Managing Quietly

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 much easier to assume that the great one did it all. Makes for better stories.

The problem is the present

. . . Today, today, always today. This is the voice of the obsessively analytic mind, shouting into today’s wind.

But if you want the imagination to see the future, then you’d 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.

To “turn around” is to end up facing the same way. Maybe that is the problem; all the 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.

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, I offer a few thoughts about some of the quiet words of managing.

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 boasting 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 try to 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, it 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. 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 ready. 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 near 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.

Quiet management is . . . about rolling up sleeves and finding out what is going on. And it is not parachuted down on the organization; it rises up from the base. But it never leaves the 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.

Put differently, the manager is not the organization any more than [a painting of a pipe is a pipe] . . . 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.

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.


Henry Mintzberg is a Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. The author of many books on business management, he was ranked in the top ten in the Wall Street Journal’s list of influential business thinkers.

Management? It’s Not What You Think! by Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand, and Joseph Lampel

© 2010 Henry Mintzberg, Ltd., Bruce Ahlstrand, and Joseph Lampel

All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books ( Division of American Management Association, 1601 Broadway, New York, NY 10019

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