January 2011
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Henry Mintzberg

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Throughout his four-decades-long academic career, Henry Mintzberg has published at least 150 articles and 15 books, including his 1973 landmark book, The Nature of Managerial Work, which was based on his PhD work, and his most recent publication, Management: It’s Not What You Think.

He has worked for much of the past decade, in collaboration with colleagues from Canada, England, France, India, and Japan, to develop new approaches to management education and development. Honors have included election as an Officer of the Order of Canada and of l’Ordre National du Quebec; selection as Distinguished Scholar for 2000 by the Academy of Management; the 2002 ASTD Lifetime Achievement Award; and two McKinsey prizes for articles in the Harvard Business Review.

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Q| How did management and business strategy become your life's work?

I claimed in my first book - The Nature of Managerial Work - that I always wondered what my father did at the office. But I'm not sure that is really true. When I was at MIT, I went there with the idea that I was going to learn the hard side of things and then got very interested in the soft side. There is something inside of me - I have no idea what it is - that got me interested in management and strategy. My first article as a doctoral student was about strategy. I'm not sure what drew me there. I think I do see the world in a broad, strategic way. It is an interesting question, but it is not an easy one to answer.

Q| You are a strong advocate for letting managers learn from their own experiences. Why is that so important?

Somebody once said that you don't have experiences; you have happenings, and they become experiences when you reflect on them and learn from them. We discovered that the most effective way to train managers is to get them thinking about their own experiences. A case study is fine for learning about other people's experiences but it is not nearly as personal or as visceral as when you reflect on your own experiences. People love to talk about themselves and learn from what they do. In all of our programs at McGill, the participants engage in what we call friendly consulting, where they also learn from each other's experiences and help each other solve problems. I have an article about 8-year-olds in the Harvard Educational Review, and it basically says the same thing - that the best way to educate children is to do projects on things that relate to what they know about or how they live, such as the weather or animals.

Q| How has management changed over the last 30 years and where do you see it going in the future?

I am sort of split on this question. I think the basic practice of management doesn't change. Management is management. It is not about techniques or the latest gimmick. Management is a fundamental human activity, so that doesn't change. But what has changed is the idea that leadership is separate from management, and that being a leader is more important than being a manager. I think that is dysfunctional. I think people who lead without managing don't know what is going on; just like people who manage without leading are very discouraging.

Q| In your new book - Management: It's Not What You Think - what do you think it is and what do other people perceive management to be?

People have an abstract, disconnected view of management. The very first chapter in the book says it all: We start with three quotes about the manager as an orchestra conductor. The first, by Peter Drucker has the manager standing on the pedestal and swinging the baton: accounting comes in, and then marketing chimes in. It all sounds grand - composing strategy and conducting operations. Swedish economist Sune Carlson wrote instead: "I always thought of a chief executive as the conductor of an orchestra, but after studying them I now see him as a puppet in a puppet show with hundreds of people pulling the strings and forcing him to act one way or another." But the third quote, from Leonard Sayles, who studied middle managers, is the best one of all. He said it is like orchestra conducting alright, but during rehearsals when everything is going wrong. The whole notion of the book is, "Let's get past these myths and phony metaphors and get into the reality of what management really is - it is hectic, high pressure, and lots of interruptions."

Q| What new or different pressures has the economic recession placed on managers and strategic planning?

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Managers have caused the recession by being so short-term and bottom-line oriented. The whole focus on how much profit you made this quarter has, I think, caused the recession. Obviously, once the recession hits, it put more pressure on managers. It aggravated the very things they were doing wrong in the first place. I don't think the recession is an economic problem. I think this is a management problem. It manifests itself as an economic problem, but I think too many enterprises are sick because they have hooked into a short-term, shareholder value model of things. That just causes a depreciation of enterprises.

The solution is to rethink the whole question of leadership. The first thing to do is to get the mercenaries out of the executive suites. This is a shocking thing to say, but anybody who accepts these bonus plans is not a leader, because if you accept these bonus plans, you are basically, as an executive, allowing yourself to be singled out from everyone else in the company. How can you call yourself a leader when you do that, and how can you call yourself a leader when your bonuses are based on a short-term stock price? That is no way to build an enterprise. So you get rid of quarterly reports and a bonus system that is completely dysfunctional, and start bringing in people who care about the enterprise, which means a lot more internal appointments and a lot fewer external appointments.

Q| The Harvard Business School is mulling over the idea of creating a management oath to combat ethical dilemmas. Is management a profession or is the idea of ethics just exposing what is wrong with our business school education?

It is absolutely the latter in my opinion. Enron's Jeff Skilling would have signed that oath in a flash, and he ended up in jail. Who wouldn't sign this oath? You're sitting in school, you're 25 years old or younger, you haven't had much experience, and somebody shoves an oath in front of you and asks, "Do you promise to be good?" You say sure. It doesn't change a thing in my view. It is part of the same problem, which is that the business school MBA education is disconnected from management practice. Everybody can be noble when you are talking about a case. We have tried to build our programs around the philosophy that managers learn best by talking about their own realities, and then we drop in our pearls about theories and concepts. They then incorporate what makes sense to them in their own practice. It makes a big difference.

Q| What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

On the back cover of one of my books, I had two pictures - one of downtown Montreal, and the other was of a friend that I took at the end of a cord on a glacier in the Rockies. Underneath the pictures, I wrote: "This book is dedicated to those of us who spend our public lives dealing with organizations and our private lives escaping from them." I just love to do physical things in nature. I love to bicycle on quiet roads in Europe. I love to canoe. I hike a lot. I love to go up mountains in the Alps and the Rockies.

About the Author

Paula Ketter is ATD's content strategist. Previously, she served as editor of ATD's periodicals.

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