Management Styles Make No Difference

Dec. 21, 2004
Success comes from managing well and keeping employees happy.

Today, we are being inundated by a flood of touchy-feely management books espousing corporate one-level hierarchies instead of the more typical totem-pole hierarchies of the past. The enlightened proponents of one-level management believe that few chief executives have the requisite smarts and skills to manage their companies as the Head Honcho, King Kong or Totalitarian Tzar. They argue that enlightened companies employing self-managed teams of the workers closest to the problems are more likely to find successful solutions to those problems. This theory argues that teams of employees working together toward a common objective, treated as equals, and empowered to decide are more successful more often than a Mr. or a Ms. Big making unilateral decisions from the corner office. Many heads, it suggests, are better than one and that all of us are better than any one of us. Opponents of the one-level hierarchy concept label it loony Marxism or something worse. They believe that totem-pole management is more efficient, more direct, less complicated, less costly, and more consistent with parental training and, therefore, more normal and successful. It suggests that one good cook is better than too many cooks, and that one of us can be (and often is) better than all of us. I have been known to believe in a few forgotten fads and to have engineered a few fabulous flops. Therefore, I prefer to remain neutral about which management style is more effective. I believe there are values and vices in both. My caution is dictated by a sensitive sixth sense that warns me to remember that most of what I knew as management fact wasn't, and that so much I didn't know was. For chief executives, knowledge is beauty. It keeps their brains from being cluttered with nonsense. Knowledge is also power. It helps them remain top dog. But one needs to be careful about knowledge. Nothing is so changeable as the truth. Take, for example, the belief that the human body has only five senses: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. The new truth is that scientists have identified other faculties that should be identified as senses: balance, pain, temperature, hunger, and thirst. These are position senses that let you know where your hands and feet are without having to look, and visceral senses that give us information about our internal organs. Valuable senses for any chief executive. But the well-known sixth sense survives, too. How else will we know for sure which company organizational structure to bet our futures on? Many successful companies are led by chief executives who are wily, smiley, giggly, laughing leaders. And just as many successful companies are led by those who are taciturn, testy, and terrifying tyrants. Chief executives are what they are. They find it difficult to change themselves. It's much easier to change their companies. This makes them as human as most people who work for them--or won't. People work for companies because they are comfortable with its culture. That doesn't mean they like everything about the company or, for that matter, dislike everything about it. But they need to feel comfortable. Those who do not soon relocate to companies that are more compatible with their personalities and value systems. Chief executives who fear that team-building, focus groups, diversity, mentoring, and empowerment are signs that the inmates have taken over the asylum cannot manage companies that have such a focus. Nor should they. Chief executives who fear that demanding, disciplined, and demeaning companies don't work cannot manage companies that have such a focus. Nor should they. A former management mentor once explained that Ivan the Terrible was a misnomer. With an epithet such as "The Terrible" appended to Ivan's name, you and I might surmise that he was a dictatorial demon from hell. That assumption is based on an inaccurate translation of the Russian word "grozny." Rather than translating into "terrible," grozny actually means "in awe of." So Ivan the Awesome would be a more accurate and kinder moniker for this Russian monarch. However, even Ivan the Awesome was no cream puff. Ivan provided his full share of lashes, broken bones, and executions. He even had a nobleman's tongue cut out because he spoke rudely to His Tzarness. But as absolute monarchs go, the first tzar of Russia was no more terrible than his contemporaries. Which leaves me with this thought: Ivan the Terrible can be just as successful in managing a company as Mother Teresa. There is no single right way to manage a company successfully. Totem-pole hierarchies work as successfully as one-level hierarchies. The secret is neither the chief executives nor the people they manage. It's the people they manage to keep. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc. and an IW contributing editor.

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