Toward a Philosophy of Management
By Honora Eskridge
What is your philosophy of management? Whether you are a new manager or experienced, odds are you have been asked this question. I most often hear it asked in interview sessions, and I am always surprised by the similarity and limitations of people’s answers. People don’t generally have a well-thought-out answer to this. Too often I hear candidates describe themselves as “hands off,” which is meant to convey that they don’t micromanage. Most recently, I heard an interview candidate say that she didn’t have a philosophy of management at all. It is one of those things people don’t really think about and never take the time to articulate. Maybe they don’t want to commit themselves, or maybe they’re afraid people won’t like their answer. The truth is, though, that everyone should have a philosophy of management—even people who have never been in a formal position of authority. Every worker is a manager. Each of us manages our work tasks, our time and our relationships with colleagues and bosses. It’s just the scope of management responsibilities that differs. Thinking about it this way, it’s actually worrisome if one doesn’t have a philosophy of management! It seems almost impossible not to.
When you’re being interviewed, you may be wondering, “What does this question really mean, anyway? What is the employer trying to find out by this statement?” Interviewers are trying to understand what kind of boss you would be. Prospective employees figure out this underlying motive and give simplistic answers that they think interviewers want to hear. But by providing a glib or loosely-formed answer to this question a prospective employee passes up a great opportunity to communicate professional and personal values.
Your philosophy of management will be rooted in your beliefs and your identity. It is unique because it comes from the lessons you’ve learned and the people you’ve worked with throughout your career. Below I have outlined my own philosophy of management in the hopes that it will inspire you to compose one of your own.
Basic Values. A good philosophy of management is centered on basic principles that are important to you and that ring true. For me, the most important thing I can do as a manager is treat people like human beings. This means remembering that my co-workers are people with lives, families and priorities outside of the library. The job is just one facet of whom they are. So if someone is not doing well at work, it doesn’t mean they are a bad person. It means they are not doing well at work. This value also means realizing that no one wants to perform badly at their job. Everyone wants to do well and make a contribution. Before becoming a librarian, I was an engineer. I never felt I was very good at it. I seemed to be doing OK; I received promotions and raises, but truth be told, I was a “B” player; I didn’t like what I was doing! As a librarian, I know I’m a much better worker than I was as an engineer because this career is a better fit for me. Sometimes people get into the wrong job. How often do we promote people who are great employees but who end up being lousy bosses? It’s not entirely their fault—they are just in the wrong job. Getting the right “fit” between a job and an employee is a truly difficult thing to achieve. We all know this, but it is hard to keep it in mind while dealing with the day-to-day frustrations of working with someone who is struggling at their job. Nevertheless, we must try to do it anyway.
Another aspect of treating people like human beings is telling them the truth. If someone isn’t performing well or makes a mistake, they need to be told the truth. They deserve it, because telling people the truth recognizes that they are human beings, and as such, we all have faults and make mistakes. Every single employee is a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses. A good manager looks at the whole person, makes an honest assessment and communicates it. But telling the truth is no license to be mean or hurtful. Too often we are either completely terrified of confrontation, or we are rude, blunt and/or cruel. If you don’t respect a person’s feelings, you are not respecting the person. If you truly respect the person and can separate them from their work, this respect will come through in what you are saying, and it will be almost as easy to give criticism as it is to give praise.
Leadership. A philosophy of management should include some thoughts on leadership. Managers are expected to lead. I believe that leadership is a natural-born quality. Natural leaders learn to be better leaders, but people who do not have natural leadership ability will never learn to be great leaders. It is easy to spot a natural leader—people gravitate to them. If you are in a position where you have absolutely no authority and people are coming to you for advice, you are a leader!
And so, if you are thrust into a management position, you must be prepared to truly lead. You must be willing to make decisions and take responsibility for them. You shouldn’t agree to be a boss if, at the end of the day, you are not willing to make a decision (especially an unpopular one) or to tell someone to do something.
To be a leader you must be able make up your own mind about situations and keep a sense of perspective when addressing your own professional challenges or the challenges of the staff. Consider other alternatives. This is especially true when it comes to work-place drama. When staff are freaking out over something, it is imperative that managers do not get sucked into the drama. Leaders don’t follow the herd.
Managing Roles. The last part of my philosophy of management has to do with roles—my role as a manager, and the interplay with the roles of my staff. In essence, I believe that it is a manager’s job to manage the relationships s/he has with staff and to be responsible for drawing the line differentiating each person’s roles.
First, it is critical that every manager understand why they were put in their job. You are not the boss because you are the best worker or the highest performer. Rather, you are in charge because of that elusive thing called “fit” that we talked about earlier; basically, you were a good fit for the requirements of the job. You had the skills and experience demanded, as well as the right fit in terms of personality. After all, if all that being the boss meant was that you knew how to do everyone’s jobs better than they do, management wouldn’t be a very interesting thing! Unfortunately, many people (some of them managers!) do think this way, and to me it shows a serious misunderstanding of what management is. A good manager should never want to be the best in his or her department; s/he should never want to be smarter than the staff.
Which leads to one aspect of managing roles: Everyone is replaceable. My father learned this lesson after leaving a company where he had worked for 23 years. A few months after his departure, he called his old boss on the telephone, and was leaving a message with the secretary. He said, “Tell him Warren called.” The secretary replied, “Warren who?” It was a tough lesson in how quickly people can move on. Keep perspective on how critical you are to the organization. If we leave, our work will get done by someone else, or it won’t. Either way, the world won’t end.
The last aspect of this is probably the greatest lesson of my career: It’s not about me; it’s about them. In other words, my job as a manager is to focus on the people that work for me. To give them the great projects to work on so that they learn, achieve and make a name for themselves and, yes, move on to bigger and better jobs. The more people I work with, the more I know this is the truth, and what’s more, I believe it is key to success as a manager. If you come to accept this, management becomes a humbling experience. And so, a good manager will take the time to really get to know the staff, to learn to see the whole person, strengths and weaknesses, what motivates and what doesn’t. That sum total should be measured against the requirements of the job, the organization and against a worker’s previous performance. But you should never measure one worker against another and absolutely never against yourself (i.e., it’s not about you). People manage their own careers based on their own personal experience and goals. Some librarians want to publish and present and some want to move up into administration. Others want to be frontline librarians for their whole careers. It is a manager’s job to understand the work that needs to be done and know each employee well enough to match skills with work and, always keeping an eye on the bigger picture, direct an employee to work that will be challenging and enriching and that will ultimately build on strengths and help them reach their goals.
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