Sometimes I think the field of management/success/leadership is nothing more than a confusion of correlation for causation. For example, I blogged recently that "passion" isn't so much a cause of success as a result of success, and it grows as the success grows. Success can make anyone passionate about what they are doing. When the experts say we need passion to be successful, that's mostly bullshit. What you need is energy, talent, hard work, a reasonable plan, and lots of luck.

Company culture is another area that I think the experts get backwards. The common belief is that you need a good company culture to create success. But isn't it more likely that companies with awesome employees get both a good culture and success at the same time? A good corporate culture is a byproduct of doing everything right; it's not the cause of success as much as the outcome. Success improves culture more than a good culture can cause success.

And how about that charisma thing? That's important, right? Everyone says so. Look at Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison. Those guys have plenty of charisma so it must be important to success, we assume. But let me tell you what causes charisma: success.

I'm in a unique position to judge the success=charisma hypothesis because I slip in and out of famousness all day long. Cartoonists aren't normally recognized, and when I walk into a room as a "normal" I exhibit no charisma whatsoever. I might even be absorbing some charisma that is already in the atmosphere. But when I enter a room at an event where people are expecting me in my capacity as a semi-famous cartoonist, suddenly I appear to have some charisma. I feel like Moses in a room full of water. Trust me when I say that if Steve Jobs had not been successful so young, he'd be known as the lying asshole who needs a shower, not the guy with the reality distortion field. Charisma is bullshit.

Today I was reading an expert's opinion that companies get better results when managers learn to avoid micromanaging employees. But how do we know those non-micromanaging managers get better results? Wouldn't it also be true that wherever you have the most highly capable employees - the ones most likely to create success - you have a boss who knows he can back off the micromanaging? One would expect more micromanaging in companies with untalented employees. So how do you know what causes what?

Consider the thousands of different books on management/success/leadership. If any of this were real science, all managers would learn the same half-dozen secrets to success and go on to great things. The reality of the business world is more like infinite monkeys with typewriters. Sooner or later a monkey with an ass pimple will type something that makes sense and every management expert in the world will attribute the success to the ass pimple.

How about the idea that every hourly wage slave should "act like an entrepreneur"?  How do you think that would play out with Apple's 50,000 employees? The unsexy reality is that everyone in the company can't be creative risk-takers. Someone has to actually work. My guess is that Apple would fall apart if more than 5% of its employees acted like entrepreneurs. And maybe the tipping point is only 2%. Entrepreneurs are disruptive, rule-breaking risk-takers. A little bit of that goes a long way.

I first noticed the questionable claims of management experts back in the nineties, when it was fashionable to explain a company's success by its generous employee benefits. The quaint idea of the time was that treating employees like kings and queens would free their creative energies to create massive profits. The boring reality is that companies that are successful have the resources to be generous to employees and so they do. The best way a CEO can justify an obscene pay package is by treating employees generously. To put this in another way, have you ever seen a corporate turnaround that was caused primarily by improving employee benefits?

The fields of management/success/leadership are a lot like the finance industry in the sense that much of it is based on confusing correlation and chance with causation. We humans like to feel as if we understand and control our environments. We don't like to think of ourselves as helpless leaves blowing in the wind of chance. So we clutch at any ridiculous explanation of how things work.

My view is that success happens when you have a coincidence of talent, resources, and timing. One can explain the existence of successful serial entrepreneurs by the fact that once successful they gain resources, credibility, extra talent, contacts, and the opportunity to live someplace such as Silicon Valley where opportunities fall out of trees.  You would expect that group of people to get lucky more often than someone just starting out.

Dilbert came to fame in the nineties when the working world was experiencing an unprecedented "bubble" of management bullshit. Every time a new business book became a best seller, middle managers across the globe scurried to buy a copy and started spewing its jargon. Eventually the sale of business books dropped off when, I assume, people realized there couldn't really be 10,000 different sure-fire formulas for success.

But lately I've been feeling another bullshit bubble forming in the world. And I don't mean only the financial markets, which are sketchy for lots of reasons. It's just a feeling, but it seems to me that the management/success/leadership bullshit bubble is once again reaching full inflation.

Are you feeling the bubble too, or is it just me?

