Friday, August 8, 2008

Managing in an imperfect world (business management)

ST Recruit on 22 Dec 2003
by ONG Yong Hwee

Good managers recognise their weaknesses and know how to bring out the best in their imperfect surbordinates.

You have an excellent engineer in your company, but when he is promoted to manage others, his performance dives. Sounds familiar?

A main reason for this is narrow, academic-focused education, which is why the education system is increasingly emphasising CCA (co-curricular activities) to complement the highly academic curriculum.

Unfortunately, there are students and parents who still view taking CCA as an end in itself. They do it just to fulfil the requirements of the school curriculum. They don’t see it as a personal development process.

Mathematics and science subjects are about perfection and exactness. A large proportion of the brighter students are channelled, trained and grilled in such subjects.

These subjects are good as they help students develop critical and vigorous thinking skills. However, a negative effect is that these individuals may, using a “perfect” model, analyse situations and human relationships as either right or wrong, in their “perfect world” scenario.

When these “science/maths perfectionists” venture out into the real, imperfect corporate world, they often get frustrated and discouraged when things don’t go neatly according to plan.

They get stressed out when their reporting staff do not live up to their expectations. They are also less tolerant of non-conformist, out-of-the-box thinkers, as these groups may offer ideas that appear unusual or even “off-the-wall”.

In human resource management, the art of people management is about understanding, accepting and managing imperfection. This would suggest a 180-degree incongruence when compared to the “perfect” disciplines of mathematics and science.

So, accepting imperfection is really the first step towards managing one of the company’s most valuable resource, its human talent and capital.
"The art of people management is about understanding, accepting and managing imperfections"
While training and management theories and case studies can help corporate managers grasp the essence of people management, the actual work experience and practical exposure are key to better human resource management.

Choose carefully
Managers should be discerning when selecting or promoting management staff. While most tend to be biased towards those who shine academically (followed by those who excel technically or technologically), they have to differentiate such skills from their people management abilities.

So, during the hiring process, try to give more weight to those who talk about and accept responsibility for project or business failures.

It is difficult to get senior-level candidates to talk about their management failings and shortfalls. Experienced interviewers must thus be skilful in leading them towards discussing such issues.

A red flag comes up if they tell you that they have not experienced any failures or difficulties either in managing people or projects.

Maturity in accepting weaknesses, especially in one’s own personality traits, is another sign of a good people manager.

Sun Tze said: “Know yourself and know your enemy, 100 battles will produce 100 victories.” So, knowing oneself is half way to being a good people manager.

It is not so much the negative traits that you want to hear from your candidate, but his acceptance of his and others’ weaknesses, and his ability to come up with ways to surmount those weaknesses, that you should look out for.

People management is, afterall, an art, and good people managers know how to bring out the best of their imperfect subordinates.

Finally, reference checking with those who have worked with or for the candidate is another way of confirming your analysis of whether he will be good at managing in an imperfect world.

(Article contributed by Mr Ong Yong Hwee, general manager of CEO Search & Services. This article first appeared in ST Recruit on 22 Dec 2003. )