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How to spot unsuccessful executives.

They treat subordinates unfairly, don't listen, discuss problems endlessly without acting, fail to grasp the big picture, and mismanage time.

Every Bookstore is full of volumes describing what makes an effective executive. Daily newspapers carry syndicated columns written by gurus who depict the methods and behavior of successful CEOs. Major magazines such as Fortune and Time regularly publish feature articles on various "shining lights" in the business world.

Few publications, however, care to depict the behavior of unsuccessful executives, which usually manifests itself in disregarding subordinates, inability to listen, failing to see the big picture, and talking rather than doing.

Disregarding subordinates. The unsuccessful manager almost always is conscious of the need to pander to superiors. While he rushes to meet their whims, just as often he disregards the need to be considerate of subordinates. He orders things to be done, rather than motivating anyone to do them. ("Increase productivity! Improve quality! Get the lead out! Group machines into cells for synchronous production! Don't give me excuses! Do it!")

When such executives do deal with subordinates, their attitude tends to be full of artificial cordialities. The sole purpose is to manipulate. When they say "no," they usually give no reason. They engender no loyalty among their staff. They really do not believe their success is related to that of subordinates.

The ABC Apparel Manufacturing Co. had 1,200 workers in several plants. A project leader with some status in the parent company was promoted to plant manager in an outlying factory where girls' dresses and casual wear were produced for Wal-Mart, Kmart, Ames, etc. Upon assuming his new job, he decided to impress by concentrating on cutting costs that affected the price of producing garments.

Previously, overtime was voluntary. Since there was nothing in the union contract on the subject, the new plant manager unilaterally posted a notice that employees must work overtime when ordered by management, and proceeded to enforce the rule. Most plant employees were women with family obligations. Soon, four were disciplined for refusing overtime. Grievances were filed. In the meantime, productivity in the plant declined. This led to a query from headquarters.

The "call out" problem was handled similarly. A maintenance employee called to work outside his regular scheduled hours was paid a minimum of four hours regular pay or one-and-one-half times his regular rate for time worked, whichever was greater. When the emergency job was completed, the employee went home to rest for his regular shift. Sometimes, he worked only one hour, but received four hours pay.

The new plant manager unilaterally changed the rule without discussing the matter with maintenance employees or the union. Under the new rule, whenever a worker was called out for an emergency job, he would be assigned to a second and perhaps a third task in order to fill out the four hours. The union objected, but the manager felt that, if the company was paying for four hours work, it certainly should receive four hours work.

The plant began to have difficulty in calling out emergency workers. Wives would tell the plant representative when he phoned that their husbands were not at home. An emergency job left undone because of employee resentment resulted in a one-day shutdown of a department.

Finally, a two-week strike broke out at contract time. Money was said to be the major issue, but newspaper stories in the community - the reporters interviewed a number of strikers and their spouses-indicated that the trouble was due almost entirely to the manager's unilateral arbitrary actions. Behind that, of course, lay the manager's disdain for subordinates' opinions, which undermined the company effort to achieve workforce cooperation on cost containment.

Inability to listen. In considering policies, the successful executive listens for the intangibles as well as tangibles. What is the staff's feeling about the new computerized machining equipment? Is the bar code printer too slow? What are we getting out of the employee suggestion boxes? Are the department heads unfair or tyrannical? Can we shorten the time it takes to develop designs? Why the current increase in employee absenteeism? The unsuccessful executive rarely bothers listening for such intangibles.

Employee attitude surveys which may engender uncomplimentary views about management are pooh-poohed. Interviews, focus groups, and employee audits that tap worker opinions sometimes may produce adverse sentiments concerning equipment, materials, lighting, heating, bathroom cleanliness, arbitrary supervisory practices, or management policies. The unsuccessful manager discounts such observations as mere "employee gripes," unworthy of serious attention. Yet, from long business consulting experience, I can attest that many of such comments, while intangible, basically are constructive and point to opportunities for improvements in productivity, quality, and cost savings.

One manager of a plant producing engine components for the automotive market, after losing a National Labor Relations Board election to a friendly independent (company) union, negotiated a two-year "sweetheart" contract with the victorious group of well-disposed southern employees. In his first contract year, the executive had no patience to listen to worker complaints, so grievances mounted. The plant manager forced arbitration six times over petty grievances, winning five. In his second year, he had six arbitration cases over similar minor issues and won them all. He overlooked the point that the arbitration process will produce decisions, but win not resolve intangible human problems.

In the third year, the docile company union revolted and affiliated with the United Auto Workers Union, which demanded new terms that the plant manager declared unacceptable. A three-week strike ensued. Thereafter, productivity went way down, and the shipping schedules showed a similar decline.

