Management in Retrospect

When I was a young manager, a half a life-time ago, very simplistic theories about management were pervasive. When I was first appointed to manage  a power station, my boss believed I should have some management  training. He duly enrolled me into a weeklong live-in course conducted in a Gold Coast resort (although not a very posh one as I remember!).

Here we were set upon by a small panel of trainers and academics, none of whom had significant management credentials. The curriculum was hardly scintillating and comprised such topics as decision making, time management and report writing.

I suppose that decision making is an important element of management, and like many things the process is important. But my decision making training assumed that I was going to make all the decisions and that was not my style at all. I delegated what I could and put trust in my subordinates, who often had more relevant skills than I did to make good decisions. This not only removed some of my burden but enabled my subordinates to grow and develop their own skills. But the most important decisions, particularly those involving a broad range of stakeholders, we made collaboratively. My more authoritarian peers insisted that the quality of such decisions was compromised. I doubt that was the case, but countered with the riposte that I would rather have a decision that was 80% correct and had support from those who were going to implement it, than a decision that was 100% correct but would fizzle through lack of support. And that of course is the case – participation and collaboration garner support. Of course there are some decisions a leader must make alone. They are the ones that keep you awake at night mulling over the alternatives. But in my experience they are few in number.

Time management is an enigmatic area in my experience. Generally those who worry about time management are invariably already good at it!

As for report writing, any reasonably competent professional can usually put together something passable. Those that can’t, can often be helped or sometimes can delegate to those that are more competent.

Anyhow, in the scheme of things these are not the make or break skills of management and leadership.

In my own case, it soon became apparent to me that managing people was the key issue. Working in an engineering based industry, where most of my peers were engineers, there was a pervading ethos that managers were there to give technical guidance to those under them. When there was disputation it should be resolved by rational processes to prove who is right and who is wrong. Things were black and white, cut and dried, and logic should prevail. I can vividly recall an industry management conference where I had been invited to give a paper on my management philosophy. I related how I believed it was my role to establish an appropriate culture. I then outlined the various collaborative processes I had put in place, the focus we had of engaging personally with the workforce, the commitment to “managing by walking around” (as per Tom Peters) and so on. I invited questions at the end of my presentation only to have one of my peers enquire, “That is well and good but how do you find time to do your ‘real ‘job?” I was of course flabbergasted.

It was helpful to me that shortly after that I was able to do an MBTI course and subsequently be accredited as an MBTI practitioner. It was thus reinforced to me that not only do people matter but that they are inherently often different from one another and that wise leaders will take that into account. To gain the most from our people we must acknowledge they each have different strengths.

The majority of my management issues were about getting people committed to do things. I wanted people to get gratification from their work. I wanted their work to be meaningful. I didn’t want people to come to work to do things because I told them so – I wanted them to come to work because they could see what they were doing made a worthwhile contribution.

I became to believe that management (and more particularly leadership) is not a mechanical application of learned skills (often manipulative) but an exercise in applied psychology. Surely what we wanted to achieve is to win over the hearts and the minds of our employees so that they might commit to the objectives of the enterprise because what we were trying to achieve was a worthwhile cause and what we asked them to do was worthwhile work. And what we were looking for was an arrangement that was not only good for the organisation but good for the person as well.

I was surprised when the good Dr Phil and I published our joint oeuvre “Humanity at Work” that we had a review from a very left-wing commentator from the “Age” who accused us of trying to inveigle workers into believing that work could actually be meaningful. This was obviously a capitalist ploy to exploit the workforce!

Then there came along a string of various management approaches, most of which I learnt something from..

I became interested in Human motivation and quickly became familiar with Herzberg, MacGregor and Maslow – all of which added to my understanding of human behaviour and were useful at the time.

Then followed the Quality movement. There were some useful elements of the Quality approach. One that I seized upon early were the use of Quality Circles. Quality Circles provided a framework for teams to work on workplace improvement. The tools were simple but useful and began a long term interest for me in the promotion of times and teamwork.

However there were I believe shortcomings in the Quality approach. Quality management is largely a collection of refinement techniques where we examine what we do and seek to improve the efficiency of our business processes. I often said that an organisation took up TQM (Total Quality Management) for example in the 1980’s after twenty years would be the best 1980’s organisation in the world and as a result probably out of business.