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Jul 5, 2013
I am an "indian" among "chiefs" who are for the most part panting after those with power to gain any boost in title, money and more pointless meetings on their calendar so they can feel important while doing absolutely nothing.
The word LEADERSHIP is sacred here in the great bastion of higher education. We create those leaders and CEOs of tomorrow! So it's important that there be only maybe two actual people in the entire school that can answer a phone or make a photocopy. Everyone else is too busy leading. If big business is !$%*!$%*! Thank the business schools folks. The jargon, the "branding" messages, the organizational behavioral charts that accomplish absolutely nothing while the quant side - supply chain, finance, accounting? That part about being able to read a spread sheet and understanding general management strategies? That makes sense. The rest is !$%*!$%*! The ego drives the !$%*!$%* and leaders must have their toadies surrounding them and protecting their own turf at the same time. It's exhausting for them while a few do the actual work. What is depressing is the !$%*!$%*ters and the complete self-centered what is in it for me that will throw the welfare of a company or organization under the bus? They rarely get hit by that bus. After years in academic, congressional, nonprofit and corporate settings? There is not much difference. Far too few genuine good honest fair people. Way too many users, !$%*!$%*ters, fake it big to make it big types and absolute cut throats. Watching the action from the peanut gallery? We see things the management gurus and researchers don't see and are too pompous to try and understand. So Dilbert gives us some reason to smile. Employees at the administrative level here have not gotten raises in five years due to "economy" and "budget" woes. Yet some "senior" level staff? income has doubled in four years from 100K to 200K with no one knowing what he does his title is so !$%*!$%*. Our fearless leader left our organization to move on to bigger and better things. Her salary went up almost 100K and while she was here she didn't do much but check off boxes and there was "no beef" to any of the laurels she rested on that her toadies sighed over as she basked in her leadership. We knew you did not look behind the curtain if you wanted to keep your job. And so it goes.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 15, 2013
I interviewed for a management position one time that was currently empty. The manager I was interviewing with fortuitously happened to say that the productivity of the group normally went up when they didn't have a manager. I then asked why have a manager at all. He said that after about a month the productivity went down.

He then went on to say best managers (based strictly on productivity which was quantified by output passing inspection) are ones who are there and don't do anything.

I immediately said I was qualified. Unfortunately I didn't get the job. Apparently I was over qualified.
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 14, 2013
You scored another big hit with this one, Scott. I'm 56 years old and have seen so many business plans come and go it isn't funny anymore.

Whenever some bright-eyed imbecile in a dark suit starts spewing corporate philosophy with a straight face my eyes automatically half close, my arms cross and my dill hole meter goes off the charts. The big thing at big companies now are Gallup polls. Nobody wants to participate, everyone hates them, the meetings are pointless and the time wasted is endless. But worse than that is the fervent albeit hushed opinion that the company would serve its employees better if they'd divvy up the millions they spend on Gallup every year and give it to the workers. But that's way too simplistic.

An acquaintance of mine is a little younger than I am and fully retired with millions in savings. He did it by getting his Masters in statistical mathematics then starting a consulting firm. Hobnobbing with CEOs was a brilliant "if you can't beat 'em join 'em" strategy. He once told me when the economy tanks his business skyrockets. When business is down the board of directors turns the screws and the easiest response any CEO can make is, "I've hired a brilliant consulting firm to review our processes and pinpoint areas of improvement." Then of course the study will drag out for years with the resultant hair brained, half !$%*!$ madness eventually falling into the laps of the employees who just shake their collective heads.

Trace it back and I think you'll find most of these idiotic philosophies are the direct result of business consulting firms pandering to CEOs in an effort to make them look like they're deserving of their ridiculously exorbitant salaries. But, hey, there probably isn't anybody that wouldn't stop do exactly the same thing if they were in their shoes.
Mar 14, 2013
[ Regarding the Alcoa turnaround, the safety focus was a clever way to improve communication and accountability. That is basic management. Add accountability to any environment and you will have improvement. That is quite different from offering the employees free beer on Fridays and hoping their happiness translates into productivity. ]

If improving communication and accountability is basic management, then why do so many managers suck at it? I agree it SHOULD be basic management. In practice, though, it isn't, which to me indicates that it is harder than it looks. Actually, forget that. It IS harder than it looks. A lot harder. I've been a people manager for ~15 years and still struggle with it. Someone who can do it naturally and effectively is a rare commodity.

Friday beer may not be the same, but not all employee benefits are so frivolous. For example, Google gives its employees free food -- breakfast, lunch, dinner -- in their corporate cafeterias. They do it because they recognize that the cost of food is minimal compared to the cost of employees arriving late, or leaving early, or going out to lunch every day. Another example, a lot of tech companies offer employees free (or heavily discounted) memberships at upscale health clubs. They don't do this because having toned, fit bodies makes the work environment more pleasant; they do it because, statistically speaking, healthy people spend less time absent from work.

A well-designed benefit package is nothing but a set of cost/benefit analyses spin-doctored into, "We care about our employees."
Mar 14, 2013
For a more rigorous debunking of the management BS, read "The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business Philosophy" by Matthew Stewart. It is a well-researched take down by a former management consultant, and it is a pretty enjoyable read.
Mar 14, 2013
CNBC ran a story on Valve on March 5. Valve is a $4 billion company with no upper level management or HR. Decisions on hiring/firing/bonuses are made by peer consensus.