Unsuccessful executives take pride in being realistic. They often mean that they concentrate only on the tangible facts. They regard intangibles as ephemeral, wishywashy, hot air. For example, such executives will maintain loudly that a labor contract is nothing more than an agreement to purchase labor service at such-and-such a price, and that it is no different from a contract to buy vacuum fluorescent displays, a label printer/applicator, or a carload of steel. Such executives will be unable to sense that this failure to grasp the intangible difference will earn the company endless ill-will.

In certain situations-particularly financial positions - an executives ability to concentrate only on the tangibles may be valuable. Where people and motivation are involved, however, trouble ensues when intangible feelings and attitudes are disregarded.

Intelligence is not enough

Failing to see the big picture. There is no evidence that one has to be very bright or have excessive book learning to be a good manufacturing executive. An MBA education doesn't guarantee success in any industry. As J. Sterling Livingston pointed out in the Harvard Business Review, "A great many executives who mistakenly believe that grades are a valid measure of leadership potential have expressed concern over the fact that fewer and fewer of those |top third' graduates ... are embarking on careers in business. What those executives do not recognize, however, is that academic ability does not assure that an individual will be able to learn what he needs to know to build a career in fields that involve such broad matters as leading, changing, developing, or working with people."

Livingston was not talking about the grasp of technical marketing or financial details drilled into MBAS. He was alluding to general functions all manufacturing executives must be able to execute-planning, directing, controlling, evaluating, etc. In that connection, unsuccessful executives very often do not see the bigger picture, getting lost in the details instead.

Many executives have been promoted because of their attention to detail. Consider a quality inspector in a company producing pressure gauges and flowmeters. He needs to know if the incoming material is consistent, machine settings are proper, and operator practices are up to standard, as well as actual vs. expected variations at each processing stage. He has to worry about quality documentation, maintaining a formal gauge calibration system to ensure that there are no excessive weight disparities and seeing that there are no significant deviations, either in size average or within machine variation.

He does a good job and is promoted to quality manager, reporting to the manufacturing vice president. As a manager, the ability to assign tasks to subordinates (without looking over their shoulders) and devote time and thought to broader issues may not come easy to a "detail man." For some people, this graduation never takes place because they can not help involving themselves in the details. Conceptualization - the bigger picture - does not interest them.

While many people talk about the the "Peter Principle" (individuals rise to the level of their incompetence), few understand what accounts for the phenomenon of promoting a man beyond his abilities. Incapacity to accept broader and broader horizons - in short, the inability to see the larger scene - is what accounts for it. Some individuals never let go of the details because they are most comfortable in that area. They usually are unsuccessful as major executives precisely for that reason.

Talking rather than doing. Of all the hallmarks of unsuccessful executives, the tendency to discuss issues endlessly instead of acting is the universal characteristic. Executives are faced daily with decisions. While many are minor, major ones do have to be made, often in concert with other executives. Do we need a jumbo die jig to handle larger rolls? Should we think about having our punch press operations done outside instead of in-house? Should we consider a branch plant in Puerto Rico? Should we hire that consultant to help manage the transition to a profit-sharing program? We need new forklift trucks; should we switch brands?

Invariably, the unsuccessful executive will be reluctant to reach a firm decision, even if all possible facts are laid out. He always wants to keep discussing the proposition, to talk some more, rather than do anything. Talk often is regarded by some executives as a form of action, and continuing to discuss the decision is regarded as doing something constructive. To continue talking requires no change in behavior, adjustment of routine, upheaval of standard procedure, or risk to anyone's status. That always suits the unsuccessful executive, since change is perilous and may lead to unforeseen consequences.

This tendency to talk instead of acting, if it encourages other executives to follow along, may lead to slow death of the company. Study the Fortune 500 of 20 years ago and compare them with today's leaders. Only a handful of corporations are on both lists. Many of the others slowly withered, in good part because talk was accepted in place of action.

While no one unsuccessful executive exhibits all the undesirable traits to the degree described above, the tendency to talk instead of acting is characteristic of every unsuccessful manager. Dealing with such executives is a very frustrating experience.

To avoid these pitfalls, junior and senior executives should be required to take in-house courses to promote management development. To be effective, such programs must be realistic and custom-tailored (not out of books) for each company. Executives with these types of shortcomings can be identified by their reactions and comments to realistic case studies. As a result, they can be guided into the proper executive slot to suit their talents and avoid being promoted into positions in which they can not function in the best interests of the company. Most firms have room for all sorts of executives, but square pegs will not function well in round holes.
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Author:Imberman, Woodruff
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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