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Managing to manage – feature


In the first of our month of features on management development, Mark Cole (Education Adviser for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy) asks if the process of becoming a manager is taken seriously enough.

How do people manage to become managers in the UK? In so many instances, they do not. Certainly, they acquire a title. Once the promotion has taken place, there is a tacit assumption that by assuming that mantle the individual will, without any additional intervention or guidance, metamorphose into a manager.

Transferable skills?

Promotion to management tends to involve those who demonstrate competence in one area of business activity (e.g. sales). But this is akin to saying that just because I am fluent in English, I will also be able to speak to French. Management, like any other practice, is a role coupled with a clutch of prescribed actions and it requires the development of a skill set in order to take it on effectively.

In an interview entitled ‘What you must learn to become a manager’, Professor Linda Hill of the Harvard Business School suggests that ‘Becoming a manager means coming to terms with the difference between the myth of management and the reality.’ [PDF download] But interestingly she also points out that the making of a manager depends upon two parallel developments: the acquisition of the necessary skills and a substantial change in professional identity. It is questionable whether the UK has ever come to terms with this.

Tweeds and pinstripes

The rise of management in the UK bears the imprint of our broader socio-economic history. There is a tradition of the “gentleman amateur” at large which, I would posit, the increasing number of women in managerial roles has done little to challenge. Our Industrial Revolution, although successful and far-reaching, occurred under the patrician eye of a landed aristocracy who regarded business and commerce somewhat disdainfully. This adumbrated a view of management as something that one simply did or, indeed, to which one was born.

In consequence, the UK does not value its growing managerial cadre for, from an historical perspective, management itself continues to be seen as a lowly technical activity that one should simply be able to do. The imported managerial ideas and technique from abroad, particularly from across the Atlantic, are sneered at because of both the topics and their provenance, doubtless seen as merely colonial.

So, UK managers are expected to get on with it. There is lip service paid to these matters across the whole industrial sphere, but the idea that those who move into managerial positions are required to deploy remarkably different skills to the ones they may have perfected across the course of their career is barely ever acknowledged. More importantly, the very concept of there being a professional identity for managers is seen as utterly beyond the pale.

A matter of performance

Does any of this actually matter? After all, UK managers patently muddle through. Well, it only matters if you believe that management can make a difference to the effectiveness, efficiency or quality of what an organisation does. In this regard, the official discourse around UK competitiveness is extremely interesting.

It has been taken as commonsense for some time now that Britain does not compare well with other comparative economies because of the skills deficit of the workforce. This approach crystallized in 1997 with the election of New Labour. Less than a year after taking office, the Green Paper on Lifelong Learning carried a quote by the Prime Minister that stated that ‘Education is the best economic policy that we have.’

Latterly, the Cabinet Office’s Performance & Innovation Unit published a report on workforce development in 2001 that expressly stated the view that if the UK workforce was in possession of more Level 3 qualifications then the economy would be considerably more competitive.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that the assumed causal link between skills (or, in the government’s current formulation, their proxy indicator, namely qualifications) is highly contested. For example, J R Shackleton in his 1995 review of the economic issues around what is formally referred to as the “human capital model” came to the conclusion that there was ‘…surprisingly little…’ evidence to support the argument.

In some ways, of course, this is merely an arcane discussion among practitioners of the dismal science. The real problem is that the policy discourse around competitiveness is solely dominated by the question of education. This, in turn, means that Britain’s sizeable managerial cadre is excluded from this discussion, despite the fact that its effect in this area would seem to most people to be profound.

Thinking differently about management in the UK

Where does that leave us? Well, first, it shows that, in the UK, we ought to be taking the impact that management, as a practice, will have on business activity far more seriously than we currently do. Good management will add value to business performance, poor management is likely to have the opposite effect. Instead of endlessly and exclusively focusing on the shortcomings of the workforce, government would be well advised to address other variables likely to affect performance.

Second, we should recognize that management isn’t simply a throne to which one ascends. Managers, regardless of where they are in their career, need to see that their practice actually involves a range of complex skills that they may not necessarily possess, regardless of how successful their career has been to date. The fantastic sales person will not de facto be a tremendous manager. The marketing whizz may find management difficult to do.

It is time, then, to take management seriously. People taking on management roles need advice, guidance and support to gain the practical skills required in the job – and to acquire the professional outlook of a manager. And, wider than that, the question of management needs to be factored into discussions about UK competitiveness – and the role that it might play in that.

Mark Cole
Education Adviser
Chartered Society of Physiotherapy

What do you think are the crucial challenges facing managers and management development? Post your comments below, or e-mail us.


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