Management: Give the chief executive a playpen

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The Independent Online
One of the perks of being a top manager is having the freedom to play - and being in a position to find excuses for doing so. This might be called Stewart's Law: top executives escape to work they enjoy.

Ask most managers what they gain from promotion and they answer 'greater freedom'. This is the freedom to interpret the job as they want; for some managers this matters more than financial rewards.

There may be a few innocents who think that managers implement their job descriptions to the letter, but the briefest exposure to reality dispels that notion. Between equivalent senior jobs there may be little overlap between the actual work of individual managers. Differences are often dubbed leadership style, which provides a jargon camouflage for the real reasons: they are doing what they enjoy doing.

The law is seen at its sharpest in men or women who have been promoted from a function they enjoyed. They feel the urge to return to such work and escape from the meetings and paperwork of top management. (Few yet see their VDUs as an alternative escape).

These are the research directors who retain their own private labs; sales directors who always find reasons to go out on the road; managing directors who insist on being the main link with the advertising agencies, explaining 'I have an eye for what appeals'; chief engineers who test new equipment themselves and works managers who walk the works four times a day and are happiest talking to old Joe on the shop floor.

The problem for many top managers is not just sitting still, but the intangibility of the work. Many find distasteful the transition from the concrete realities of their earlier jobs: the customers, the layout of goods in the store, the noisy life of the factory. There are few lines of business where people do not have to change radically the nature of their work on rising to top management but can merely pursue their vocation on a bigger scale.

Many top managers long for the old glow of achievement. As one executive put it: 'Even though you can get quite enthralled by long-term strategy, you cannot beat certain short- term victories - where you have a customer or personnel problem in the morning that is resolved, or a target that is achieved by the afternoon.'

Happily, top executives find it relatively easy to justify doing what they enjoy. Tom Peters' MBWA (Management By Walking About) was a godsend, providing the perfect reason for avoiding the office as much as possible. This can be justified as keeping in touch and being a visible leader.

Any boss who enjoys spending time outside the company can find plausible reasons for doing so: 'promoting the company's image' and 'serving the industry' are common justifications. 'Serving the country' is another pretext. Though it may bring a business knighthood, it does not go down too well with the shareholders, who could argue that all the boss's working time should be spent minding the business rather than serving on government committees.

Despite the amount that has been written on executive behaviour, Stewart's Law has been overlooked. Yet any observer of executive behaviour can vouch for its validity.

It needs recognition and remedial action to ensure top executives can work effectively and happily. Unchecked, its operation can harm efficiency because the chief executive and other top executives may not be spending enough time on key (and less enjoyable) aspects of the job. It can also be demotivating for less senior managers who find their job has been pre-empted.

If one accepts the law, but recognises that its effects are often harmful to efficiency, what can be done?

A few optimists may suggest trying to prevent top executives from spending their time on relatively unimportant activities. But they do not understand human nature and its ability to find good reasons for doing what it wants. They also need to recognise that top executives' energy reserves are built up during pleasurable work and may get dangerously depleted without it.

There remains one solution that could be adopted: recognise that many top executives have play areas and that they need them. Then popularise the idea of playpens for top executives - a playpen is a good analogy because it is a defined area and entering it marks a change of surroundings.

A conscientious top executive could then accept the recuperative value of entering the playpen, but take actions to compensate for time spent there. For instance, only a junior manager should be given charge of the boss's play area, since it is already getting top-level attention from the boss himself. Most important, though, is to make sure others do the work that is being neglected.

Rosemary Stewart is director of the Oxford Health Care Management Institute, Templeton College, Oxford.