Forget business as usual, challenge for change instead

The Exceptional Manager

January 12, 2007

The title of this book is misleading. It leads one to expect yet another volume on how to be a successful manager. But this turns out not to be the case. It is a wide-ranging look at the role of management research in contributing to an understanding of UK economic performance and, in particular, the UK's relatively poor record in productivity growth.

The work is the output of the Advanced Institute of Management Research (Aim), which was founded in 2002 by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The aims of the institute are to develop UK-based world-class management research and to identify ways to enhance the competitiveness of the UK by means of management research. The focus is threefold: UK productivity and performance management; innovation; and the spread of best practice. The institute has more than 100 members who are researchers in UK business schools working collaboratively.

This volume has three lead authors and 14 contributors. It comprises some 12 chapters and an introduction. Unusually, no author attribution is given to any of the chapters.

Part one is devoted to setting the scene. The first chapter, "Making a difference", sets out the main thesis. It argues that, in most cases, managers do not make a great deal of difference. "Of course, managing efficiently and delivering good customer service are important - but managing continuity is not the same as making a difference. And it is change, not continuity, that is needed." What is required is for firms to find more ways to add value and operate at the higher end of markets. UK managers need to "take up the challenge of making the exceptional commonplace".

The second chapter reviews some of the familiar evidence relating to the UK's relative economic performance. The following chapters are then designed to provide some insights into how managers might respond to the challenge by drawing on different fields of research in business and management.

Part two is about "building blocks", which are identified as strategy, employment relations and innovation.

Part three, which is enigmatically titled "The reflective practitioner", consists of a set of essays, rather arbitrarily chosen, that fail to follow the line of an argument. The topics are as diverse as adopting best practice, organisational learning, decision-making and co-operating across boundaries. If these, then why not process engineering, financial control, organisation design, managing information systems or other important elements in managerial work?

The concluding chapter, "Taking the first steps", sets out what is involved in exceptional management. First, it involves breaking out of the "business as usual" mindset and being much more ready to challenge "the way things are done around here". Second, it calls for a management style that encourages employee participation and involvement. Third, managers must learn to see performance management less as a control system and more as a vehicle for learning and to balance the focus on financial measures with non-financial ones. This leads naturally to the need to champion a learning environment and ends with the call for managers to act as role models by getting actively involved in designing and implementing innovative processes. However, this is all well-tilled soil.

Given the strong emphasis on change and innovation throughout the work, I find it extremely odd that the index does not contain the word "leadership". There is no discussion of previous work - for example, that of Abraham Zaleznik and John Kotter, which explored the differences between management and leadership - nor any account of the research that demonstrated the key role played by leadership, as distinct from management skills and techniques, in organisational performance. There is a wealth of research in this field, from the pioneering work of Fred Fiedler and Rensis Likert in the 1960s to that of Jim Collins more recently, that demonstrates how leadership style and leader behaviour affect organisational performance, and yet this collection of essays makes virtually no reference to it.

Tom Peters put it less rigorously when he said that most companies are overmanaged and underled. The Aim initiative has set itself the task of producing world-class management research, and it is against this benchmark that this present output must be judged. Examples of research of that quality in recent years would include such work as Collins and Jerry Porras's Built to Last and Jeffrey Pfeffer's The Human Equation . The Exceptional Manager falls somewhat short of this standard - but perhaps the best is yet to come.

Philip Sadler is vice-president, Ashridge Business School, and research fellow, Tomorrow's Company.

The Exceptional Manager: Making the Difference

Author - Rick Delbridge, Lynda Gratton and Gerry Johnson
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 288
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 19 929222 1

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