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Managing Quietly
by Henry Mintzberg

Leader to Leader, No. 12 Spring 1999

Henry Mintzberg Thought Leaders Forum:
Henry Mintzberg
Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal and professor of organization at INSEAD in France. Well known for his studies of strategic development and of managerial practice, Mintzberg is author or coauthor of seven books including The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and, most recently, Strategy Safari. (3/99)
More on Henry Mintzberg
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This article appears as "Managing Quietly" (Chapter 8) in On Mission and Leadership. Read more.

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From Leader to Leader, No. 12 Spring 1999
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A prominent business magazine hires a journalist to write about the chief executive of a major corporation. The man has been at the helm for several years and is considered highly effective. The journalist submits an excellent piece, capturing the very spirit of the man's managerial style. The magazine rejects it -- not exciting enough, no hype. Yet, the company has just broken profit records for its industry.

Not far away, another major corporation is undergoing dramatic transformation. Change is everywhere, the place is teeming with consultants, people are being released in huge numbers. The chief executive has been all over the business press. Suddenly he is fired: the board considers the turnaround a failure.

Go back five, ten, twenty or more years and read the business press -- about John Scully at Apple, James Robinson at American Express, Robert McNamara at the Defense Department. Heroes of American management all ... for a time. Then consider this proposition: maybe really good management is boring. Maybe the press is the problem, alongside the so-called gurus, since they are the ones who personalize success and deify the leaders (before they defile them). After all, corporations are large and complicated; it takes a lot of effort to find out what has really been going on. It is so much easier to assume that the great one did it all. Makes for better stories too.

If you want to test the above proposition, try Switzerland. It is a well run country. No turnarounds. Ask the next Swiss you meet the name of the head of state. Don't be surprised if he or she does not know: the seven people who run the country sit around a table, rotating that position on an annual basis.

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Management By Barking Around

Forget what you know about how business should work -- most of it is wrong!" screams the cover of that book called Reengineering the Corporation. Just like that. "Business reengineering means putting aside much of the received wisdom of two hundred years of industrial management," say the authors. Never mind that Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor, to name just two, "reengineered" business nearly a century ago. The new brand of reengineering "is to the next revolution of business what the specialization of labor was to the last" (meaning the Industrial Revolution). Are we so numbed by the hype of management that we accept such overstatement as normal?

There is no shortage of noisy words in the field of management. A few favored standbys merit special comment.

Globalization: The Red Cross Federation headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, has managers from over fifty countries. The Secretary General is Canadian, the three Under Secretary Generals are British, Swedish, and Sudanese. (There used to be a Swiss manager, but he retired recently.) The closest I know to a global company is perhaps Royal Dutch Shell, most of whose senior management comes from two countries -- twice as many as almost any other company I can think of. But still a long way from the Red Cross Federation. Global coverage does not mean a global mind-set.

And is "globalization" new? Certainly the word is. They used to call it other things. At the turn of the century, the Singer Sewing Machine Company covered the globe (and that included some of the remotest parts of Africa) as few so-called global companies do today.

Shareholder Value: Is "shareholder value" new as well, or just another old way to sell the future cheap? Is this just an easy way for chief executives without ideas to squeeze money out of rich corporations? This mercenary model of management (greed is good, only numbers count, people are human "resources" who must be paid less so that executive can be paid more, etc.) is so antisocial that it will doom us if we don't doom it first.

Organizations that have real empowerment don't talk about it.

Empowerment: Organizations that have real empowerment don't talk about it. Those that make a lot of noise about it generally lack it: they have been spending too much of their past disempowering everybody. Then, suddenly, empowerment appears as some kind of gift from the gods.

In actual fact, real empowerment is a most natural state of affairs: people know what they have to do and simply get on with it, like the worker bees in a beehive. Maybe the really healthy organizations empower their leaders, who in turn listen to what is going on and so look good.

Change Management: This is the ultimate in managerial noise. Companies being turned around left and right. All part of today's managerial correctness, which, in its mindlessness, puts political correctness to shame.

