Why executive managers don’t have a clue

Executive management doesn’t have a clue.

Everybody I talk to in organisations large and small agree. And I am talking managers here.

They try. They do their best. They start doubting their intelligence. They install control mechanisms. They install more control mechanisms. Heck, they might even try (and burn their fingers on) business intelligence. Maybe that will give them the edge they may think they lack.

Thing is: it’s unavoidable. It is humanly impossible to have a clue.

Let’s try to be clear on what I am talking about here. A clue about what? And is that a problem?

The what

What is it executive management doesn’t have a clue about? It is what the operation is actually doing, and especially how they are doing it. The “floor” is that part of the organisation that is actually doing the work, the thing that brings in money. There is some difference between enterprises that actually deliver tangible products like buildings and roads, and other enterprises that sell services, like consulting companies. But not much. Apple is a company that delivers tangible products: computers, phones. Even the software is, though somewhat less so, a tangible product. But most people would agree that Apple’s success is not based on the products themselves, even if the claims of superior quality were to hold. Other companies have attempted to deliver superior quality. And failed. That was because what Apple does, besides creating the actual products, is sell them. The boundary between the two kinds of enterprises is not clear-cut.

In the first kind of enterprise management is overhead. They do not directly contribute to the income of the company but they are more like facilitators, while in the second kind of enterprise they are more often the driving force and a continuous force of inspiration  — until they fail. The top in those organizations is required to be consistently successful or the dissipation of glamour reveals the naked emperor beneath…

In both organisations the top has an additional function that is seldom made explicit: they have a symbolic function.

This goes for every executive manager. If you have executive responsibilities your personality, the way you walk the talk is paramount. Struggle and your employees will start struggling. Doubt and everyone will lose their sense of direction. Hard work will get you nowhere, because there is no symbolic value attached to it by your employees. But your smile does. Your presence on the floor, your commitment to your ideas and directions are.

As a manager you are the leader of a group of people, larger or smaller does not matter. As such you become a target for psychological projection of the father (mother) figure.

That is hard work. It requires the courage to look into yourself, to acknowledge your weaknesses (and not shout them down) and to maintain a precarious balance. A sense of self, not a sense of ego (because that will be the first thing everybody will notice, consciously or not). It also requires that you keep a clear focus. What is exactly your responsibility? What really makes you an effective manager? How can you best execute your mental and emotional powers to create teams and enterprises that deliver exceptional results?

The why

One might say: why is it a problem? Enterprises may be struggling, at least many of them. But is the fact that management doesn’t have a clue a factor in that?

I think not. Not in itself. It may become a problem.

I think the problem is when they think they should have. A clue I mean. They often try to do everything, especially understanding on a mental level. If they try, they will have entered into a fight they cannot possible win. The enterprise is too complex, and the few people whose responsibility is exactly that, understanding that is, are already overwrought. These people I call architects, on any level of conceptual responsibility (from Enterprise Architects to architectural roles on the floor — see The Responsible Architect). Forcing them to bring executive managers on the same level of understanding sometimes leads to detrimentally simplified representations of reality, and a awful waste of time.

The how

I am not saying the architects should not be accountable for their conceptual responsibilities. On the contrary I would say! For this I firstly and mainly advocate a solid architecture process with peer reviews, external reviews and audits, and an explicit accountability for architectural decisions on any level. I anything, this will make them more accountable, not less.

This is what the primary responsibility of Enterprise Architecture is, in my view.

Architects explaining themselves to management remains important. The only thing is: not as important as most managers I speak to make it.

This approach will lead to significant benefits in any size organisation. Architectural quality will take a quantum leap. Management will be able to offload a tremendous load from their shoulders. Effectivity will abound.

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