At the same time we were assailed with a lot of popular management literature emanating from the USA. One of the first of these books, and probably the most controversial in Australia, was Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence. This drew criticism from Australian managers because of its brash, extraverted, approach to motivation. It also drew derision because a number of the companies that had they singled out as exemplars folded within a decade of the book’s publication. The first person I knew to read the book was a colleague who managed a large facility in South East Queensland. When I asked him about the book, he responded, “It was an enjoyable read, but really has no application in our workplace!” This was quite typical of managers I mingled with. They were quite parochial and afraid of trying new things. In Search of Excellence gave me a few ideas that I could adapt to my workplace.


The Americans continued to churn out management books of varying degrees of usefulness. I remember taking some useful lessons away from such books as Ken Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager, Peter Senge’s seminal work The Fifth Discipline and Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

But as well as the American literature, I started to develop a network of Australian academics and practitioners whose work informed my own management practice. Among these were people like David Limerick from Griffith University, Richard Baldwin from the University of Western Sydney, Peter Saul from the University of Sydney and John Edwards, then at James Cook University, and Paul Chippendale from the Minessence Group who helped us clarify our thinking on values. And of course by then, Doctor Phil Harker had become a friend and collaborator in much that I was doing.

At the same time in Australia, because of some creative thinking by the Hawke and Keating Governments, we embarked on an era of microeconomic reform. For those who had the courage this presented a huge opportunity to review how work was done in Australia. We embarked on an ambitious program that redesigned work, facilitated broader skilling and recalibrated industrial relations by reinforcing the paramount importance of the management-workforce relationship.

As the years passed we were coming to emphasise a “softer” side of management. There was increasing emphasis on culture, teams, values, communications and so on.

We finally came to the understanding, thanks to Daniel Goleman’s work in Emotional Intelligence and useful studies and analyses such as Collins and Porras performed in Built to Last, (among many) that real leadership depended on some underlying personal characteristics of people. So in my career in management I had seen a great transformation from a focus on rather mechanistic skills (decision making, report writing etc) to the realisation that the influence and long-term effectiveness of managers/leaders was more a matter of their being than their doing! (To learn more on this topic see the little book I co-authored with the good Dr Phil, The Myth of Nine to Five).

I won’t go over the topic of leadership again – I have written extensively about it elsewhere.

However I wanted to finish by sharing a thought with you. In the more than a decade now that I have been working as an executive coach, I have worked in many organisations that I could only describe as dysfunctional. In fact, I have been disappointed that I have found few organisations that I could point to as role models in leadership and management.

But nevertheless it finally occurred to me some time ago, that organisations are dysfunctional, because some of the people working in them are dysfunctional.  These people largely suffer from a lack of psychological robustness and emotional awareness. (I could give you a myriad of examples), It seems to me that the most effective way I can help organisations now,is to help the people in them become more competent human beings. The wonderful spin-off from this is not just that they then become better employees, managers and leaders, but just as importantly better citizens, spouses and parents. This is my underlying goal as an executive coach.

Again I won’t elaborate on this because I have covered much of this material elsewhere. But when I reminisce about my management career my focus has changed:

  • From mechanistic skills to the softer skills of understanding human behaviour, the impact of culture and values and what I have come to call ‘the mastery of self”, and
  • From a focus on organisations, business systems, policies, strategy and structure to a focus on the individual and facilitating personal growth, psychological robustness and emotional competence.

3 Replies to “Management in Retrospect”

  1. Many thanks Ted, and yes this is all true to be sure and you can rightly claim and be proud of your achievements with Stanwell and no doubt other areas.

    May I respectfully point out, without wishing to take anything away from your outstanding work, that there were also some pretty big social changes at work allowing those management changes to be incorporated – following Thatcher’s sweeping cleansing of Union power in UK, the then Premier of Queensland embarked on a similar program around 1984 and beat the stuffing out of the Electricity Unions thus allowing the Electiciity Industry to put in place radical industrial and social reforms that had heretofore been impossible. On the brown-field site at Swanbank we reduced staffing by 60% on the back of these reforms and using the vehicle of technological upgrades. We as an Industry (following the success of the Tarong simulator, and further following the successful reprogramming of that simulator by Roger Jones and the Simulator Team) also embarked on an ambitious campauign called “Stanwell 200” to (successfully)knock $200 miliion off the cost of Stanwell and to install the first fully automatic start-up (and thereby unstaffed) coal-fired power station in the world. Using this vehicle of massive technological advance, and mindful of the emasculation of the Union, the Industry decided to adopt a new and equally sweeping reform in our management approach….and after all this prep work had been put in place (or fallen into place), you Ted, were the man chosen to drive the finished product.

