By the time a smart Gen-Yer has been employed for a few years, the opportunity to manage begins to take shape. Thus, in this article I intend to revisit a highly relevant subject: what do managers actually do? Leaders in the field have all answered the question in the same very traditional way. However, as a student of the field, I intend to take a unique perspective on the question.
Since Peter Drucker, managing has always been defined as getting things done through other people. And whether you look at the older work of Kotter or the fine new work by Hill and Lineback, I do not disagree with that definition. Where I do part company with all of them is how you achieve that objective.
All of them — indeed, all managers and nearly all theorists believe language or conversation is merely a tool used to describe and report on reality. They believe that actual managing takes place in organizations, jobs, processes, technologies that exist independently of language and conversation. The hackneyed phrase, “stop talking and start working,” imperceptibly rules the roost. I suggest — in contrast — that managers who fail to understand that their primary job and focus is conversation are in deep trouble. Indeed, they’ve missed something hidden in plain sight.
In this and in future articles, I intend to turn the traditional notion of managing on its head. Indeed, I will take a “conversational turn” to provide practitioners with a different way of observing, describing, and trying to illuminate the things they actually say and do as managers. From this point of view, what a manager is and everything he or she does should be seen first and foremost as a phenomenon, an occurrence, creation, innovation, event, happening, circumstance, an episode, even a case — of conversation.
The Conversational Turn
I’m not the first to propose this. Harvard’s Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind nearly got there when in a recent Harvard Review article they suggested that leadership is conversation. A single issue of the Academy of Management Journal (2004, V29, Issue 4) was devoted to theorizing about this perspective. However, neither management journal took the issue to its ultimate conclusion.
So in this article, I will turn the conventional understanding of managing as action on its head and show what that discipline looks like when it’s seen as “conversation.” In later blogs I will explain my rationale for this fundamental shift and show why and how its benefits are especially promising for the 21st century and the knowledge economy. And why the perspective fits not only managers, but every employee as well.
The New Manager
In a conversation with a Gen-Yer, just 14 months into his first management job, he downloaded most of his day at my request. Yeah, he uses different language than most of my exec clients. His context of an Internet company is certainly not small appliance, agribusiness, finance, or consumer products. But at bottom, managing those differing contexts is unbelievably similar. As Nitin Nohria (now the dean of Harvard Business School) and his colleague, Robert Eccles, wrote in Beyond the Hype (1992), once you get beyond the fads and fictions, managers all do the same thing. They labeled it as action, but I’m flipping their ideas rather than rejecting them. As my Gen-Y manager realized with very little prompting, managing is all about constant interactions with others — and himself.
Borrowing and revising Nohria and Eccles, here are the six conditions that my young, Gen-Y manager experienced. It’s a highly descriptive statement about what managers do and can’t do all day.
As a manager, you “cannot avoid
acting conversing.” At each moment of the meeting you are acting conversing. Even letting things go constitutes an action a conversation and what effects you may or may not want. So, you are always “thrown into action conversations, independent of your will.”
“You cannot step back and reflect on your
actions conversations.” You have to rely on your instincts to respond and act converse in real time, even though you may reflect on the meeting later on and wish that you had conversed differently.
"The effect of your
actions conversations cannot be predicted.” There are too many paths that any action conversation could lead to, so you cannot always depend on rational planning to find language that will achieve your goals. Instead, you have no choice but to “flow with the situation.”
“You do not have a stable representation of the situation.” Conversations in the meeting evolve continuously. At any moment, you only see fragmentary pieces. The overall pattern of the meeting is only discernible after it is over.
“Every representation is an interpretation.” Even after the meeting is over, your description of what transpired at the meeting will never be the only one. Someone else will read the meeting differently and so the facts will always be elusive — what one must work with are opinions and interpretations.
Language Conversation is action.” Every time you speak converse, you are not merely stating the facts, you are acting. You are actively shaping and constructing a definition of the situation and trying to persuade others of the facts as you see them and the actions that you believe must be taken. The rhetorical nature of managerial action cannot be escaped and must be constantly attended to. (Amazing how close the authors were to my conclusion nearly 20 years ago!)
That new Gen-Y manager breathed a sigh of relief. He expected his job to be something different than what he was experiencing. It was liberating to
talk converse through these actions. They were pragmatic. His practice is not so much about business hype, but what works about conversational expertise.
Since the 1990s the need for new conversational technologies and conversational expertise has skyrocketed. It has created a widening gulf between those with superb conversational skills and those who have essentially ignored the demand for communication excellence. Top MBA programs are beginning to take this need seriously, but it is not an issue that can be resolved overnight. In the meantime, a few managers and employees are taking this demand seriously. By talking the talk, they’re walking the walk.
Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.