A young friend of mine, Amber, just got promoted to manage a customer support team for a satellite company. Amber described her team as frustrated by seemingly conflicting goals, including spending less time on each call while improving the resolution rate. Team members would keep improving in one area while compromising in another. Most of them lacked a sense of progress and were losing their motivation. Her attempts to correct them felt futile. How, she asked, could she get them energized and unstuck?
I suggested that she work with the team to create a vision of success that was free of contradiction. After all, unless the team members could tell what the perfect caller experience was, how would they strive to recreate it? I also suggested that she should think of herself less like a boss and more like a teacher or coach. We talked about her holding regular “reflection sessions” where people could discuss their calls and the issues they were seeing. The group could then capture and share knowledge about how to improve.
Amber thanked me and seemed excited about these ideas, but I wondered what her peers and bosses would think. It was discouraging to learn that she had not been given any sort management training. As is often the case, she was promoted based on her own experience as a customer support representative.
No doubt Amber is one of many managers in that organization struggling because the executives have not paid much attention to developing their managers. But even when they do, what ideas are being taught? The conventional view of management is that is consists of “utilizing resources, including people, to get acceptable results within known constraints.” That’s a direct quote from a lecture Carly Fiorina gave at Stanford after her ouster from Hewlett Packard.
For me, this description brings to mind Dilbert-style middle management drones devoid of imagination and initiative. I picture them working for executives whose focus is on “making the numbers” and who care little about the longer term vitality of the organization and its people. This is not the stuff of greatness, but I’m sure it’s “acceptable”.
In contrast, a learning organization is one where short-term execution targets are complemented by learning goals. Continuous improvement is a way of life, and it is reflected by a rapid rate of innovation in products, services, and processes.In a learning organization, the purpose of management is to establish clear goals and then organize a productive doing-learning loop. The objective is not merely to “make the numbers”, but to always get smarter. Managers work with individuals and groups to facilitate learning and problem resolution, but tend to avoid telling people what to do.
Sounds too soft? Try this one on for size: If you are micromanaging people you are being too easy on them! By doing their thinking for them, you are relieving them of the necessity to grow and learn. So be their teacher, explain what they need to do and know, but let them do their own homework.
So what’s a manager to do? Achieve rapidly improving business results by working with your people to help them grow and learn. That’s the purpose of management in a learning organization.