What is the problem with management?

In the course of daily work practice, we often come across these plaintive cries: 

  • We need to transform our leadership.
  • We need to be more dynamic. 
  • We need new models for transforming our organisations.

These organisations then throw themselves into the latest (expensive) leadership fad and take their pick from Action Leadership, Authentic Leadership, Complexity Leadership, Conscious Leadership, Distributed Leadership, Servant Leadership, Transformational Leadership, or any of a dozen other promises of magically transforming methods. 

Each one professes to have the magic ingredient that all the others have somehow missed. These organisations spend a fortune on training, usually with an overseas consultant, and then when it does not produce the desired result, they run off after the next fad. 

Personnel departments demonstrate their indispensability in this way. We also see the infiltration of the ubiquitous life coach into organisations. These doughty individuals are armed with expensive certificates of competence and membership in august coaching organisations. They are often refugees from large organisations which could not afford their salaries. They, too, ply their trade with excellent margins and average results.

All these interventions are laudable, and in the right context, their contribution will lead to results. The problem is that organisations are unable to extract the full value from these initiatives.

What is missing?

They are missing a set of skills and behaviours that are critical for every enterprise and social organisation. They were indispensable for pre-colonial Khoi-khoi in Southern Africa. They were essential for Genghis Khan in his westward explosion toward Europe. Zheng Heh applied them in his remarkable travels far from China. They are relevant to an asset manager in Sandton, and they are valid for the harassed municipal manager of an impoverished Eastern Cape town. 

They are timeless. They work. And without them, you cannot build great leadership in your organisation.

They are what constitutes good management. And without good management, you cannot be a good leader or transform your organisation. People easily see the disparity between what you say and what you do. For many people ‘management’ is a dirty word. For them it conjures up the image of a controlling, demanding, irrational boss. A boss who is insensitive and unsupportive. 

The point being made is: If you haven’t mastered management, you cannot master leadership. And this is not referring solely to the C-suite. This applies to all levels, and all pay grades.

Acknowledgement of Communication

There is a lovely tradition in the merchant marine. The officer of the watch on the bridge of an ocean-going vessel will wish to make a course correction. “Alter course three degrees to port,” comes the instruction to the helmsperson. “Aye aye, three degrees port,” comes the reply from the helmsperson.

See what happened here? Communication passed from one person to another, and the recipient acknowledged receipt. Simple, precise. Regardless of whether it was a calm day or a raging storm. The officer of the watch knew that the helmsperson had heard the message.

How many times do you send mails, leave messages, or send texts, and you receive no acknowledgement? And then when you follow up a week later, only to be told to send it again!

What is the implicit message in this lack of action? You are not important enough for me to respond to you. You are irrelevant.

Does this make me want to communicate with you in future? Does this make me respect you? No, of course not. You have destroyed your credibility as a manager through hundreds of similar actions. So, every time you talk about leadership, the rest of us roll our eyes and wait for it to pass.

George travels regularly between South Africa, Turkey and Canada for business purposes. Despite straddling several timelines, his colleagues have never had to wait more than six hours for a confirmatory response.

What to do about it:

Make time at least once a day to make sure you have sent out all your responses. You might do it at the end of the day before you leave the office, or you may do it first thing the next morning. Scroll through your devices for texts and emails over the last 24 hours and make sure nothing is hanging. 

A short “Duly noted” is sometimes sufficient. You may have to promise action by a future date, whatever you must do, do it. If you are responding to emails on a laptop, beware the dreaded ‘fold’. That is the roll of emails that disappears below the bottom of the screen or monitor. Sort your mail by date and then go through each one and respond. It’s also a good time to delete irrelevant mail garbage.

Meeting Management

Of the last thirty meetings you have attended, you may be lucky that only one started on time. And it also finished on time. The rest started late, really late, like about fifteen minutes late on average. Consider the waste of time and resources. The other problem is that meetings are often poorly chaired. The discussion wanders all over the place and doesn’t address the matters that the meeting was called to address.

We all see this, and we do nothing about it. 

What to do about it:

Start your meetings on time and stick to the agenda. Prepare for the meeting regardless of whether you are chairing the meeting or an attendee.

There are many excellent videos, some very funny, on YouTube to help you improve. Use them. They show you how to do it much better than I can.

And please, don’t blame the traffic for being late. Manage your time better and leave earlier for your meeting.

Performance Management

Many devotees of Transformed Leadership proclaim loudly that performance management is dead. They believe that organisations can achieve extraordinary goals without structured processes to hold people accountable. 

For those who haven’t drunk this Kool-Aid™, performance management usually conjures up the completion of clumsy forms and the uncomfortable once-a-year review to determine your next – if you are lucky – salary increase.

Real performance management is the day-to-day back-and-forth communication with your team. It is a series of continuing conversations about setting and understanding goals, providing feedback and support, and adjusting actions to meet changed circumstances.

How much time do you spend with each member of your team clarifying goals, providing supportive feedback based on their experience and competence, and helping them grow in rewarding and interesting jobs? Do you understand the continuum between micro-managing and abdication? Does the person you report to share the same view?

One of the reasons you have so little time for your team is that you are stuck in draggingly unproductive meetings. See the connection?

What to do about it:

This is a complex issue. It’s hard, very hard. But when it works the results are breath-taking.

Some suggestions for you in the short term:

  • Make sure you have a quality one-on-one discussion with your supervisor for two uninterrupted hours at least once a month. 
  • Discuss goals, priorities, and the quality of performance. Listen to the feedback. Take it in. And take action to make sure the problems don’t recur.
  • Do the same with each person who reports to you. Make the time to do it. It’s your job.

Decision Making

If there is one universal criticism of middle and senior management, it’s that they struggle to make decisions. They dither and dawdle. Take your pick from the following:

“Give us a proposal to take to the committee.” “We have to wait for the next EXCO for a decision.” “The CEO is overseas.” “We are doing a study and based on the outcome we will decide what to do.” “We are not going to decide until the new financial year.” “I am waiting for my boss.”

These are not the considered responses to major Capex or organisations altering initiatives. They are about the day-to-day operational decisions of the organisation. The mantra in many organisations seems to be: let’s delegate this upwards to a committee or boss. And important decisions get delayed and the costs, both human and financial, mount up.

What to do about it:

Here is the news! You must make decisions. That’s why you were appointed. If you were having open, productive, performance management (that terrible term again) conversations with your supervisor, you will know the limits of your decision-making and your budget. 

Don’t commission work if it is not within your authority to approve it.

Your actions and decisions must be in line with the strategy of your organisation. Your operational budget and performance goals have been created to achieve this. If you need to get someone else’s approval to do the work you were employed to do – something is very wrong. Making decisions is tough, and you will make mistakes, but you will get better. 


Get the management disciplines right, and the leadership impact will follow. Every experienced, successful leader of a large, complex organisation will wholeheartedly attribute their success in part to what we have discussed above. It’s a long process. Start small and work at it every day.

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