Teaching management divorced from on-the-job experience has produced a generation of bad managers, a McGill professor argues. There's a better way
Who got us into this mess? It's not just greedy mortgage lenders and irresponsible economists who are responsible for the current financial crisis. Leaders, so called, have played a role too, by not managing their companies and so being detached from what was going on in them. And behind much of this has been an educational process that encouraged such detachment. As I've argued at length in my book, Managers not MBAs, the MBA is fine education—but in the functions of business, not the exercise of managing. That is because management is a practice that has to be learned initially on the job: no manager, let alone leader, has ever been created in a classroom. In fact, MBA programs that claim to do so leave the impression that their graduates can manage in any context—"professionally." That's fallacious, and dangerous. So what is management education to do? In a nutshell, it should blend itself into management and organization development. For starters, it should restrict itself to people who are already practicing management on the job. And then, instead of having them leave the job for the classroom, it should keep them on the job, alternating between classroom discussions and real-world applications. By interspersing "learning" and "doing," learning can be connected to their ongoing experience. This is easy enough to say, but how to do it? We have been saying it for 15 years in an unusual set of programs, designed in the belief that managers learn best by stepping back from the pressures of their work in order to reflect on their own experience. In the International Masters in Practicing Management, which has been running since 1996, the participating managers sit at round tables in a flat classroom so that they can reflect on their experience and share insights with each other. Everything that we as faculty teach is carried to these tables for connection to context. This has proved to be a powerful form of learning. Our challenge, however, has been to carry it into the workplace, where it can have real impact. Of late, we have come to appreciate two novel ways to do that, one that rivets the learning of the classroom to the workplace, the other that shifts the learning into the workplace directly. We believe these two ideas can constitute a revolution in management education and development. Two Solutions Never send a changed person back to an unchanged organization. We have all heard that, yet we always do. In programs, we can urge managers to make use of their learning, whether it's coaching co-workers when they return to the office or using what they've learned to transform their organizations. Many managers do both, but rarely in a sufficient and concerted way. The problem is that the learners together in the classroom become the manager alone back home. We discussed this in a workshop with representatives of two of the companies that have been involved in the IMPM since its inception, Lufthansa (DLAKY) and Rio Tinto (RIO), earlier as Alcan, and together decided to proceed with a rather intriguing solution: Reinforce each manager in the classroom with a natural "impact team" back home composed of direct reports or peers. In effect, these people do the program too, but virtually: One learner in the program leverages five more back at work. Not only that, but together they can become an enthusiastic team to drive change. The second idea, embedding learning into the workplace directly, came from a manager familiar with our IMPM program who felt the need to develop his own managers but had no budget to send them to any public program. So we suggested he bring this kind of learning into his workplace: Get his managers around a table periodically to reflect on their experience and share their concerns and insights with each other. This he did, informally over lunch every week or two, using some of the material from the IMPM to initiate the discussions. It was so successful, both in promoting changes in the workplace as well as in developing the managers, that it continued for two years. That experience eventually led us to incorporate the whole idea as CoachingOurselves.com to enable other groups of managers to do the same thing. Today, companies sign up, form small teams of managers, and download materials on all sorts of management topics (e.g., Silos and Slabs in Organizations, In Praise of Middle Management, Developing Our Organization as a Community) for personal and organizational development. Some companies are now using CoachingOurselves to drive turnarounds in their businesses. These two are rather simple ideas: connecting classroom learning to the workplace and bringing the learning itself to the workplace. In both cases, the managers use what they learn to implement change. But they depart radically from conventional management education by strengthening the connection between managers and their organizations. And that may be one good way to help avert another managerial mess.