Whether this is idyllic as it sounds is anyone's guess and Valve is supposedly a fairly secretive company about its inner workings.

But my simple guess is that management only adds unnecessary layers of inefficiency and politics in settings where employees are autodidactic, self-motivated, and passionate. This is probably a small slice of the total number of companies that exist in the world - and very few companies with high value, like Valve. Nonetheless, if employees are drawn from the top 1-2% of individuals and have the aforementioned qualities, the question of whether management would add or detract from efficiency is fair game.
Mar 14, 2013
Rule #1 for a successful manager (personal success, not necessarily that of the enterprise): Try not to make a decision. When absolutely forced to do so, chose the option that has already failed elsewhere. That way, when it fails for you, there is no blame. If it succeeds, you are a genius.
Mar 14, 2013
I felt the bubble ... then I farted. Oh and one more thing, ass pimple is OK but next time try "butt zit". I feel it has more of a business ring to it.
Mar 14, 2013
C'mon, there's even a name for this: "sample bias" - looking at the "common" features of your existing sample, and assuming they are unique to your sample.

You see it in Mutual Funds and other financial institutions already - "Mr. Smith is one of the Top 3 fund managers of his generation - he must know what he's doing!" What they don't tell you is 20,000 other people started as fund managers the same year he did, 15 or 20 years ago. If you just randomly pick half of them to fail, and half to survive each year, how many would be left? that's right, about 3....

When you see articles about "7 habits of successful people", you have to ask - did the author survey all of the people who have the **exact same habits** who did NOT succeed?

Passion doesn't hurt - but I see passionate failures. Type-A personalities? I seen more than a few drop of a heart attack.

Maybe there is some element to success - but I've yet to see an analysis that could also be replicated by chance...

Don't get me wrong; you can most CERTAINLY guarantee failure (among other things: don't try**), but a great deal of success is due to factors you did NOT control. Accept it, be grateful, and help others along the way.

(**Old joke: guy sitting at home, complaining to the sky "God, why haven't you given me a winning lottery ticket?" God's voice booming back down "It would help if you actually bought one sometime")
Mar 13, 2013
I hope there's not a bubble coming. I just wrote a a management book and I'd hate it to get lost in all the other !$%*!$%*!
+20 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2013
Speaking of management trends: When did companies start having potential hires interview with entire departments over the course of 6 or 7 call backs? That combined with the requirement that your most recent experience exactly match the job description limits potential hires to people who:

1) Lie well
2) Are completely non-threatening to potential peers, managers and direct reports
3) Have nothing better to do than show up for endless rounds of interviews

I played that game for a few months before meeting my current boss at a social event. She hired me with no interviews other than a test project she evaluated with her team.

Is that how all hires are actually made? Is the HR interview-go-round process just a game to keep the lawyers happy? How much of what passes for management today is really just data-driven CYA?
Mar 13, 2013

[I think that management books are half BS, and half useful; the useful half is probably similar to listening to a motivational speaker - there are very few new ideas and no silver bullets, but you get energized to focus on important strategies/processes.]

Im with you on the half useful part but not on the reason. My own opinion is that many management books contain ideas that proved to be useful somewhere and very likely are useful in other places, but the trick is to recognize where those other places are, where they arent and implement those ideas correctly. They become fads and sometimes lead to bubbles when managers try to implement them where they shouldnt or overestimate their ability to implement correctly.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2013
I think that management books are half BS, and half useful; the useful half is probably similar to listening to a motivational speaker - there are very few new ideas and no silver bullets, but you get energized to focus on important strategies/processes.

There is certainly something to be said for good managers. I've worked for very good, very bad, and some in between. Like everything, luck helps, but there's no substitute for quality management.

I agree that benefits will not create success, but I'm confident that culture matters. Many a start-up or struggling non-profit have succeeded partially based on culture (which include: cooperative, entrepreneurial, supportive, rewarding, etc). And many successful companies have been brought down by bad culture (selfish, unrewarding, backstabbing, lazy etc). Great products and employees can counteract this a bit, but in the long run great employees won't stick around.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2013
I do think there is such a thing as charisma that is related to a person's biology, as well as to his or her environment and past experiences. Add Ted Bundy to your list of examples. Psychopaths are likely to be highly charismatic, even if their past is just a jumble of irresponsible, bumbling failures, as it often is. Part of charisma is the "look and feel" of another person -- how they appear and how they behave -- and some of that comes from their genetics. To my observation, there are, on the tails of the bell curve, some highly charismatic failures as well as some unappealling, reclusive successes.
+23 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2013
I'm not in management, and the one time I tried it out... I wasn't very successful. So, let me use that as a glowing endorsement on my management advice.

