wider wonders of the animal and plant kingdoms brought my embryonic agricultural instincts to the surface and, influenced by a brilliant zoology lecturer, I ended my university career with a degree in entomology.
My first job had me testing insecticides and counting insects on citrus and cotton crops, and as time moved on I found myself the boss of a small team of operators.
We were turning out results and information on new products when I discovered that one of my team members had being seriously neglectful about calibrating spray equipment.
To add insult to injury, when confronted, he became abusive in full view of his colleagues. I had to take action against him, but what?
And then I had an epiphany! No one ever, not at school or university or in my job, had ever said a word to me about ‘management’.
I was well-trained in insects, but completely ignorant when it came to managing, organising, motivating and disciplining staff.
Unbeknown to me, many great minds had for many years recognised that there was more to motivating people than threatening them with a flogging or beheading.
Niccolò Machiavelli was one of the first of these great minds. In his 1532 political treatise titled The Prince, he stumbled upon the realisation that people were motivated by self-interest.
But it took a long time for new ideas to catch on in those days, and it was only in the early 1900s that comprehensive theories about management began to appear. Harvard Business School’s MBA programme was established in 1908, and appreciation that the skill of the manager, more than anything else, determined the success of an organisation gathered pace in academic and business circles.
It was Peter Drucker, an Austrian-American academic and author, who led the charge. In 1946, his Concept of the Corporation about General Motors was the first book to cover ‘management’. Then in 1954, his book The Practice of Management recognised that management was the ultimate lifeblood of any organisation or business.
In my early days as a manager, a flood of new management techniques emerged.
And they all had catchy names: ‘quality circles’; ‘management by objectives’; ‘six sigma’ and ‘objectives matrix’ are just a few that come to mind.
Some were fads and faded quickly, while others remain to this day.
There are many brilliant books that provide gems of wisdom for anyone with aspirations of becoming a better manager. They include:
- In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, in which they coined the phrase ‘stick to your knitting’, which has become integral business jargon;
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, which conceptualises the ‘maturity continuum’ that all managers go through: dependency on others, followed by the cocky independent stage, and finally interdependency, realising that they don’t know everything;
- Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, which identifies ‘12 myths’ about building a successful business; and
- Good to Great by Jim Collins, in which he turns the conventional wisdom of first developing strategy, and then appointing people to implement it, on its head.
A fresh start?
As the new year gets underway, remember that nothing will affect your own personal and organisational success more than your skill as a manager. And the great thing is that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, because we’re living in a golden era of information availability. Use it, and make 2023 the year you moved from a ‘good’ to a ‘great’ manager.
Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.