Category Archives: Mintzberg

Each January presents the opportunity to participate as a judge in the annual Concordia MBA International Case Competition. Thirty-two university teams of enthusiastic and ambitious young MBAs analysing, strategizing and recommending solutions to the corporate challenges that they are presented.

It does raise the question in my mind of encouraging the arrogance of MBAs to think they can solve corporate issues in a quick study without any relevant experience. Imagine – if they can solve these cases in two hours, what could they do in a couple of years as CEO! Brings me back to Henry Mintzberg and the admonition to focus on creating better managers not MBAs.
Relevant prior experience is the first requirement before embarking on the study of management. The case study is a gross oversimplification of business dynamics and trivializes the need for industry and functional knowledge and experience in addition to leadership and management skills. Perhaps it adds some realism to textbook theory and allows a more complete strategic view of the corporation, its stakeholders and its environment, but in the absence of relevant experience it will be a limited academic exercise.
You be the judge.

I had the pleasure yesterday of hearing a presentation by Henry Mintzberg, McGill professor and management guru. One attendee described him as the “Tiger Woods of management science”.

I know him as the Strategy professor during my McGill MBA program from 35 years ago. (Yikes, neither of us seem to have aged that much! OK, maybe less hair.)

He is a widely respected academic and the acclaimed author of “The Nature of Managerial Work “, “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning”, “Managers not MBAs” and many other books and articles that argue against the conventional wisdom and provoke thoughtful reflection on management and business. He is also the co-founder of the International Masters Program in Practicing Management (IMPM), a unique approach to learning that is designed to flow from the experience of the participants.

His presentation yesterday was originally advertised to be on the dilemma of corporate compensation, but that turned out be only part of his critique of the modern CEO focus on shareholder value that is leading to the great depression of 2008.

Some of his points to consider:
  • Productivity is a euphemism for cutting costs, mostly by firing employees, while maintaining short-term revenues.
  • The theoretical corporate objective of maximizing long-term shareholder value has been hijacked to mean pushing short-term earnings to inflate current market share prices.
  • How can employees be motivated to work for shareholders they have never met? Many of whom have no interest in the company except for the short-term ability to make a profit on their investment – they are day traders or hedge funds.
  • Shareholder value is not a worthy objective of the corporate institution as it specifically ignores (or exploits) other stakeholders, especially employees.
  • Mercenary corporate leadership is stealing from shareholders with absurd compensation and severance packages that are not tied to performance. The “robber barons are back!”
  • The old corporate silos have been replaced by horizontal slabs of concrete separating executives from their employees and the real operating issues.
  • “Human resources” is a term that dehumanizes human beings. It makes it easier to treat people like other “resources” to buy, sell, use and dispose of them. It’s like describing airline passengers as “self-loading cargo”!
  • Corporations need to remember that customers are people too. They are not just another asset to be exploited.

Professor Mintzberg also suggested some remedies to avoid the great depression of 2008:

  • Stop being misled by the apparent productivity gains and profitability of large American corporations.
  • Get the mercenaries out of the executive suite and add employee voices in the boardroom.
  • Stop running businesses to satisfy financial analysts or investors with no interest in anything except short-term results.
  • Install real corporate leadership that is concerned, engaged, and modest. (Interestingly close to Jim Collins description of Level 5 Leadership from “Good to Great”.)
  • Ignore the obsession with measurable factors and reconsider the immeasurable – values, benefits and impacts of economic activity.
  • In the larger context, get back to a better balance of the three sectors in society – public, private and social.

His full commentary is available at How Productivity Killed American Enterprise.

Lots to think about and to influence if we can.

It may seem like we are getting more done by multitasking but maybe we would be more productive and deliver better results by focusing on one thing at a time.

I’m guilty of needing to keep all my faculties engaged by doing at least two things at once. Reading the paper, eating breakfast, listening to the radio would be typical. On Sunday night I’m switching between doing my blog, watching the hockey game and talking to my son in Vancouver. Probably not focusing adequately on any one of them but feeling productive by doing several things at once.

Also working on two interesting books at the same time. Jim Collins “Good to Great” and Henry Mintzberg’s “Manager’s, Not MBA’s”. Both have quite controversial and and unconventional points of view. Collins’ research on companies that have gone from poor to exceptional performance concludes that none of them brought in celebrity CEOs that made big breakthrough strategic moves. Mintzberg makes a strong case against the value of an MBA for future managers and the damage done by the emphasis on analysis and bold strategic decisions by MBA trained executives. They would both suggest the recent history of HP under Carly Fiorina proves their point. She apparently disagrees.

Can we learn anything good from the celebrity CEOs that get so much attention as visionary leaders with exceptional entrepreneurial skills? I would say yes we can extract some useful ideas from their business strategies and tactics, but their are two important things to remember. First, their unique personalities and skill sets have a lot to do with their success (and their notoriety) and cannot be replicated. Second, their industry and company knowledge and experience may not translate into success in another company. That lesson has been very expensive to learn for many Boards of Directors and Shareholders. Think HP or Home Depot.

That’s all for tonight. My battery is dying and Calgary-Detroit are in overtime!