The worst management training I ever had – and the best

Traditional management trainingHow do people learn to be good managers? For most of my working life, I’ve received terrible advice about management. All of it came from bosses who felt that becoming an effective leader necessarily meant sacrificing part of your humanity.

But one comment 19 years ago made me start looking at things differently. Since then, I’ve had some of the best management training possible.

The 3 worst pieces of advice

After a few years in my first job, I was inquiring about a promotion. My supervisor at the time said that while he appreciated my friendly, sociable nature, supervisors needed to be “more serious.” So I tried to change how I appeared.

In a later job when I was managing a large group, my boss cautioned me in a feedback session that I was “of the people.” The clear implication was that senior management was above “them” and I should choose which side I was on. I chose to be on management’s side.

In a similar vein, I was told not to get too close to people who reported to me. That would prevent me from making the tough decisions that senior people must make. I resolved to be tougher.

Looking back, a lot of management advice seemed to focus on putting people in their place – to let them know who’s boss. Doing so made it easier for me to rate people I barely knew or to lay off people. But being inauthentic and impersonal made me miserable and made my teams less than they might have been.

A different kind of management training program

Hudson Akihiro Stepper19 years ago, when I had my first child, a mentor told me that raising kids is the best way to learn about management. At the time, I had no idea what he meant. But I reflected on those words this week as my youngest child turned 4 years old. For me, raising children has taught me more about management than any corporate program or any advice from the boss.

I’ve learned about motivation, how applying the carrot and stick only works for the short-term and undermines the relationship in the long-term.

I’ve seen how my crude attempts attempts at controlling someone’s behavior only leads to detachment and cynicism.

I’ve learned that trying to fit people into my own concept of what they should be leads only to frustration and a squandering of potential.

It’s true that I could live another 100 years and still not be the kind of parent or leader I’d like to be. But I can be better. I know now that a manager’s job, like a parent’s job, is intensely personal. The best thing I can do is to genuinely care about the individual and provide an environment that helps them be the best they can be.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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12 Responses to The worst management training I ever had – and the best

  1. John,

    Thanks for yet another short but significant/substantial piece with a personal reflection leading to a universal lesson. Been there done that (the mistake part), almost exactly as you seem to have experienced. In my case, I think I have to blame myself for adopting those postures rather than someone’s explicit advice. The “loosening/lightening up” occurred, thanks to a few highly accomplished colleagues and brilliant subordinates who inspired me with their authenticity.

  2. Rachel Happe says:

    One of the best realizations I came to was tutoring kids in my 20s and 30s – kids who lived in very tough circumstances. I realized that the only way any critique on my part was useful is when they understood, with no doubt, that I cared deeply about them and was on their side. If that base was not there, criticism is at best deflected and rationalized and at worst it makes people angry and resentful – not the fodder for developing potential.

    Parenting does indeed give us perspective. As 4-year-old teach us, they will not be controlled. I’ve got a 4th birthday coming up in our family and the girl is gleefully her own person – I hope it stays that way.

  3. Richard Martin says:

    One of the penny-dropping moments for me was realising that the long-term goal for a leader, manager or parent is to make themselves redundant. In the interim, all the effort should be put into creating the conditions in which others can flourish, ensuring their development and self-sufficiency.

  4. Bob Heuman says:

    I’ve always thought that the best way to “manage” is to get people to understand and believe in the goal and remove their obstacles for getting there. People are rewarded by their own sense of accomplishment (which it helps to occasionally recognize 😉 If that doesn’t work you probably have the wrong people or the wrong goal.

  5. khittel says:

    Thanks much, John, for a typically succinct and powerful post.
    I was lucky in that I was able to “serve” as a house-husband for the first seven years of my son’s life, a year before I belatedly entered the corporate world. I believe it helped me immeasurably to become a mature, self-assured leader.

  6. Pingback: A Note of Caution | Think Different

  7. 100% agree. I’m constantly telling people people that I learned more about managing from having kids than any training I ever attended.

  8. Heinz Becker says:

    I do not agree. Let me explain why.

    50 years ago the best expert became the manager because of his superior expertise. But in todays world of specialization the role of the manager totally changed – Peter Drucker described it 20 years ago. The manager today is fighting for the resources his experts need to solve problems. The old fashioned advices “be more serious”, “separate the manager role from the rest”, “do not get close”, all points to a world of hierarchy, which is disappearing in a knowledge economy.

    Being a good father is about creating trust and setting an example to learn from. As Rachel explained above, “any critique on my part was useful when they understood, with no doubt, that I cared deeply about them and was on their side.” That’s true for kids because they are looking for role models. The relationship with their parents is based on total trust.

    In the hierarchical world of adults in a corporation it’s different. Being a good manager today is joining your team. The relationship in teams should be based on mutual respect

    • Hi Heinz,

      I don’t think what either of you is saying is really mutually exclusive. I think there is an assumption that with a child, you’ll have to adapt your relationship to their learning level – which can be surprising, if you give them some encouragement. I know one thing for sure – a parent who doesn’t respect a child’s innate abilities and capacity to learn, their natural state of wonder and desire for exploration, will not receive the respect of the child. Their fear, perhaps, their apathy, or their silence, if you want to call that respect, but not their listening mind. An employee who is respected by his/her supervisor for their innate abilities to learn, whether conscious or not, for their ideas and particular expertise and knowledge base, will blossom. Take that away, and at best, you’ll have an efficient but disengaged employee, putting in time, who also has little or no respect for their supervisor – only fear or apathy. I think the parenting analogy is a good one, taken with a broader eye.

  9. John, as always, good thoughts. I (finally) remember being a nanny (oh so long ago) and finding myself wondering at the childrens’ minds, as reflected by their questions. I always tried to answer them, even if it was “I don’t know”. I tried to treat them with the respect I wanted as a child, meaning, as a person with a mind, who happened to be small and developing. I was told by their mother that they responded – no clinging to mom and dad at the door, ok with being left with Irene, happy through their day. I think that actually may have been one of my best accomplishments. At least, I hope it was. It’s an important lesson in respect. I’ve learned all the usual “keep your distance” stuff too, and now that I’m looking seriously at leadership, at lean thinking, I’m realizing my earliest instincts were correct: Help someone learn, don’t give them the answers; give someone time to absorb – everything takes practice; listen to their ideas – there are lots of good ones! I’ve had to unlearn a whole bunch of stuff, but I’m finally almost back to where I started – at age 6.

  10. Good post. Raising children is certainly a great learning tool in any discipline.

  11. Jon Husband says:

    Thanks for this, John. It’s so right. Adult-to-adult supportive and encouraging exchanges about mutual concerns and expectations versus authoritarian parent-child dynamics (thanks TA, 50 years later).

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