Stop Doing What You Do Well: Managers Must Learn To Be Conductors

In looking at the great leaders of history—whether they are political leaders like Julius Caesar or business leaders like Steven P. Jobs—many people probably assume they must have taken a particularly active role in running their organizations.

Caesar, after all, personally led his troops into Gaul, and Jobs was famous for checking the design of even the smallest inner workings of every product at Apple.

But J. Keith Murnighan (one of my heroes who taught management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management), says that is not the best way to manage an organization.

In his last book Do Nothing!: How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader, Murnighan contends the most successful leaders delegate virtually all the regular work to their staff, freeing their own time so that they can facilitate and orchestrate everyone else’s performance. Not only will this improve morale, but it will also result in a better product and a less stressful life for the leader.

NOTE: Murnighan passed away recently. In addition to the wisdom and kindness he imparted to so many students, Murnighan leaves behind a truly inspired body of research and ideas.

Over the years, a key lesson Murnighan has taught has been that “decision-making, negotiations, and team-building skills really are the essence of leadership.” He took it a step further, following this idea to logical extremes. “And the logical extreme of building a team of trusted employees and focusing on the big picture is that leaders should “do nothing” when it comes to everyday functioning.”

He often asked his students: “What would it be like if all of your team members were living up to their potential? That gets big smiles from everyone. Then I say, ‘Why don’t you just help them do that? All you have to do is orchestrate a bit and facilitate.’ ”

Unfortunately this is easier said than done. Doing nothing is not easy for people who like their work and are driven to succeed. A common problem is that people often get promoted to leadership positions because they have been very capable technicians. When they are promoted, it is critical that they stop doing the technical work and delegate.

“Successful leaders must shift gears and, literally, do less of what they used to do, even though they were good at it,” Murnighan writes in the first chapter. Yet, “they feel so comfortable using their old, established skills that they often have a hard time changing.”

That refusal to let go creates a host of problems. Many leaders oversee teams whose members are “under-utilized and under-challenged.” These employees will not perform effectively, and ultimately the best workers may leave in frustration. Meanwhile, the leaders themselves are overstressed.

Managers Must Learn to Conduct

Many, many managers are myopic … in an ideal world, a hiring manager would be like a conductor, standing on a podium, baton in hand, knowing how many violinists, violists, cellists, and horn players are needed to prevent Beethoven from sounding tinny.

If hiring all at once, it’s really easy to see exactly what you might need. But, of course, most teams are formed one player at a time, and for managers on the ground, intimately involved, it’s much harder to see that. And that’s when immediate comparisons run in and a specialist just is not going to be valued as much as they should be.

Another factor may also contribute to the generalist bias: risk aversion.

“If I was the general manager of a basketball team, it would be easy for me to justify hiring one great athlete after the next because you can [justify] their individual statistics really well,” says Murnighan. But focusing on synergy—rather than any given individual—is riskier: “When you have a high-risk, high-return strategy versus a middle-of-the-road, safer strategy, people will often take that.”

Indeed, this may at least partly explain why large corporations—with their greater emphasis on accountability—seem more biased toward generalists than smaller organizations tend to be.

And what about the boss?  As management requires people to wear many hats—cheerleader, enforcer, organizer, sales guy, industry leader, goal-setter—many managers are themselves generalists. This too works against specialists. “We really are attracted to like-minded other people,” explains Murnighan. “And so we tend to replicate ourselves.”

A few words of advice for managers? Try to keep the comparisons between generalists and specialists to a minimum. (Researchers have found that the generalist bias can be reduced when participants are encouraged to judge specialists on their own terms, as opposed to comparing them to generalists.)

Above all, be that conductor.

“There I am, there’s my team, let me look at the interactions from a distance and say, ‘What is it that I need to change? What do I know that I’m too close to the process to really see?’”

Bill Wade is a partner at Wade & Partners and a heavy-duty aftermarket veteran. He is the author of Aftermarket Innovations. He can be reached at bwade@wade-partners.com.

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