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You Can Lead a Manager to Order, But You Can't Make Him Think

A business expert explains why we produce managers who don't know how to think, and what to do to reverse the trend.
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Managing

We're producing a whole generation of middle managers who don't know how to think. That's the observation of Eileen C. Shapiro, former McKinsey consultant, author of Fad Surfing in the Boardroom, and cofounder of the Hillcrest Group, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass. Here's what she says is at the root of the problem:

"If you grow up in a dysfunctional family in which decisions are being made for you, then you can't make decisions. That's essentially what's happening to managers in large companies that are outsourcing thinking to consultants. A junior manager doesn't make a decision until the outside consultant says so. Well, what happens when those junior managers become middle managers? We're breeding a whole generation of managers who can't think.

"Implicit in my training in business school was that managers make decisions when they don't have complete information. That means there's risk. It's scary because you might be wrong. People in organizations typically look to make the decisions that aren't going to get them into trouble. They look for the low-risk decision. But what being a manager comes down to is a willingness to make decisions, think through the implications, live with the consequences, and learn from mistakes and keep going.

"For a long time the idea behind running a business was very simple: give customers a better deal than your competition does, do it at a profit, and do it over time. But that simple idea got lost in consultant jargon, complex matrices, and theories. Consultants discovered that there was a lot of money to be made by saying, 'Ah, let us sustain implementation for you and then you can run it.'

"So the execution of business, which is the tough part, was ignored, and the basic theories of business, which are relatively simple, were replaced with complicated analysis. Pretty soon consultants will be saying that the theory is complex and the running is complex, so you should let them do everything.

"Decision making is being moved outside the organization, and accountability is no place. Somewhere, somebody's ass has got to be on the griddle. And the fabulous thing about a lot of what's happening with consulting is that nobody is at risk. The few businesses and managers who figure out it's their job to use consultants as supplements as opposed to replacements are just going to beat the people who are lemmings."

Last updated: Dec 1, 1996




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