It’s a curious thing that at the corporate level there’s a quality in managers that is lauded, applauded and sought, seemingly over and above all others. Whether it’s the talk in the board room or the good old HR department, and certainly among the omnipresent recruitment consultants, this is a quality we just seem to have to have in our line managers and directors. However, after all the decades of research, theory and business school teaching on the subject of leadership, it’s a technique I haven’t seen sound evidence for. It’s not that I haven’t seen countless exponents of this technique; in fact it’s fairly ubiquitous. So, what is this priceless, sought after quality?
It’s the ‘hands-on’ manager. A close relative to the ‘just do it’ manager, the ‘hands-on’ manager leads from the front; no problem is too small for our man; no evidence is strong enough to refute her instant, overriding decision. A quality seemingly prized higher than virtue among maidens, so many job advertisements now list this ‘hands-on’ characteristic as an essential requirement. Viewed with as much reverence as their polar opposite is derided, you can hear these managers talked about with the same kind of enthusiasm as the sporting hero. These ‘hands-on’ types, we are told, hit the ground running, lead from the front, get stuck in and don’t drop the ball.
However, I’ve yet to see an ultimately successful outcome from this particular style. Oh, they have their successes, shallow though they might be, before they are off to the next role leaving a residual wake of unresolved causes insidiously metastasizing through the organisation. And, as we’ve seen, they certainly have their followers, even those left deep in the doo-doo when our hero has moved on. There’s something appealing about instant action from a superior when you don’t like sticking your own head over the parapet. Freed from risk and the requirement for thought, the troops get busy doing stuff until the next hands-on boss is appointed to make all the decisions.
Now, of course, there’s a continuum from our hands-on hero all the way back to those who rarely issue forth from their offices except to hold safe and nonthreatening meetings which then require the careful scripting of many pages of copious notes. Lord, save me from these too! So, is there a compromise? Of, course. Walking the job is a sound part of good leadership. Being there and being seen is critical for a leader. But a good leader doesn’t attempt to solve all or any problems with an instant edict. How is a team member supposed to learn when all decisions are made from above? When all decisions are made to treat the symptoms and not the underlying causes?
Evidence based management will permit the correct solutions and lead to the desired outcome. Performance based management systems, often focused upon narrow results and a plethora of targets, can lead to the short term fixes and unintended consequences that we see so often in our public services. So how does evidence based management work? I was fortunate to have an extensive training in quality improvement, research and systems analysis methods. Application of these techniques taught me that trying to solve a problem without finding the root cause(s) was futile; that attempting a solution without exhaustively establishing and testing alternative solutions was mistaken. Moreover it taught me that, if you picked the right team and ensured they had the same training, problems became so much easier to solve and they didn’t reoccur.
The final piece of the jigsaw came with the techniques of coaching. Essential to successful coaching is the questioning process that leads the coached to own their problem and to uncover the most efficacious method of solving it. Blending the rigorous techniques of quality improvement with a focused, ownership based, coaching style can provide a manager with the tools to lead with involvement whilst developing strong and successful team members.
So, are you a hands-on hero? Or do you let your people be the heroes they can and should be.