What we can learn from awful managers

May 05 2014 by Gary Sheard Print This Article

As every gardener knows, beautiful flowers don't develop in the dark. I'm passionate about developing employees to their beautiful potential. And if you develop the people you develop the organisation. That's what inspired me to write a book, Awful Management, not another 'how to run a business' book, but a look at what we can learn from bad practice and how we can re-pot the seeds of human potential into more fertile ground.

Jaw-droppingly awful managers earn a place in history. At one end of the scale we've the likes of George Pullman, the tycoon who built a town for his workers but ruled it like a tyrant, banning free speech, newspapers and privacy. At the other extreme is TV's David Brent of The Office, basically just a bit of a jackass who craved approval, more inept than iniquitous.

The media's favourites are those high-profile bosses who are so puffed up with their own commercial cleverness that they can't resist mouthing off, alienating customers and slashing share prices as they go. Take UK jewelry magnate, Gerald Ratner, for example, who set the gold-plated standard for corporate self-destruction when he admitted at a press conference that his products were "crap".

Following his lead was David Shepherd, brand director at clothing retailer, Topman, who described his store's target market as "hooligans or whatever". Ikea boss Anders Dahvig, in comparison, was positively flying his firm's flag when he admitted his stores were "appalling".

The single biggest lesson to take away from these mistakes is that it can take a lifetime to gain trust but just one stupid comment to lose it. My own examples of this include the time an irate client phoned me to complain he'd just received a letter addressed to "Dear Does not pay his bills". At some point in the past, an admin employee had put a note about the client's slow payment on his electronic file – which later, during an en-masse transfer of customer details – had made it on to a mailshot database instead of his name!

A low-key incident, perhaps, but important to that client, who had to be won round with apologies and explanations.

At the heart of awful management is a tendency to forget what a manager's role is, or to misunderstand it. A boss is not a ruler to be obeyed and revered. An awful manager might believe there is nothing to learn from the people on the factory floor. He or she might never even think to ask for ideas – after all "this is the way we've always done it". The seeds of opportunity are sadly left uncultivated!

I witnessed these classic awful management traits in my first full-time job, as a metallurgical technician. The company's highly-educated Boffins had been unable to solve a production problem with heat exchanger tubes, so they took over the machines themselves. The un-engaged machine operators just kept their heads down and let the Boffins continue turning out huge, expensive, wonky items.

One day, I asked an operator if he knew how to solve the wonky tube problem. Of course he did, and he proved it to me. But, he added "the Boffins never ask the operators".

"Ask the operator" was a piece of advice that has stuck with me. However, when I landed a senior role in Germany, I learned it is awful management to presume your native best-practice is appropriate within another countries culture!

In Germany, senior managers earn their status after several decades, with the respect that comes from having years of expertise. So, when I asked my German team for suggestions, there'd be an embarrassed silence. Eventually, I learned they expected me, as their leader, to know what to do without having to ask junior managers and operators. By thinking I knew how to be a good manager in the UK, I'd fallen into another awful management trap: cultures don't always travel!

Awful management need not be publicly catastrophic. Just a smidgeon of self-satisfaction, a drop of complacency, and a lack of focus on the core aims of an organization is all it takes for the rot to set in and business to suffer. The first step is to recognise it and do something about it. And if you're not sure where to start – ask the bloke on the machine and the seeds start to germinate, teach employees how the business works and how they can influence it – then the flowers really begin to grow!

About The Author

Gary Sheard
Gary Sheard

Gary Sheard's first job was picking peas in a muddy field. Over the subsequent fifty years he forged a career in the manufacturing, technology and medical devices sectors as a manager, director, CEO and chairman. Today, he specialises in interim turnaround assignments. He is the author of Awful Management", an accessible guide to improving an organisation by learning from the mistakes of others.