Focus on Management for True Strategic Advantage

Management struggles with a really unsexy brand. Sure, it might require a focused effort, a refined process, and it can be hard work, but ultimately “management” gets in the way of the real work we need to be doing — the leading and the innovating.

At least, that’s popular opinion, isn’t it? If you disagree, compare how many employees in your organization are pursuing leadership vs. management tracks. Experience tells me that leadership roles in organizations are far easier to fill.  Ambitious employees are naturally attracted to leadership — the “high achieving” status it brings, the mystery. But management? Management not so much. Management, if anything, is seen as a somewhat unfortunate, necessary stepping stone in a person’s career. It certainly doesn’t drive an organization, and rarely is it a person’s ultimate career goal.

We really need to change our views on management.

A 2017 Harvard Business Review Article ‘Why do we undervalue competent management?’ boldly claims that good management is absolutely crucial and every bit as important as leadership. Firms with strong managerial processes and highly skilled managers perform significantly better on high-level metrics including productivity, profitability, growth, and longevity. The article is underpinned by the belief that ‘neither great Leadership nor brilliant strategy matters without operational excellence’.

And this is why we need to change our views on management. Leadership in professional services firms is vital, clearly. It sets the direction, brings people together, and empowers people to drive themselves and the business forward. But, the best leadership in the world is rendered useless without great management, because management is about maximizing individual and collective performance.

Imagine if you will a crew team attempting to win a race. You have the all important coach, the leader, on the sidelines watching the race and setting overall expectations: winning. Then you have a long boat with no motor that requires the precise, synchronized paddling of roughly 8 individuals who cannot see the finish line or obstacles in water (they are facing backward after all). What do you think the likelihood such a vessel could win a long race with only the vision of the coach on the dock? It’s not very good, which is precisely why there’s the coxswain in the stern, the team manager who sits and directs (steers) the ship and coordinating the power and rhythm of the rowers. Without the coxswain, the team, despite its mutual goal of winning the race, would operate extremely inefficiently. The same is true for your organization.

Efficient business management is critical to the long-term success of your company and mine. The question is, why aren’t more of us focusing on operational excellence and demanding to improve it?

The short answer is that it’s easier said than done. Companies across a range of industries often find the goals of effective execution and efficient business process management to be among their biggest challenges — a result, say the authors at HBR, of two common failings:

  • Complacency: Organizations don’t see the problem at all — they have a more optimistic perception of their management processes than is warranted.
  • Overestimating: Organizations overestimate the investment needed to improve processes, and they underestimate the return on this investment.

Those two things combined are the business-killers, particularly when you have competitors that successfully prioritize operational excellence and consider it more than a ‘nice to have’.

Becoming a high-performance leader

Operational excellence begins at the top, with the CEO. Leaders who focus on internal processes run higher-performing enterprises than those who focus primarily on external issues. The HBR data confirms that.

Here are but two strategies for improving your process management:

1. Challenge your beliefs about management by honestly answering the following questions:

  • How does my team (my whole team) perceive our leadership’s commitment to operational excellence?
  • What do our customers really think of how we operate?
  • How dependent is our operational capability on a few key individuals?
  • How effectively have we responded to challenges like market swings and competitive changes?
  • How are process changes anticipated, implemented and communicated?
  • What have we invested in operational excellence? Are tools and incentives in place?

    This is not an exhaustive list of questions, but you get the idea.

2. Communicate and commit.

As you begin to focus on your goals and priorities for 2019, think about how to invest in management to improve operational excellence. Here are some steps to take:

  • Communicate your commitment to improving operational excellence. What will it take to make it clear that the members of the leadership team are prepared to “walk the talk”?
  • Empower employees in management roles (“process owners”) to drive operational excellence in their scope of operations.
  • Invest in tools that will enable all team members to participate in conversations that continually improve your operations. We like EOS®.
  • Sustain the effort by establishing a governance and communication structure. Operational excellence is now part of your organizational culture, not a one-off project, so give it the support it deserves. The organizations that will succeed in 2019 and beyond will be those that focus on making sure, as the HBR article puts it, that “operational effectiveness is truly part of the organization’s DNA.”

High-performing companies leverage their operational capabilities to sustain their advantage in the long term. They are more agile than their competitors and more responsive to markets and customers, and they continually reinvent themselves. Their decisions to invest in managerial processes — sometimes with no immediate benefit in sight — drive growth, productivity, profitability, and longevity.

It’s time to call into question the conventional wisdom about management and its role in improving operational excellence. Operational excellence is not a “nice to have”. In fact, it is so rare and so hard to achieve that it can actually be a strategic advantage. The question is, what is your business doing about it?

 

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