How should I manage this?

Lately I have had conversations with a number of executives from a wide range of sectors from health care to utilities to retail on the topic of how to improve the managerial skills of their managers. One of the observations I have is that most, if not all of the people I spoke to, had not fully considered the kind of manager they needed given the organization’s intended strategy and goals. For example, many would use buzz words like “accountability management” but had not considered the possibility that “management of accountability” might look quite different in different situations.

Take, for instance, a need to innovate and focus on top-line growth. Case after case appears to support the proposition that real empowerment and a relatively high degree of decentralization is highly effective in driving up rates of innovation in both process and product. On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that relatively centralized management is effective in handling large infrastructure-type projects (think Beijing Olympics); the strengths (and weaknesses) of the state-owned enterprise is well covered in a recent edition of The Economist.

“Accountability management” is probably quite different when holding leaders accountable for innovation and growth then it would for cost containment or reduction. For example, using models of accountability that focus on prescribing and controlling how things are done can result in stifling the invention and the energy of entrepreneurship. On the other hand, management of accountability for costs might have some different tools, skills, and mindsets; for example more standardization and oversight to ensure local decisions do not miss economies of scale in the procurement process. The challenge often seems to stem from a organization head office that tends to lean one way or another and use that style for both cost containment and for growth with one or the other agenda suffering.

Beware as well the big difference between what executives and leaders say they want and what they really want. Often, managers will talk about growth, innovation and empowerment but actually run their businesses based on cost reduction and control, centralized oversight, and adherence to policies and guidelines. In these cases, salespeople and marketers are trying to grow revenues but in many cases they are more focused on staying out of trouble with their corporate masters. It is no wonder innovation is modest and growth anemic.

Conversations with these organizations also reveals a troubling tendency to operate with certain implicit models of what good managership looks like (ability to coach and its implicit cousin, empowerment). Their HR departments construct management training and assessment with these kinds of elements in mind, and yet they continue to want their managers to act in ways that are much more directive, controlling, and monitoring. The mixed signal of what is said in sessions and what is actually rewarded is stark and can engender cynicism.