I’m not the first to warn against awful management. Even the Bible advised bosses to play fair because the big gaffer in the sky was watching, and poor leadership has been a source of fascination and despair before and since.
The most jaw-droppingly awful managers earn a place in history. At one end of the scale we’ve the likes of George Pullman, the tycoon who built a town for his workers but ruled it like a tyrant, banning free speech, newspapers and privacy. At the other extreme is TV’s David Brent of The Office, basically just a bit of a jackass who craved approval, more inept than iniquitous.
The media’s favourites are those high-profile bosses who are so puffed up with their own commercial cleverness that they can’t resist mouthing off, alienating customers and slashing share prices as they go. Jewellery magnate Gerald Ratner set the gold-plated standard for corporate self-destruction when he admitted his products were “crap”. Following his lead was David Shepherd, brand director at Topman, who said the store’s target market was “hooligans or whatever”. Ikea boss Anders Dahvig, in comparison, was positively flying his firm’s flag when he admitted his stores were “appalling”.
In Awful Management, I show how it can take a lifetime to gain trust and one stupid comment to lose it. My own examples of this include the time an irate client phoned me to complain he’d just received a letter addressed to “Dear Does not pay his bills”. At some point in the past, an admin employee had put a note about the client’s slow payment on his electronic file – which later, during an en-masse transfer of customer details – had made it on to a mailshot database instead of his name.
A low-key incident, perhaps, but important to that client, who had to be won round with apologies and explanations.
At the heart of awful management is a tendency to forget what a manager’s role is, or to misunderstand it. A boss is not a ruler to be obeyed and revered. An awful manager might believe there is nothing to learn from the people on the factory floor. He or she might never even think to ask for ideas – after all “this is the way we’ve always done it”.
I witnessed these classic awful management traits in my first full-time job, as a metallurgical laboratory technician. The highly-educated boffins had been unable to solve a design problem with heat exchanger tubes, so the machine operators just kept their heads down and continued turning out huge, expensive, wonky items, just the way they were instructed. One day, by chance, I asked an operator if he knew how to solve the wonky tube problem. Of course he did, and he proved it – “but the boffins never ask me”.
“Ask the bloke on the machine” was a piece of advice that stuck with me from that point. Until I landed a senior role in Germany, that is – where I then learned that only an awful manager presumes he knows another culture inside-out.
In Germany, senior managers earn their status after several decades, with the respect that comes with expertise. So, when I asked my team for suggestions, there’d be an embarrassed silence. Eventually, I learned they expected me, as their leader, to know what to do without having to ask underlings. By thinking I knew how to be a great manager, I’d fallen into an awful management trap – I thought I knew how everything worked!
Awful management need not be publicly catastrophic. Just a smidgeon of self-satisfaction, a drop of complacency, and a lack of focus on the core aims of an organization is all it takes for the rot to set in and business to suffer. The first step is to recognise it and do something about it. And if you’re not sure where to start – ask the bloke on the machine!
Gary Sheard, managing director of Sheard European Management Consultants Limited, draws upon four decades of experience with a wide range of organisations, for his new book Awful Management.