FLOGGING A DEAD HORSE
I have lived and worked in Europe for the last 9 years after more than 30 years working in the IT Sector in NZ, Australia, Singapore and the USA, and have worked with, for, and also been responsible for, hundreds of different Managers at varying levels of seniority in that time. I came to Europe with high expectations of what I would find from a Management skills perspective. I have to say that I have been extremely disappointed by not only the Management skills that I have found here, but also by the attitude that I have found towards building professional Management.
Europe has generally not built a culture of management as a profession, not built a culture where management skill is highly valued as critical a skill as vocational excellence, but has tended to build business cultures where management as a science, as an art, as a way of life is seen as just an add-on. In many cases, management excellence is only seen as a “nice to have” rather than as a mandatory set of skills in senior executives. There is a lot of discussion in Europe about “leadership” and this is often transposed and confused for “management”, but in most European countries, the objective is the discussion itself, rather than the desire to go beyond this alone … discussion means that you can sound knowledgeable without ever having to do something that can actually be measured. It means that the Academics can expound all their theories about Management, without ever having had to live them. I have had numerous arguments with Academics in most countries when I felt that their theories could not work in practice. They tended to believe that this was acceptable as my Management practices could not work in their theory anyway. The problem is that this “academic attitude” is also prevalent in much of the Business World.
When I first joined the SAP Extended Board in 1999, I was the then CEO/President of SAP Asia Pacific. We had worked very hard over the previous 5 years to ensure that at SAP APA we had implemented working Management Evaluation, assessment and development programmes in place for all levels of management, and I felt that this was something seriously absent in SAP on a Global basis. When I put a proposal in front of the Board to turn this Management Excellence@SAP Programme into a global reality, I had some interesting reactions from other Board members. One of the executives in particular told me that he felt that Managers were like horses, and that in life you were “…. either born a race horse or a draft horse, and race horses shouldn’t pull carts and draft horses shouldn’t run at Epsom”. His feeling was that any intelligent, well educated, skilled professional could become a manager, and that being intelligent, he would work out what he needed to do in his own time.
Interesting approach, but I have always believed that the difference between a race-horse that looked good, and was well bred, and a racehorse that could actually win races was how well that race horse was trained, and how well he had been prepared beforehand for what was expected of him.
The idea that you could leave a racehorse sitting in a field until race day when you threw a saddle and a jockey on his back, and then expected him to know what to do, and perform well, made as much sense as believing that you could just wake up one morning and play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, having never actually learned to play a musical instrument. Moreover, whilst this brilliant-to-be Manager was acquiring his skills, what was happening to the people for whom he had been given responsibility?
Even after we had gone ahead (initially on a “skunk works”) with some enthusiasts from across the Company, and then successfully implemented the needed Management Development Programmes on a global basis, and had started to put some measurable value on Management as a skill, and as an asset, at SAP, I still would receive messages from this particular Executive with jokes about “flogging a dead horse”.
The belief that Europe will grow and develop as a major economic powerhouse that will be able to compete against the Americas and the Asians, appears to be more of a hope than a real strategy. I doubt that this will be possible until we all understand that skilled management and leadership is a critical starting point for success, that these don’t just happen because we wish them to, and that creating these skills involves more than just spending a few weeks at INSEAD and then handing out titles.