What's It Really Take To Be A Great Manager?

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Marty NemkoContributor and NPR-SF regular Marty Nemko with his wife, Barbara Nemko.

Because I write and talk about career issues, publishers send me lots of management and leadership books and, alas, most say very similar things. I got excited, though, when I received Harvard Business Review's Ten Must Read Books on Management and Leadership. Each of the ten is an article written by a luminary: for example, Good to Great author Jim Collins, Peter Drucker, who wrote 39 books, and emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman. On a recent edition of my NPR-San Francisco radio program, Work with Marty Nemko, I invited a special leader to discuss the book with me: one of the nation's top innovative schools superintendents (and my wife), Dr. Barbara Nemko.

Here are the show's highlights, lightly edited for space and coherence.

Barbara Nemko: I like how the book opens. It reminds us that we can be a fine leader even if our IQ isn't 160: "Everyone knows a story of a highly intelligent and skilled executive who failed. We also know of someone of not-extraordinary intellectual abilities and technical abilities who soared."

Marty Nemko: Did the book teach you anything that will actually change your behavior?

Barbara Nemko: Well, it reinforced the importance of using self-deprecating humor. Some writers say that women especially shouldn't put themselves down. But when leaders admit to weaknesses, others feel they too can be leaders. Also, if you come across as too confident, some people will want you to fall on your face.

Marty Nemko: But you have a big reservoir of credibility. How about for other folks?

Barbara Nemko: Yes, them too. Of course, I'm not saying you should put yourself down all the time, just occasionally share some weakness everyone can relate to.

On to another topic. The book stresses the importance of empathy. I'm curious, Marty, to what extent to do you think it can be learned?

Marty Nemko: Most things are a combination of nature and nurture. If you're not naturally empathic, I'd teach my clients to, before saying something potentially hurtful, ask yourself, "How would the person react if I said that?" Of course, empathy shouldn't always dominate business decisions. Sometimes, the bottom line should be the bottom line.

Barbara Nemko: The book, like many others, talks about embracing change. What are your thoughts on that?

Marty Nemko: I'm certainly not against change--when the cost/benefit, risk/reward is fully considered. But there is too much gyration for its own sake--trying to show we're "improving" without adequately considering the human and fiscal costs of demanding change. Too often, the leading edge turns out to be the bleeding edge. It's usually wise to be not an early or late adopter, but a middle adopter.

Barb, what does the book say are keys to good leadership?

Barbara Nemko: One thing is to hone your ability to discern subtle cues--test your perceptions, ask if you're reading them right.

Also practice tough empathy: care about what your people are doing but don't necessarily give them what they want; give them what they need.

Marty Nemko: I also think these are key:
  • Good leaders think through and articulate a vision and goals that generally turn out to be wise ones.
  • They walk the talk--if they expect people to work hard, they do. If they screw up, they admit it, learn from it, and move on, no wallowing.
  • They hire slow and fire fast. A Gallup survey of 60,000 managers found that to be the most important factor. They hire mainly by getting referrals from all the people they trust, and if a new employee starts out poorly and modest remediation isn't helping much, the wise leader realizes that their time and effort will be better spent and the organization and its customers will likely be better served if they cut their losses and find a better-suited employee.
  • They don't let profit dominate ethics.

Barbara, what differentiates you from other good leaders?

Barbara Nemko: I know my weaknesses and delegate those. I'm not the greatest monitor of people doing what they should, so I delegate that. I'm better at solving problems internally and in speaking with external stakeholders: the government, the media, etc.

Marty Nemko: You're also energetic yet never lose your temper, which enables you to use your common sense. You're very practical, not relying on university-taught theory that applies poorly in the real world.

Barbara Nemko: The book asks readers, "What do you need to do to be a more authentic leader?" How would you answer that, Mart?

Marty Nemko: Honestly, it's to be less authentic. I've gotten into too much trouble being authentic. Unless what you say falls into a narrow orthodoxy consistent with the zeitgeist of the times, even people who self-proclaim to be tolerant too often make you pay a big price. I actually need to learn to be less authentic, to know when to speak up and when to shut up.

Barb, let's do that switch-sides debate we planned for. I take one side and then, in the middle, switch sides. The topic: Should managers err on the side of being bold or collaborative? Okay, Barb, you want to start?

Barbara Nemko: Sure. Here's why collaborative is better. Not everyone has everything it takes to be a good leader. Being collaborative allows you to find people who compensate for your weaknesses. It also makes it more pleasant for employees--it's hard for them to feel great about their job if they only have an implementer role. They want to help make decisions. Okay, you argue for bold leadership.

Marty Nemko: Sure. Here's why it's wise for leaders to err on being bold rather than collaborative. While some people schmooze or sleep their way to the top, on average, the smartest, hardest-working, most visionary, and most political (which is essential for getting things done) people tend to rise to the top. So decisions made by a bold leader rather than by a group tend to be wiser. Also, when decisions are made collaboratively, decisions tend to be tepid--what everyone can agree to, the lowest common denominator. Also, decision-making by consensus is slow, which makes the whole organization slow. It's hard to keep people motivated to work hard at a molasses place.

Now I'll switch sides, and I'll start by making the case for erring on the side of collaboration. If people are just told "do this," they'll be demotivated. Besides, workers' happiness matters for its own sake. If people are asked for their view and are really heard, they feel good about their work lives and about themselves. Besides, all wisdom doesn't reside within The Leader, no matter how smart. Crowdsourcing has become popular for a reason: Wikipedia and Firefox are great products because they're the result of broad input.

Barbara Nemko. Bold leadership is critical. Every organization needs one clear voice, inspiring both within and without. It takes that special person with the gift of getting people truly on board. If we do a lot of decision-making by consensus, there will too often be some vocal-but-not-very-wise voice arguing "no." That will result in an organization spending too much time listening to such voices and not enough creating better products and services. Too much collaboration can result in an ineffective organization, a molasses organization. We all want organizations that are alive.

Marty Nemko welcomes your visiting his website: www.martynemko.com where lots of his writings and radio show are archived. And, if you need career help, you can email Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net
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