Understanding Management

I’ve been called many names. “A good manager needs to be like the mayor,” I heard a top-level executive declare last week. The comparisons don’t end there. What makes management so hard to understand that we have to make a myriad of silly comparisons?

We compare managers to political leaders like mayors or heads of state like presidents, kings, queens or, worse, tyrants. We compare them to professionals like psychiatrists, surgeons, social workers, arbitrators and mediators. I’m sure you’ve heard  the sports analogies: the manager is the quarterback, the coach, or the captain. The manager is the orchestra’s conductor, the ship’s captain, or the army’s general. And then there’s the familial comparisons. The same person at work on separate occasions has compared me to her son, her husband, and her father. “A manager has to wear many hats,” they say.

I think people draw these comparisons because they have a hard time understanding the role of a manager. This lack of understanding begins with the fact that management does not happen in any single functional area of the company. The accountants count, engineers engineer, sales people sell, and operations people operate the business. Managers exist in all functional areas, they are everywhere.

What’s more confusing is the lack of tangible results from management work. Peter Drucker first labeled the manager as the knowledge worker. In other words, managers don’t work with their hands to get things done, they work with their minds using their words and behaviors as tools. Management is essentially invisible.

Further complicating the matter of understanding the role of managers is the relative infancy of the practice of management. Sure, leadership is ancient, but modern management in the organizational context is only about a hundred years old. Further, the bosses that assigned work to Ford’s factory lines hardly resemble the leaders of today’s high-tech, flat, and global organizations.

Lastly, I remember being a kid and looking at leaders like teachers and doctors as infallible god-like authority figures. To some degree, associates might initially look at a manager as a child looks at her teacher. As an adult, we realize our teachers are just normal imperfect people like us, as we also eventually realize that the managers are just regular people, who make mistakes and are just as confused as everyone else.

It’s hard for managers and associates alike to understand the complex, intangible, and relatively nascent practice of management. We compare managers to anything we can think of to make sense of their function in our chaotic unnatural groupings of people, our modern workplaces. For me, it’s thrilling to be apart of a rapidly growing field in a rapidly evolving business environment. We all have to try to figure it out together.