    So it wasn’t all soft science….

    A nice piece of writing Ted nonetheless, and top work you did with Stanwell, Congratulations ….


  2. You’re in trouble now Ted. You have started a critique on your management style which gives me an open invitation to put my own observations and thoughts forward. It is no understatement when I say that I have thought a great deal about your management style and to a fair extent tried to emulate it, with I must confess very little success. I don’t disagree with Jack, you were in the right place at the right time to implement the type of reforms that you implemented. Technology and industrial environment were a contributing factor, but was not why you had success. To exemplify I believe you had reasonable success at turning around unreliability at Collinsville Power Station at a time when the Unions were far from a spent force and the station was at an age where technology was of little value.
    In more recent times (only 10 or 20 years ago) I observed what I think is far more important attributes contributing to your success as a leader. Here are my observations.
    1. You were accessible. I hear managers say things like “my door is always open”, well you never had an office so there was no door. Your desk was in the same room as the guys on the tools and you moved it periodically to where you thought you needed to be more involved. You were not a mystery person that line managers talked about at team meetings you were part of the team that was Stanwell Power Station.
    2. You continuously sought opportunities to demonstrate your humanity. When things were at their worst and some poor soul felt as if it was all their fault and surely about to be dismissed you saw it as an opportunity. The interview that followed always involved consideration for the welfare of the individual first and how can we learn from what happened second. There was never any dressing down. Over the years there has been dozens of people that have been shocked by this fundamental humanity and they don’t forget. When at some later stage you need the workforce to trust you these people do without question and they can be enormously influential to the other souls who are fearful.
    3. Even demeanour. I have known you for many years and I have never seen you angry, flustered, depressed or for that matter excited or enthusiastic. You are always “consistently level”. This is important. Staff should not have to wait until the boss is in good humour to get something done. Nothing confuses people more than inconsistency.
    4. Light on praise or criticism. This relates to item 2 above but includes the flip side. When we made some great achievement or at least in our own minds believed we had. I can remember you publically giving praise and even reward but it was always done in the same even voice and emotion. I always felt like I wanted more and strived to do better next time to get it. The best way to explain it is a detachment. You cared and showed it but were not emotionally attached to the outcome what ever it might be.
    5. Despite what you said in your blog you did make decisions and many of them. Your management style was not a democracy. You even told me once that there would never be a vote at your management meetings. There was discussion and open challenging of ideas whether they be yours or anyone else’s but in the end you paraphrased what you wanted to happen and that was that. For some reason everyone accepted this decision and got on with making it happen. I recall you even having to bite your tongue at meetings because as soon as you put your views forward people started to follow them and you never got the benefit of their ideas. People were so keen to follow you they skipped over their own ideas. This is genuine leadership.
    6. You did not surround yourself with people who were like you. Your leadership teams were always a mixed up crowd of very different yet strong personalities. This you would expect would cause a lot of problems but it didn’t. There were robust conversations but good accepted outcomes in all cases from my experience.
    7. You educated your staff on personality differences and why it is not wrong if someone thinks differently to yourself. This was important for the success of many of the points above.

    So there you go. Your style as seen from an impartial observer. As a final comment this does not mean you were soft. You also demoted and dismissed people over the years but it was always done unemotionally with the welfare of the individual considered first and the business second. There are a lot of people out there who think they are leaders. The true test is do their people follow them or do they have to be controlled with processes and systems. Plenty of so called leaders are herders.

  3. Thank you both for your comments.

    Jack I didn’t mean to undersell the importance of the technical advances. Stanwell would never achieved what it did without them. My essay was more about contrasting the various management philosophies that had developed over my career.

    But it is interesting Jack, that the technological advances that enabled the leap forward at Stanwell are now available to everyone. Yet I don’t see even one example of managers taking advantage of them. Leaders use such resources to improve their workplaces. I see no evidence of such leadership anywhere in the Industry.

    Greg, your assessment of my management is very kind and perhaps viewed through at least one rose-coloured lens! My memory is of a band of courageous people who came together in the face of opposition from unions and often their peers determined to find a better way. And much to the surprise of our critics – we did! I have eternal gratitude to those who lined up with me and dared to do something different in the face of the naysayers and contrary to the conventional wisdom. Heady times indeed!

    The technology alone was never enough. The courage, the innovativeness and the shared humanity of those involved was what really made the difference.

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