Rethinking business as usual: How to thrive as a manager In the ‘20s

At Dell Technologies World, some of the more interesting discussions involve topics far removed from company tech. This week, the big conversation was about management skills and styles, and how to be successful.

Conceptual images of an executive as she walks the path forward into the light.
Baona / Getty Images

Disclosure: Dell is a client of the author.

One of the things that makes Dell Technologies World, which took place this weerk, unlike other vendor events is the amount of non-vendor content. One year, the company had former President Bill Clinton talk about what was going on in the world; another time, a big topic was about how the next big thing in tech would be robotics; this year there was a Q&A with Bill Nye answering science questions for kids, and an interesting discussion on how life on Earth may have come from Mars.

But the session that caught my attention was moderated by Jenn Saavedra, Dell’s head of HR, with Adam Grant, a psychologist and the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School, as the main speaker.  Grant is an expert on motivation and meaning, and since I did much of my undergraduate and graduate work in Manpower Management, a related topic, I found his presentation fascinating. 

Here are some of the highlights, with lessons for those in the business world.

The manager’s Kryptonite

Grant opened with a problem I’ve seen kill some big companies: an unwillingness by companies to challenge their assumptions. Back in the early 1990s, I was working at ROLM Systems after Siemens bought ROLM from IBM. Every quarter Siemens would bring a product to us for review, and we’d reject it.  It would send out an engineer who almost always believed he was more intelligent than we were. We’d present our facts; the engineer would grudgingly agree, and fly back to Siemens. He’d be reassigned; a new engineer would fly out and repeat the process; and the outcome would be the same. This happened three times before  Siemens disbanded our group, brought out the product we rejected, and crashed the company. 

In his presentation, Grant talked about the need to challenge assumptions. He referred to managers like those at Siemens as “mental fossils” — once they took a position; it was set in stone. That rarely turns out well, because none of us ever has all the information we need up front; things can change dramatically (as in the past pandemic year) and fast

To avoid that kind of pitfall, Grant argued that companies should question assumptions and hire people who do the same. This isn’t the same as hiring people who can’t make decisions — that’s a very different problem. It’s about making sure the managers you hire don’t think of themselves as prosecutors or preachers, but as people constantly looking for the correct answer and accepting they may not have it. 

Escalating commitment

Compounding the problem are terrible managers that recognize things aren’t working, and instead of revisiting the strategy, they double down. I’ve referred to “argumentative theory” or “confirmation bias” in this regard; the more common phrase is throwing good money after bad.  This arises when managers don’t understand the concept of sunk cost and believe they can overcome a bad decision by over-executing on it.  

In contrast, Grant talked about “imposter syndrome,” which is generally portrayed as a bad thing. Imposter syndrome, when someone thinks they are unqualified for their job and questions every decision they make, becomes more common the higher you go in a company. Grant argued that managers with a workable form of this problem (they aren’t completely indecisive) perform far better over time than those that take an early position and don’t change. As a 19th-century Prussian field marshal said: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” If you aren’t willing to adjust to changing conditions, intelligence, performance, staffing, environmental issues, or leadership, you will likely fail.

Confidence is essential in a leader because it engenders confidence in the plan. But, according to Grant (and I agree), you should never be so confident you don’t recognize your weaknesses or the changing environment around you.

Speed and direction

Back when I was doing competitive analysis, I attended Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) meetings.  In one memorable session, the speaker pointed out that companies tend to be excessively focused on speed. Often, before a firm has a clear direction, it starts working furiously — only to find it’s going in the wrong direction exceptionally fast. He argued that you want to take your time assuring the direction before you hit the accelerator.

Grant suggested you want to balance speed with continuous reevaluation of direction because the goal, road, and what you are driving may change along the way. We live in a fluid world; the ability to constantly adjust to changing conditions is critical to success. 

The importance of a ‘challenge network’

When I was at IBM, I wrote one of the definitive papers on the cause of the firm’s collapse in the early 1990s. One problem was that the CEO’s office had become isolated because executives learned that it would harm your career if you gave negative information, but you did well if you stuck to the positive. 

Running the company was John Akers, who was thought to be one of the most brilliant leaders IBM had ever had on paper. But he was so isolated that he didn’t see problems coming, wound up leaving in disgrace and was blamed for crippling one of the oldest and most well-regarded companies in the world. 

Grant called out this problem and argued that a successful manager creates a “challenge network” — people who aren’t afraid to call things as they see them  instead of telling a manager what they want to hear.

This reminds me of a story I heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the radar station that picked up the incoming planes.  When the radar operator reported the planes, his superior denigrated him and told him to stand down. That was because everyone, except one notable analyst, believed there was no way Japan would dare to attack. Not challenging your assumptions can be lethal in instances like this.

Wrapping up

Grant this week offered a fascinating look at bad managerial practices I, and I’m sure you, have had to deal with in our careers. He argued that the best managers accept they can make mistakes while identifying those mistakes and correcting them before they become worse problems. 

He closed with three rules:

  1. Think like a scientist, treat beliefs as hunches and test them over time to assure the underlying assumptions and overarching policies remain viable.
  2. Build a challenge network of qualified people you trust and who are comfortable telling you what you need to know, not just what you want to hear. (This is not easy).
  3. Take the time to rethink what you are doing. If you are going in the wrong direction, going faster instead of changing direction will only make things worse.

The ability to foster and graciously take criticism is a skill that needs to be developed. Grant is correct; the best managers, and the most successful people in life and work, are those that develop that skill early. 

If you attend Dell Technology World, check out some of these off-topic subjects, you can learn a lot, and the topics can be fascinating. And check out this Ted Talk from Grant: The office without a**holes; it is worth your time (particularly if you want to avoid the dreaded A**hole Pandemic). 

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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