Stamping out Cookie-Cutter Managers

People who use the same approach to any challenge can hinder your business. Here's how to spot them -- and how to improve their performance

A few months ago, my husband and I sold our house. Based on advice from a few friends, I called in a "stager" -- a person who would help us spruce up the place and get it ready to go on the market -- and asked for her recommendations.

The stager looked around, asked a bunch of questions, and left. Later in the week, she came by to review her proposal. It's a good thing we were sitting down, because she suggested nearly $50,000 worth of home improvements.

"But why would I do this and that and this other thing right now, when I'm about to sell the house?" I wanted to know. "Won't the buyers just ask for those items if they're important to them, or ask for a credit on the sales price?"


"Oh, no," said the stager. "If your house isn't one of the best-looking ones on the market, people won't even make an offer. It's a competitive market, and your house has to stand out from the others in its price range. It must look new."

I couldn't see it. So I planted some shrubs, replaced the walkway to the street, and left it at that. Even our house painter, when I called to ask him for a bid on repainting, was skeptical. "I could make some money painting your house," he said, "but I couldn't do that to you. You just painted a year ago. It looks fine." We held onto our money and put the house on the market. We sold in three days for 99% of our asking price.

What did the stager miss when she saw our home? That we had the last unrenovated (and thus more modestly priced) house in our neighborhood. If we had spent the time and money to make all those improvements, the house would have read "newly done" to a prospective buyer, and we believe we might have lost buyers.

As it was, the buyers could feel that they were getting a great value for a not-recently-renovated, down-at-heels place (the correct real estate term is "deferred maintenance," by the way) in a terrific location. But the experience got me thinking a lot about context -- the way that people look at new situations.


Our staging friend had a one-size-fits-all mentality about houses: When you want to put a house on the market, you simply have to improve it until it squeaks, because only the best-looking houses sell. That might be good advice for some situations. Clearly, it wasn't right for ours. Thank goodness my husband and I have sturdy-enough gut instincts (raising five kids helps) to ignore the advice and save our money. Not every situation is the same, and not every solution works every time.

There's a certain type of business manager who approaches the job this way: This is how one does marketing, or this is how one does sales. In every job situation, regardless of the industry, strategy, or climate, this person's approach is the same. You can spot these managers a mile away because of one telltale characteristic: When they start a new job, they hit the ground running.

Week One: A new organization is announced in their department. Week Two: They've revamped a couple of key processes, and probably dumped and replaced the central data-management system. In short, these aren't managers who waste a lot of time collecting data. Their mantra is: Love Me, Love My System. They've done it before, and they'll do it again -- over and over, at job after job.


Such managers, to my mind, are dangerous to an organization. Without regard for external realities, they proceed through a business career implementing the same plan in company after company. Everyone knows someone like this: brimming with confidence, married to their process, bringing their time-tested approach to one employer after another. Free from the need to investigate their new surroundings before plunging into their renovation project, they're able to replace, build, and tinker, assuming that what worked before should dang sure work again.

The problem is that business situations, like houses, aren't all alike. Every organization's context for action is different. Companies are like snowflakes in that respect -- even in the same industry, no two enterprises are alike.

The same way that my stager missed the biggest selling point of my house -- not its gleaming finishes but its wicked-good mountainside location with a reasonable sales price -- a cookie-cutter manager misses each organization's unique strategic position. Just because your three-step approach to organizing a sales department has stood you in good stead before doesn't mean that it's the right solution for each new organization you join.

In fact, cookie-cutter managers miss the most fun part of business leadership, which is tailoring a solution to a unique set of imperatives and capabilities. If all there were to business was implementing the same plan over and over, what value would there be in 10 or 20 years of experience?


I have often heard from one friend or another who was about to hire one of these cookie-cutter types, saying: "She's not the most creative person in the world, but I know she'll get the job done." I always wince when I hear that. It's fine to hire a person like this in a job where being glued to a process is central -- for example, a specialist role where conditions may remain relatively stable. But in a management job? What else is management if not taking in data from an environment and then adapting to it?

More than once, I've seen leaders burned after they relied on a cookie-cutter manager to think creatively in a novel situation, only to to see him disintegrate under pressure. When "This is my plan, and I'm sticking to it" is a person's management philosophy, who can be surprised to see him stumble when the facts don't fit his beloved framework?

Luckily, there's a tool you can deploy to avoid hiring a cookie-cutter manager, and it's a simple multipart interview question. This question should lead to a useful 20-minute discussion about your organization and its complexities and idiosyncrasies. O.K., here goes:

"Please tell me, based on what you've researched and heard so far about our company, how we're different from the other companies you've worked for, and how you would adapt your past solutions to this environment. What elements of our organization would you most need to understand in order to devise solutions for us? How would you accomplish that learning?"


Now sit back and listen carefully. Cookie-cutter managers will give a cursory answer that conveys an utter lack of interest in learning anything at all about your company -- anything, at least, that would slow them down in their efforts to duplicate their past renovation projects.

A more thoughtful manager will talk about the factors that influence a business' problem solving: maturity of the industry, competitive factors, size and composition of the staff, culture, core strengths, cost considerations, and so on. How does one learn enough about these factors to develop a customized solution? By listening. Asking questions. Practicing humility.

It's annoying to listen to a company newcomer say, "But that's not how we did it at my last company" every 10 minutes. Yet annoyance is easier to tolerate than the real damage that can be done to an organization when a cookie-cutter manager pulls out his hammer and wrench.


If you're struggling with a cookie-cutter manager on your team, here's a technique that should help. Assign this person a research project: to go interview 10 thought leaders in your organization and get their views on the state of the company. Ask the cookie-cutter manager to create a report detailing the 10 thought leaders' views on the current external (marketplace) and internal (organizational) factors that they view as most affecting your business.

It would be almost impossible to write this report without realizing that one's plans for the department may have been a little light on research. Don't be surprised to hear this manager say: "Thanks for having me speak to George, Ellen, and the rest of the leaders. Believe it or not, this will change my plan for next year!"

Guess what? I believe it. Understanding your environment is a wonderful thing. I believe that many cookie-cutter managers have never been coached to do more research and less by-the-book implementation. But it's not too late to get the message -- and begin building your business Dream House.

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