Business Week, on October 28, 1991, wrote about the University of Michigan's four-week general management program, whose faculty "has consulted with such companies as AT&T, Eastman Kodak, and Philips," all in highly publicized turnarounds at the time. That experience, we are told, provides much of the course material. But then consider:

Business Week cover, February 2, 1998: "AT&T: New Boss. New Strategy. Will it work?"

Fortune article, May 11, 1998: "Why Kodak Still Isn't Fixed?"

Fortune article, March 31,1997: "Can he [the new CEO] Fix Philips?

Automobile companies sometimes have to recall their cars; do universities ever recall their students?

Leadership: Notice the wording of two of these headlines: "Can He fix Philips"; "New Boss" (who, we are told, transformed a sluggish performer in his "first 100 days"). A subhead on the third article reads "Can CEO George Fisher's big new shake-up do the job?" The white knight will ride in on his white horse and fix it all. Except that these knights mostly ride into territory they have never seen. (That's why they hire consultants.)

On March 2, 1998, Fortune put on display "America's Most Admired Corporations." But the accompanying article said hardly anything about these corporations. It was all about their leaders. After all, if the corporations succeeded, it must have been the bosses.

Lest that not have been enough, another article touted America's most admired CEOs. One was Merck's Raymond Gilmartin: "When Merck's directors tapped Gilmartin, 56, as CEO four years ago, they gave him a crucial mission: Create a new generation of blockbuster drugs to replace important products whose patents were soon to expire. Gilmartin has delivered."

You would think he had his hands full managing the company. Yet there he apparently was, in the labs, developing those drugs. And in just four years at that. From scratch.

"There is, believe it or not, some academic literature that suggests that leadership doesn't matter," we are told by the astonished Fortune writer. Well, this academic is no less astonished: there are, believe it or not, some business magazines so mesmerized with leadership that nothing else matters. "In four years Gerstner has added more than $40 billion to IBM's share value," this magazine proclaimed on April 14, 1997. Every penny of it! Nothing from the hundreds of thousands of other IBM employees. No role for the complex web of skills and relationships these people form. No contribution from luck. No help from a growing economy. Just Gerstner.

How about this comment in the academic literature: A vision-driven philosophy can perpetuate "the myth that organizations have to rely on one or two unusually gifted individuals to decide what to do, while the rest enthusiastically follow." This approach encourages "cultures of dependence and conformity that actually obstruct the questioning and complex learning which encourages innovative action," reports organizational theorist Ralph Stacey. Tough to read? Tough. Think about it.

I chair a Masters of Practicing Management program for managers sponsored by their companies. The program sessions take place at different locations around the world, and our Japanese colleagues run the module called Managing People, the collaborative mind-set. "Shouldn't we be teaching some leadership?" I kept asking. They never disagreed; they just didn't teach leadership. Then one day, we had a discussion about different styles of managing. "We could teach that!" was the response. Then it hit me. Leadership, for the Japanese, is a style of managing; in America, it is managing. If we are going to get even remotely global, shouldn't we start by opening our minds to the narrowness of our own conception of management?

Years ago, Peter Drucker wrote that the administrator works within the constraints; the manager removes the constraints. Later, Abraham Zaleznik claimed that managers merely manage; real leaders lead. Now we seem to be moving beyond leaders who merely lead; today heroes save. Soon heroes will only save; then gods will redeem. We keep upping the ante as we drop ever deeper into the morass of our own parochialism.

Despite a jittery stock market, American business seems to be doing rather well right now. But unless it gets off its destructive kicks -- the mindlessness of managerial groupthink, the mercenary "me" of shareholder value and executive compensation, all the noise and the hype -- it will be in deep trouble. So much of this activity is deadening and just plain socially bankrupt. The common sense and cooperative enthusiasm of management practiced in some other parts of the world will eventually swamp it. Bear in mind that it is the Japanese economy and banking system that are having trouble now, not the Japanese style of managing corporations.

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The Problem Is the Present

Let's go back to that book on reengineering, the same page quoted earlier: "What matters in reengineering is how we want to organize work today, given the demands of today's market and the power of today's technologies. How people and companies did things yesterday doesn't matter to the business reengineer" (italics added).

