Management: Too busy juggling to watch the clock

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Lucky are those who find their work so absorbing that they can say 'I have never watched the clock.'

The 12 managers interviewed for this book* were lucky in this respect. Asked about the nature of their work and what they liked and disliked about it, what emerged was how much they enjoyed their jobs. So what are the pleasures of being a manager?

'I love the interaction with a range of people at different social and academic levels,' said Peter Thorpe, an ICI site manager.

So it was for Tony Walker, station master at Paddington. 'One of the nice things about my job is that you meet lots of people,' he said. 'I enjoy meeting and talking to people, especially those I have never met before.'

Many of the managers also enjoyed nurturing and developing others. Patricia Scott, director taxation and treasury, Thorn EMI, said: 'I love the team-building and staff-building side. When you sit round a table with a group of people that you have brought in from various sources and you see it working, it is tremendously satisfying.'

Another manager referred to the pleasure that he got from having two assistants who had blossomed like flowers. 'People cannot recognise them as the same individuals,' he said.

Another satisfaction that united the managers was the thrill of making things happen. They enjoyed being doers. They enjoyed visible achievement. This form of enjoyment is much greater in some jobs than others.

The prime example among the 12 was Patrick Crotty who, when interviewed, was managing the construction of the European terminal at Waterloo. 'What I enjoy most is finishing the job,' he said. 'I live for completion. On all the projects I have worked, my mind is set on the eventual completion of the project. I get intense fun out of that.' For most managers there were also the 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'.

For the more senior managers, especially, there were the pleasures of being in control. Derek Smith, chief executive of King's College Hospital, said: 'The other big reward is having the scope to run the place. I like being responsible. I like being in charge.'

A managing director of a medium-sized plc enjoyed being able to make important decisions and having them implemented rapidly. And all the managers enjoyed the freedom that their jobs offered for them to make their mark. This was true even for the middle managers in large organisations.

'It is never boring,' was a theme of most of the interviews. The managers were too busy to be bored. Their favourite analogy for managing was 'plate spinning' or 'juggling balls'.

It was the positive enjoyment of their particular activity - whether it be making cars; looking after hotel guests; shopkeeping; managing a railway station; conserving the environment for birds; understanding the dynamics of a life fund; or constructing an unusual building - that came across in the interviews. The managers used words such as 'fascinating' or the 'tingle factor' to describe how they felt about their industry.

Financial rewards mattered, but for some at least it seemed primarily a way of keeping the score. It was the other satisfactions of management that were more important.

There are common satisfactions in being a manager. If there were no similarities between management jobs, there would be no market for management degrees and management books. Yet there were big differences between the 12 jobs.

We played the game of who could swap successfully with whom. Some swaps were impossible because of the amount of technical knowledge required. Less obvious differences can also spell failure for those who move into a different sector or kind of job.

It is unwise to be dogmatic about what job moves can be successful, but the odds are stacked against any radical move. Individual differences, of course, contribute to success or failure. Those who are intelligent, sensitive to differences in the context of managing, able to manage very different kinds of people, and adaptable are more likely to succeed.

Three other factors will help to determine success or failure. First, how much the new context differs from the manager's previous experience, hence how long it takes to learn what matters.

Second, and very importantly, how much time the new jobholder is likely to have before the key players decide that he or she has failed. Where results are needed quickly, time will be short.

Third, the more personal factor of whether the individual will enjoy the job and so have the necessary energy and enthusiasm to cope with the difficulties.

An implication of our study is that moving to a management job in a different sector or type of organisation is likely to be more difficult than ambitious managers imagine. A strong belief in the common features of being a manager can easily lead to failures that are costly for all concerned.

* The Diversity of Management: Twelve Managers Talking by Rosemary Stewart and Jean Louis Barsoux is published on 29 April by Macmillan.