Putting People Into Boxes

A Dangerous But Still Popular Management Practice

As our country continues to grow and develop, it is now more important that ever before to get our management and people decisions right! This applies from the selection of Chairpersons and Board Members through to the Chief Executive, key executives, line managers, supervisor appointments and below.

Way way back in the May/June issue of Knightview in 1989, I expressed my concern that a disproportionate number of accounting/financial executives were being appointed to CEO roles, and that the subsequent emphasis on cutting costs appeared to be at the expense of creating new business opportunities and improving top line performance. The current business environment however requires a much more balanced approach, flexibility and some lateral thinking in terms of management appointments.

I have long been of the view that compared to other western economies, New Zealand executives still largely appear to have a fixation in terms of the technical and performance skill sets, industry backgrounds and experience considered absolutely necessary to effectively operate in executive, management or many lesser roles for that matter. Whenever I am being briefed by a client I endeavour to establish the reasons why the specific skill sets, qualifications and experience are being stipulated. Experience has taught me that many of the “perceived essential requirements” are not necessary at all, rather the focus should be shifted to the competencies required to be successful in a given role, the attitudinal and motivational requirements necessary to make it work, and importantly the “fit” with the company culture. (For both parties)

To quote an example, I was asked to search the market for a Chief Executive Officer in a specialised area of the property market. As the assignment progressed it became apparent that what the company actually required was not a vertically skilled property specialist with management ability but a very well rounded Chief Executive with vision, strong people /leadership skills, disciplined planning and organisational skills with possibly, but by no means necessarily, some knowledge of property. Learned and developed leadership and management skills are transferable and there is no reason why, for example, a Regional Manager of a commercial finance company could not be appointed to a similar role within a completely different industry. The management and leadership principles are exactly the same, further, in my experience most companies have an abundance of internal resource with the necessary technical skills, product and market knowledge which can in fact be complemented by a manager who comes into an organisation without industry prejudice or preconceived ideas. The new Manager can further develop existing in-house skills whilst providing the organisation with a fresh new perspective and some outside objectivity. We often hear the comment – “this person is a banker, a scientist, engineer, computer boffin or a teacher! (The list goes on…) He or she has neither the skills nor the background to be successful in this role.” In other words people are put into “Boxes”.

Every person is an individual and must be treated and considered as such – do not make the mistake of casting all individuals who make up a profession, country or culture into the same mould. Take teaching for example, a much maligned profession. Not that long ago I was involved in the selection process for a Principal at our local school, I was both surprised and delighted at the calibre of the short listed candidates. Indeed, I was moved to pass the comment that if the quality, commitment, dedication and expertise of any one of fifteen of those who responded were apparent on the average commercial shortlist, then this country would be well placed!

Think about it, in almost every commercial or corporate organisation you care to name there are former school teachers in middle management or key executive positions. Many of the inherent qualities and competencies which make a good teacher for example, can be very closely allied to those which make a good manager. I am not saying that teachers or those from any other professional grouping can or should provide the solutions to our management concerns. What I am saying however, is that this is just one example of a profession or group of people which have been consistently, quite subjectively and quite wrongly in my opinion “put into boxes” by New Zealand management. It would appear that it is going to take some time for the commercial scene in New Zealand to realise existing potential in “other” occupations, as executives tend to stay conservative, stay with the safe option, the one they know and feel comfortable with in addition to being somewhat risk averse. There is a danger that many are adopting short term thinking in terms of sourcing, identifying and engaging talent, often to the detriment of future growth and prosperity.

We are frequently being told that there is a critical shortage of skilled executives in this country. Every country is saying the same thing! Per capita, I believe our top managers are as smart as and probably more flexible than most. What we need to do now is to nurture, develop and grow our leaders of tomorrow. I believe it’s the easiest thing in the world to appoint the obvious – in my opinion; the leaders of tomorrow will need to consciously select an increasing number of the “obscure” to challenge them.

“Putting people in boxes” is a popular, but I would suggest costly pastime in New Zealand, which must be seriously challenged. Whilst specific skill sets, experience and vertically specialised backgrounds may be necessary for many appointments, the ongoing volatility and dynamics of the business world are such that many highly skilled and narrowly focussed specialists are fast being left behind. I believe that the real future is for those executives who have early in their careers, departed from a vertically specialised background and have now become more generalist and flexible having been exposed to a variety of industry sectors and business types.

Barry T. Knight


YSKER P.O. Box 27 Christchurch, New Zealand, Phone: +64 21 999 799
Email: barry.knight@ysker.com
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