Today, today, always today. One hundred todays to turn around AT&T. Today's books that depend on and then ignore yesterday's pioneers. This is the voice of the obsessively analytic mind, shouting into today's wind.

The CEO who favors the quick fix over steady progress is destroying an organization.

But if you want the imagination to see the future, then you better have the wisdom to appreciate the past. An obsession with the present -- with what's "hot", and what's "in" -- may be dazzling, but all that does is blind everyone to the reality. Show me a chief executive who ignores yesterday, who favors the new outsider over the experienced insider, the quick fix over steady progress, and I'll show you a chief executive who is destroying an organization.

The white knight of management may be the black hole of organizations.
To "turn around" is to end up facing the same way. Maybe that is the problem: all this turning around. Might not the white knight of management be the black hole of organizations? What good is the great leader if everything collapses when he or she leaves? Perhaps good companies don't need to be turned around at all because they are not constantly being thrust into crises by leaders who have to make their marks today. Maybe these companies are simply managed quietly.

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Managing Quietly

What has been the greatest advance ever in health care? Not the dramatic discoveries of penicillin or insulin, it has been argued, but simply cleaning up the water supply. Perhaps, then, it is time to clean up our organizations, as well as our thinking. In this spirit let me say a few things about some of the quiet words of managing. (See sidebar "A Quiet Leader at Work")

Inspiring: Quiet managers don't empower their people -- "empowerment" is taken for granted. They inspire them. They create the conditions that foster openness and release energy. The queen bee, for example, does not make decisions; she just emits a chemical substance that holds the whole social system together. In human hives, that is called culture.

Quiet managers strengthen the cultural bonds between people, not by treating them as detachable "human resources" (probably the most offensive term ever coined in management, at least until "human capital" came along), but as respected members of a cohesive social system. When people are trusted, they do not have to be empowered.

The queen bee does not take credit for the worker bees' doing their jobs effectively. She just does her job effectively, so that they can do theirs. There are no bonuses for the queen bee beyond what she needs.

Next time you hear a chief executive go on about teamwork, about how "we" did it by all pulling together, ask who among the "we" is getting what kind of bonus. When you hear that chief boosting about taking the long view, ask how those bonuses are calculated. If cooperation and foresight are so important, why have these few been cashing in on generous stock options? Do we take the money back when the price plummets? Isn't it time to recognize this kind of executive compensation for what it is: a form of corruption, not only of our institutions, but of our societies as democratic systems?

Caring: Quiet managers care for their organizations; they do not slice away problems as surgeons do. They spend more time preventing problems than fixing them, because they know enough to know when and how to intervene. In a sense, this is more like homeopathic medicine: the prescription of small doses to stimulate the system to fix itself. Better still, it is like the best of nursing: gentle care that, in itself, becomes cure.

Infusing: "If you want to know what problems we have encountered over the years," someone from a major airline once told me, "just look at our headquarters units. Every time we have a problem, we create a new unit to deal with it." That is management by intrusion. Stick in someone or something to fix it. Ignore everyone and everything else: that is the past. After all, what can the newly arrived chief know about the past anyway. Besides, the stock analysts and magazine reporters don't have the time to allow the new chief to find out.

Quiet managing is about infusion, change that seeps in slowly, steadily, profoundly. Rather than having change thrust upon them in dramatic, superficial episodes, everyone takes responsibility for making sure that serious changes take hold.

This does not mean changing everything all the time -- which is just another way of saying anarchy. It means always changing some things while holding most others steady. Call this natural continuous improvement, if you like. The trick, of course, is to know what to change when. And to achieve that there is no substitute for a leadership with an intimate understanding of the organization working with a workforce that is respected and trusted. That way, when people leave, including the leaders, progress continues.

Initiating: Moses supplies our image of the strategy process: walking down the mountain carrying the word from on high to the waiting faithful. Redemption from the heavens. Of course, there are too many people to read the tablets, so the leaders have to shout these "formulations" to all these "implementors." All so very neat.

