What do managers and fickle teens have in common? More than you might think

OPINION: Management as a profession is more appallingly prone to fads and fan-crushes than a group of just-turned-13-year-olds.

Business process re-engineering swept through the business landscape in the early 1990s decimating middle management.

Big hairy audacious goals (BHAGs) were audaciously irrelevant to sustained business performance; management by objectives (MBO) was hot then not; core-competencies were in then out; matrix management so confusing for everyone that thankfully it went away.

Speak to any senior executive and they will tell you they face unprecedented disruption or increased competition or both, and hence must reach for the newest tools. However, the weight of evidence shows that large firms have got bigger, less efficient and that competition in many industries is less now than it was at the turn of the millennium.

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I rather suspect that many corporate managers a) rarely think deeply and seriously about their organisation’s purpose, its inner workings, people, markets and resources, and b) instead copy the actions of Google (or Netflix, Apple or some other outlier success) they read about in the Harvard Business Review.

Nowhere is management style more victorious over substance than in the use of values.

Recently I’ve been dealing with my local council and it’s fair to say that their reputation is bad. Not bad in the sense of Fawlty Towers incompetence, which might be endearing. Rather, bad in the sense of tin-eared, labyrinthine, aloof, self-serving and arrogant.

Dealing with their planning department left my neighbour in tears and I’m sad to say their current media presence mostly consists of defending murky deals and development consents that leave neighbourhoods aghast. Yet they have jaunty values like “show you care” and “have courage”.

A strong set of values have been the basis for success at Mainfreight.

Andy Jackson/Stuff

A strong set of values have been the basis for success at Mainfreight.

Guiding beliefs vs daily acts

It strikes me that the leaders of this organisation completely fail to grasp that a firm’s true culture is revealed in the gap that exists between their guiding beliefs and the daily acts of the firm’s people.

Pinning some values to the wall in the belief they will affect the day-to-day decisions, actions and behaviour of the people in the organisation is simply management hubris. Or as an employee of my council said to me when I mentioned their values: “Hashtag ‘fake news’”.

In human society cultures aren’t invented overnight – they are built of the accumulated wisdom from untold thousands of decisions, wrong choices and learning that helped that group to survive and thrive. Values emerge from those cultures as shared beliefs about what is the right or proper thing to do. Thus they shape behaviour by pointing us towards the “right” action when expediency tempts us in another direction.

At their best, firms who understand their own values have a tikanga that acts as the scaffolding of an organisation’s processes, systems, relationships, reasoning and decision-making and actions. You will always have a culture, but is it an asset?

And since human cultures aren’t invented overnight, values should not be seen by new leaders as a means to stamp their mark on an organisation, or signal “things are going to change around here”. Saying “show you care” is not the same as doing the mahi to ensure the firm demonstrates it.

One example where values have real meaning – read that as cultural impact – and where they have set the basis for long-term success is at Mainfreight – an incredibly successful New Zealand firm.

Almost from the get go in the 1980s Bruce Plested talked about founding a 100-year firm. Mainfreight’s three pillars of culture, family and philosophy have been around for nearly four decades and still guide the daily acts of the company. By instilling a long-term view (“focus on margin, not revenue”), a healthy scepticism of corporate hierarchy and a deep sense of the value of each hardworking person, Mainfreight looks on track to grow well beyond 100 years.

Dave Winsborough: You will always have a culture, but is it an asset?


Dave Winsborough: You will always have a culture, but is it an asset?

Reading the fine print in the three pillars might seem cheesy to modern managers, but so presumably do the 10 commandments, and they were fairly successful in guiding the behaviour of a fair number of humans.

Another, more controversial example is seen at the Reserve Bank. Faced with daunting criticism from the agencies it regulated (“irrelevant”, “stuffy” and “slow”) the Reserve Bank sought to educate its people on their own storied history in order to reorient them to its fundamental role in building a resilient and productive financial system for New Zealand. And the organisation seems of late to have come alive – to the chagrin of banks and other institutions who, it turns out, preferred the bank when it was irrelevant.

Time will tell, but the behaviours expressed by the reinvigorated bank suggest its values are becoming more clear.

So unpin the anodyne values from the wall and spend time learning what it’s like to be a customer of your firm, or to work in it. Maybe K-pop BTS fan boys have a chance of creating a new management fad: “I’m so sick of this fake love, fake love, fake love, I‘m so sorry but it’s fake love, fake love, fake love.”

Dave Winsborough is a writer and adviser. He is the founder of NZ’s largest organisational psychology firm Winsborough Ltd and New York based assessment company Deeper Signals. All opinions in this article are the author’s own.