We know a lot about the personality style associated with effective leadership, but we don’t know a great deal about what effective leaders actually do on a routine basis. I recently spent some time in Warsaw talking with a brilliant Polish engineer—Maciej Witucki, President and Board Chair, Orange Polska (the French telecom) and Board Chair of LOT-Polish Airlines—discussing lessons learned. He made six points with which I strongly agree and think are worth repeating.
First, engineers and technical people usually make poor managers. They tend to be tactical, to get lost in the details, to be unable to prioritize tasks, and to waste money in the futile pursuit of technical perfection. My Polish engineer friend believes that social skill is essential for effective managers, and technical people are not often concerned with managing relations with others.
Second, management books by retired CEOs are not helpful in learning how to manage. Many CEOs get their jobs through politics—they are good at self-promotion, which they continue to practice after they retire. Management books by retired CEOs primarily tell readers how to become like them. In addition, retired CEOs often have no clue regarding their actual success. The first important CEO I knew personally drove his previously successful company into bankruptcy in 18 months. He retired with a golden parachute and then went on the leadership speaking circuit.
Third, the HR department has a crucial role to play in talent management—the attraction and retention of talented employees. To the degree that the HR department focuses on the administration of pay and benefits, the organization where they work will be deprived of this input. Smart CEOs rank HR just behind Sales as their most important resource for business and organizational development.
Fourth, the whole concept of “change management” is nonsense. On the one hand, unplanned change is inevitable and all one can do is try to manage or control it. On the other hand, it is very hard (almost impossible) to change anything important in a planned direction.
Fifth, Mr. Witucki said ruefully that the biggest mistake he ever made as a manager was not firing unproductive and problematic people soon enough. It is hard to bring oneself to fire people, the easiest solution is to procrastinate in the vain hope that the problem employee will change, and they never do. This view is, of course, politically incorrect, but it is also consistent with my personal experience.
Sixth, the optimal structure for any business doesn’t exist. People waste vast amounts of time and energy trying to fine tune the organizational chart based on the view that “structure is strategy”, but that structure doesn’t exist. The best a manager can do is find reliable people and ask them to handle core parts of the business.
In my experience, these points are all true and worth remembering, but this list also makes a larger point. When I first began trying to understand management and organizational dynamics, I thought that there were some crucial first principles out there, waiting to be discovered. But when I talked with successful organizational players, I found that their knowledge was organized in terms of rules—rules for introducing people, rules for leveraging people, rules for getting your way with this kind of person or that kind of person, etc. Real knowledge about human affairs is not organized like the principles of geometry or mathematics, it is organized in terms of lists of “if-then” statements that we ignore at our peril.