Essays on Management: Who should be appointed to top management roles?

Proverbs that survive do so because they are forever truthful. “Fish go rotten from the head”, “the bottleneck is at the head of the bottle”, and “trees die from the top” tell us that throughout history top management determines an organisation’s culture and performance, and bad management is toxic to an organisation and the people within it. Conversely, good managers are what get the best out of organisations and make them flourish. Who then should be appointed as top managers, and in particular as chief executives?

Top managers must have “threshold competencies” needed for performance. These include the intelligence, literacy, numeracy, and the specific technical and other skills needed for particular roles. However threshold competencies are necessary but not sufficient conditions. The paramount requirements for managers are personal integrity and character, and a clear understanding of in whose interests they are acting.
Sometimes public organisations host presentations where chief executives and others in top roles talk about themselves and how they got to the top and give tips to young aspirants on how to progress their careers. They often do not talk about what they contributed to society, what their values were, or how they managed difficult challenges such as balancing external needs against fairness to staff, yet these are key to good management.
Character is a person’s inherent and positive moral quality, and the values this gives rise to. Integrity is the complete, undivided and consistent expression of these values in behaviour. Even the ruthless lawyer Jagger in Great Expectations softened in the presence of the “aged parent” when on furlough from his bloodless legal duties. However most of the worst people managers in the New Zealand do not at the end of the day return to harmonious family lives or close relationships.

No work place bully should be appointed to a management position, nor anyone with a messy personal life involving infidelity or neglect of responsibilities to others. People who cheat in their private and personal lives will do so in the work place and must be banned from managerial positions involving power over others.

Much management ability is taught in the university of life. Youthful risk taking is important in entrepreneurship because young people often see the future more clearly and take risks older people would not take. When they fail, entrepreneurs with tenacity will learn from that failure. Top managers need to see how others cut up the world and a love of humanities helps this. The best managers usually have strong external interests unrelated to work, whether family, community or culturally centred.

However, top managers also need to focus on the job and not have too many other work-related professional affiliations or commitments that can distract them or lead to the wrong behaviours. Top executives with other major work or professional commitments related to past, alternative or fall back careers may not be suited for appointment. Firstly such commitments are distracting, and secondly they can suggest a lack of commitment to current roles or treating them as a step to a future role or a retreat to a former one.

Top managers need personal steel and strong performance self-expectations. They need good manners. They need to set the pace for the rest in their team. They need good memories. They need intelligence, though intelligence alone is not enough. Being bright does not substitute for judgement and integrity. People who are exceptionally smart in a narrowly cognitive sense often lack other abilities and traits and feel they can be independent from others, until of course their lives fall apart and they learn they depend on others.

All senior jobs should be openly and fairly contested. This is costly to do because advertising jobs openly means many peoples’ time is wasted applying for jobs they will not get. However organisations often appoint people they know without realising there is always more talent outside than inside one’s own networks. Family firms often fail because appointments are made on genetic relatedness rather than merit-based lines. Some Japanese family-owned companies avoid this through adult adoptions of talented people into a family and therefore into the business. If you cast your recruitment net wide enough you can discover people with abilities and aptitudes you could not imagine existed, and these may be outstanding appointments.

There are several specific questions you should ask when you consider appointing a manager. Is the person able to stand up to strong and powerful people on matters of principle? In the public sector in particular, what are claimed to be “political skills” are often simply signs of weak character. Does the person focus on people’s strengths or on their weaknesses, and on what is right not who is right?

There is also a “gut feeling” question you should ask yourself. Would you like your son or daughter to report to this person? People management has a significant pastoral care dimension, requires the setting of boundaries, fostering of intrinsic motivations and support for staff personal development. Anyone incapable of these should not be a manager.

If you are confident with the answers to the above questions, and the threshold abilities, skills and drive for external results are there in a candidate, you are on good grounds to appoint a manager.

Near the peak of an organisation sits a chief executive and on top is the Board that appoints him or her. Some chief executives see themselves sitting inside an organisation while others will only see the organisation from the outside as if they were external to and not part of it. They must decide whether they see themselves as agents of a board demanding performance from their organisations, as leaders of the organisation reporting to the board, or something in between. They may act for the organisation, advocating its stance to the board. The worst of them may report only to themselves.

All chief executives need vision and must know what needs to be done. Ideally they should see the whole, and enough of the detail to be grounded in it. They should be able to take the rough edges off in their external dealings.
They must set the tone and culture of an organisation. However they must avoid conflating themselves with their organisation, for their powers and influence come from their positional rather than personal authority and powers. Some chief executives and top politicians forget this and believe they are bigger than their organisation. It is a sad sight when executives and politicians argue with the decisions of their boards or electorates not to extend their contract, or fail to accept the arrow of time and the need to move on and create space for others.

Chief executives must understand who and what they are working for, that is the external and often higher purpose or benefit stream they must contribute to. They must have and set clear goals, directions and work programmes. They must understand their staff members’ abilities and values. They must be fair minded to all and not play favourites. They must be consistent and predictable in behaviour, emotion and dealings with people.

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About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
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