Bob Morris Interview: Henry Mintzberg on results-driven management
A professor in McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, Henry Mintzberg has been called a lot of things over his career – influential, innovative, iconoclast. Business magazine Fast Company even likened him to Mick Jagger.
Of course, Mick Jagger was never named one of the top management thinkers in the world, largely by attacking the foundations of the modern managerial profession – the MBA. Management education, according to Mintzberg, should be given to those actually working as managers, as opposed to the current practice of training young students with no practical experience in management theory.
“Leadership, like swimming, cannot be learned by reading about it,” he says.
With books such as Managers Not MBAs and Strategy Bites Back Mintzberg had made the business world sit up and take notice of the flaws in how they think. He’s made it his personal mission to reform the way managers are educated. His latest book, Bedtime Stories for Managers, was published by Berrett-Koehler (February 2019).
At McGill, Mintzberg helped design the International Masters Program for Managers (https://impm.org), a program that’s been running since 1996, which seeks to expose practicing executives to new ways of thinking in a series of international modules. One executive at a major bank has sent some 16 of his managers through the program: “It changes people more than any other program I’ve seen – ever.”
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Before discussing Bedtime Stories for Managers, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
That’s a tough one to answer, because many people have had small influence rather than one person having a big influence. But if I had to identify one person, it would be the little boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story about the emperor being naked.
To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Other than the fact that a PhD gets you into university, I think my informal education has had a lot more influence.
What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?
This is a really interesting question, but I don’t have an easy answer. Maybe the answer is how difficult it is to effect change, even when the change it meant to return to very natural behavior at the expense of learned distorted behavior.
Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.
Maybe all the bad, commercial ones that demonstrate how not to make films.
Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people Plan with the people Begin with what they have Build on what they know Of the best leaders When the task is accomplished The people will remark We have done it ourselves.”
Terrific words, except the reference to planning with the people. We do too much planning!
From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
There is an infinite number of possibilities of things not to do.
From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
From Donna Dubinsky to Bill Campbell after he had been named CEO of Claris: “Your title makes you a manager; your people make you a leader.”
From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
I like this.
Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
No shortage of this.
Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in one-on-one conversation for an extended weekend? Why?
Whichever one really likes to go bicycling, or walking up a mountain.
What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?
One with more communityship, less leadership.
Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?
Often a lack of communityship, and leadership that is lofty and disengaged.
Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?
As someone once said, I never predict, especially the future.
Now please shift your attention to Bedtime Stories for Managers. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, please explain your dedication “to all those managers who eat the scrambled eggs to help their organization work like a cow.”
It’s about the CEO of an airline that went bankrupt, not long after I was served horrible things called scrambled eggs while this guy was sitting in first class. Managing is not about sitting where you have become accustomed; it’s about eating the scrambled eggs.
I think it’s also about getting dirt under your nails.
Once upon a time, you wrote books (40, in fact) and countless articles about business and delivered major addresses at business conferences. Now you’re a storyteller. What happened?
Actually it’s 20 books, but I have always been a storyteller, this time just explicitly so.
With regard to the “medley of metaphors” you provide, they include cows and gardens, cutting cookies and scrambling eggs, the maestro myth of managing, the soft underbelly of hard data, the board as bee, and downsizing as bloodletting. In your opinion, what do these metaphors reveal about those who rely so heavily upon them?
That they’re probably more intuitive than analytic; they need word pictures. We all need word pictures to see better.
Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”
Who are the “tooth fairies” and what have they left under your pillow?
These are the people helped me so wonderfully well to do this book. There is nothing more personal than a book, and yet good books really require good friends.
When and why did you decide to write Bedtime Stories for Managers?
I have always wanted to capture the insights that are buried in much of my work.
Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Not that I can think of, but a great deal of fun doing it.
By what process and according to which criteria did you select the material in your book from dozens of blog posts?
The one criterion was useful appeal to practicing managers, and the process was that the piece felt great.
Of all the past Presidents of the United States, which do you consider to be the most effective manager? Please explain your choice.
Just for sheer execution FDR was really quite remarkable.
If you were asked to advise the current occupant of the White House how to be a much better manager, what specifically would you suggest?
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Henry cordially invites you to check out the resources at these two websites:
Editor's note: This article was written by Robert Morris and has been rerun with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.