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Management: A short history


Management styles have changed over the decades, here John Pope reflects on how things were and what we can expect for the future of management.

In days long ago we recruited people as managers because of their character, as shown by their attitude and achievements. It was at the end of WWII when there was much to be done. The view was that well-proven leadership and a good, strong character were the qualities most needed for responsible jobs. That approach seemed to work reasonably well and those who had served in the armed forces, had shown leadership and faced up to real hardship, were seen as very suitable management material. In general they were successful. Those who went into 'Personnel' had gentlemanly manners when dealing with people as well as an approach of ‘iron hands in velvet gloves’, which was generally seen as effective.

Swinging sixties

Standards of management started to drift down in the late 1950’s and 60’s and there were many moves to different techniques and more systematic approaches in an attempt to be more systematic. The supply of war-tested material started to dry up and the National Institute for Industrial Psychology (NIIP) told us that when recruiting and selecting people, we should start by first having well-defined job specifications which comprehensively set out all that a manager had to do in each position. 

We should also have had personal profiles setting out the qualifications and experience needed for each position. In some ways this was a reaction against ‘recruiting for character’ which was felt to be too vague and difficult to define to be useful. The recruitment processes changed and became more complicated and drawn out. It was no longer seen as good enough to make unscientific assessments of character and potential, just as it was seen that job evaluation and detailed analysis of work and responsibilities were essential.

A move towards modern management

It was eventually recognised that many jobs changed faster than it was possible to keep the job specifications up-to-date. The work required to set-up or maintain such approaches became too great. Then along came competencies – key and otherwise, and the struggle to define what general abilities a manager had to have as well as the different competencies needed, as shown by analysis of the essential demands of particular jobs. 

Constant organisational shifts coupled with cutbacks meant that previously stable management and organisation structures had to change. Since it took some time, and circumstances changed so quickly, it became difficult to maintain an organisational structure which was sufficiently well understood to be well enough documented. It was believed that core competencies were the basis for most positions in management but that some would need special competencies. As usual with most management theories, competency-based approaches grew and grew, some became unwieldy, some became discredited.

Today's management style

Many businesses are in deep trouble, and will be for some time; many will have to downsize, trim off some of the fat, change business priorities. I doubt it can be done if we have over-complicated structures or organisational processes. Some of the usual procedures in managing change will have to go. There will have to be short cuts, and there will be trouble. British Airways is going through some such troubles at present as it attempts to change long-established practices and staffing.

In this tougher world it will not be enough to improve existing systems, increase productivity and reduce costs. Low cost foreign competitors have already shown they are generally able to break into our usual foreign and domestic markets and match our efforts. Organizations will have to find, and manage new opportunities.

Will we need a different sort of manager?

Many experienced managers believe that there are plenty of challenges around, some of which will be unexpected and which will not have been faced before. It is certain that the qualities of leadership and character will be of the utmost importance in taking an enterprise in a new direction where much is unknown. The qualities of the leader, rather than technical ability or competence will be extremely important. In effect we will be paying more attention to the personal attributes of the individual and some are using psychometrics to assess suitability in the attempt to add some rigour to the interviewers’ somewhat subjective judgements.

What sort of manager will be needed over the next ten years? Will we need smooth, conciliatory people who know their way around the organisation and are good at writing staff papers? Maybe, but probably not many and we probably have quite enough already. And once the government gets round to reducing the ‘overhead’ there will be more of those sorts of people in the labour market.
I suspect we need more of those who, if they had lived 300 years ago might have become pirates, or 200 years ago become single-minded entrepreneurial engineers. What did those people have in common? Drive, initiative, energy, impatience, vision, and the ability to cut through difficulties. I hope there will be enough of these around and that their character will not have been diluted by ‘conformism’.

How will we identify them?

The new challenges will force us to change our approach to the selection and development of managers at all levels. We shall still need some who are administrators, and those who ‘make sure the sums add up’ – especially in the accounts department. However, we will need – in due proportion – those who, as managers should always have done, ‘make new things happen’. I think this means that we should go back to recruiting for character. 

While various personality profiles and psychometrics yield some information it is not too difficult to cheat if the subject repeats a suitable mantra beforehand, as WH Whyte pointed out years ago. Good actors can change their apparent personalities at will – not all of those actors are on the stage. Tests can be useful but should be taken with ‘a pinch of salt’. The difficulty may be that those coming into employment may have had their competiveness dampened down, and that too many will not have faced the tough challenges which test and strengthen willpower. 

Evidence of real and substantial achievements under unexpected difficulties should be the deciding factor in selection. But there is a wider consideration; in managing the development of managers and making sure there is a pool of talent from which to select when tough jobs have to be done. We should take care that those who show promise get a diet of challenging projects and opportunities to show their character and prove they can take on the toughest challenges.
John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of businesses, managers and management teams for most of his career. To know more about John’s work and services please visit the website: His book ‘Winning Consultancy Business’ was published in July and is now available through his website.  He can be contacted at [email protected].

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