The main skills of a manager are:
1. Dealing with personalities and conflict.
2. Understanding, developing, and enforcing process to the extent that it's necessary.
3. Paying attention to important tasks that nobody else cares about.

At least at the lower/mid levels. Higher level management is dark magic as far as I'm concerned. And I've often suspected that dark = brown, and magic = moist and stinky.
Mar 13, 2013
[ To put this in another way, have you ever seen a corporate turnaround that was caused primarily by improving employee benefits? ]

Actually, yes: Paul O'Neill and Alcoa. By focusing on one specific thing -- worker safety -- O'Neill was able to drive a culture of accountability into a prototypically mismanaged giant of American industry. The change was too specific, and the results too dramatic, to allow argument over cause and effect. You can argue that "worker safety" isn't an employee benefit in the sense that you meant it, though it's hard to think of a benefit that people would value more than a safe workplace.

[ Wouldn't it also be true that wherever you have the most highly capable employees - the ones most likely to create success - you have a boss who knows he can back off the micromanaging? ]

Scott, I can't believe that anyone who has demonstrated such a keen understanding of corporate culture would make such a statement. I don't know whether micromanagers are born or made, but I do know that their behavior has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the competence of their employees. In this case it is you who has the cause and effect backward.

It is true that there are people leaders who are able to switch back and forth between micromanaging and a laissez faire attitude, as the situation requires them to. These people are called "great managers" and it is no surprise, to me anyway, that they are successful. Unfortunately they are the corporate equivalent of unicorns in terms of their abundance.

Here's how I see it: people who are truly gifted at leading others are almost universally successful. However, there are so few people like this that there is plenty of room for others to also be successful. In that population, your hard-work-and-luck hypothesis is by and large accurate. The problem is that the signal-to-noise ratio is so low that it is easy to believe that there are no truly gifted leaders. But there are! I've seen them, and worked for some of them. I've been in situations where they have taken over for a poor leader, and the change from one to the other was night and day. It's hard to describe just how much more motivating it is to work for someone that you believe in.

One of the defining moments in my career as a manager was when I was working for just such a person. In a one-on-one meeting, I told him how much I appreciated the fact that he was not a micromanager, having worked for one in the past. He just laughed, and said, "You do realize, don't you, that I don't give everyone the same leeway I give you?" It was truly a "light bulb moment" for me.

[Regarding the Alcoa turnaround, the safety focus was a clever way to improve communication and accountability. That is basic management. Add accountability to any environment and you will have improvement. That is quite different from offering the employees free beer on Fridays and hoping their happiness translates into productivity. And if I might add a grain of skepticism, I highly doubt the safety focus was as responsible for the improvement as has been reported. It smells fishy to me. -- Scott]
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2013
Managers only need to be seen as doing something and that what they get paid for. companies succeed in spite of all the "Management/Success/Leadership: Mostly !$%*!$%*! not because of these.
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2013
In itself, Management/Leadership is most definitely not !$%*!$%*!$%*!$ the way it is practiced in the real world is !$%*!$%* 99% of the time.

"But isn't it more likely that companies with awesome employees get both a good culture and success at the same time?"

I can say no to this, because I've seen what happens when you have great employees, but no leadership. Without direction, everybody starts doing what they think is best, pull in a million different directions, and the company starts to drift.
Also, success doesn't create a good company culture either. If anything, it creates lazyness. Without struggle, there's no evolutionary pressure to improve your current ways.

In general, management is so damn hard that they're all looking for the magic pill. In the process, they over-complicate things instead of just getting the fundamentals right (which matters the most by far). So you get all sorts of weird management styles that involve NLP, personality tests, etc etc in an attempt to gain traction.

I believe that the world is getting more complex everyday, and all the !$%*!$%* management advice there is out there is a manifestation of our struggle to keep up.

The best advice I've seen on management is to make sure that every single person in your company, at all levels of the organization, is able to give clear answers to 4 simple questions:

1. What is expected of me? (performance-wise, which tasks to be done, etc).
2. How am I doing?
3. What's in it for me?
4. If I am not performing, where can I go to get help?

Its intuitive, it makes sense, and it doesn't try to invent some weird new terminology, something that !$%*!$%* management courses love to do.

(The advice was given in a presentation by Paul Schutz, CEO of Porsche, in 1987).
Mar 13, 2013
So if leadership is mostly !$%*!$%* and luck can be self acquired by shifting the universe like you explained before, do you mean all I need is talent?
Mar 13, 2013
Six Sigma makes process control look like rocket science... A little to complex for me.

In regards to fords failings. Ford made some not so quality cars in the early to mid 2000's.
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