Except that life in the valleys below is rich and complicated. And that is what strategy has to be about -- not the neat abstractions of the executive suite, but the messy patterns of daily life. So long as loud management stays up there disconnected, it can shout down all the strategies it likes; they will never work. They just create that noisy "culture of dependence."

Quiet management is not about drinking champagne in Business Class (which has become more than just a place in an airplane); it is about rolling up sleeves and finding out what is going on. And that is not parachuted down on the organization; it rises up from the base. But it never leaves that base. It functions "on the floor," where the knowledge for strategy making lies. Such management blends into the daily life of the corporation, so that all sorts of people with their feet planted firmly on the ground can pursue exciting initiatives. Then managers who are in touch with them can champion these initiatives and so stimulate the process by which strategies evolve.

To judge the leader, look at the organization ten years later.
Put differently, the manager is not the organization any more than a coat of paint is what holds up a building. Louis Gerstner is not IBM and Percy Barnevik was not ABB (if he was, the company is in for trouble now that he's left). A healthy organization does not have to leap from one hero to another; it is a collective social system that naturally survives changes in leadership. If you want to judge the leader, look at the organization ten years later.

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Beyond Quiet

Quiet management is about thoughtfulness rooted in experience. Words like wisdom, trust, dedication, and judgment apply. Leadership works because it is legitimate, meaning that it is an integral part of the organization and so has the respect of everyone there. Tomorrow is appreciated because yesterday is honored. That makes today a pleasure.

Indeed, the best managing of all may well be silent. That way people can say, "We did it ourselves." Because we did.

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A Quiet Leader at Work

How does one manage quietly? Henry Mintzberg spent a day shadowing John Cleghorn, CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, the country's largest and most successful bank, with 53,000 employees and 1998 profits of $1.8 billion Canadian. (Note that Mintzberg is actually Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University, a chair created to honor Cleghorn's efforts as head of a McGill fundraising campaign, This day of observation was agreed to before that appointment was made.) Excerpts of these observations, and of many managers Mintzberg has watched at work, suggest that effective leadership is low-key, engaging, and interactive.

John Cleghorn's style of management is unusual for someone in his position: he is very involved in operational details of the bank. He's been known to call from the airport to report that an automatic teller machine is not working. He sold the corporate jet -- he says he was uncomfortable with it -- as well as the chauffeured limousines. All senior executives, Cleghorn included, are expected to spend at least 25 percent of their time with customers and front-line employees (as one measure of performance, Cleghorn carefully tracks how he spends his own time.) The bank's stock ownership plan has helped 89 percent of employees to become shareholders. Senior executives must own one to two times their base salary in stock; Cleghorn himself must own three times.

During the day he spent time visiting front-line staff in two branch offices and met with institutional investors, as well as regional managers.

All of those meetings were marked by his straightforward style and upbeat nature. This day was action-oriented -- particularly in the level of detail he attended to, such as suggesting a change in the branch bank's signage.

In his meetings with employees, Cleghorn aimed to gather information, but also to send signals about the organization, whether by encouraging long-term employees, congratulating people for their presentations, infusing his energy into the organization, or constantly describing the values he finds important. Rarely did he exercise the CEO's prerogative of control on this particular day. Rather his role was to encourage and enable, with regard to the individual (motivating and coaching), the unit (team building), and the organization at large (culture building).

His strategy process appeared to be one of crafting: to foster a flexible structure and open culture, to see the strategic implications of initiatives, and to integrate them with overall vision. That requires his detailed, nuanced knowledge of the organization.

Of course, this approach, based on rich, grounded information, does not make someone a strategist: that depends on one's capacity for creative synthesis. But I believe that such a style of managing is a prerequisite for developing strategic insights. It is the ability to move between the concrete and the conceptual -- not only to understand the specifics but also to be able to generalize creatively about them -- that makes a great strategist.

Such is the practice of management as a craft -- low key, involved, warm, focused, perhaps quintessentially Canadian. It may not make the headlines, but it seems to work.

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