When I was in the corporate world, we had a saying about a certain kind of manager. “He got results, but he left a trail of bodies in his wake.” In other words, he (or she), as we would have said when I was growing up in Boston, was wicked hahd to work for. By delivering results he may have pleased those above, but generally on the backs of those below. His methods – his treatment of subordinates – were unsound. He could succeed in the short term but likely not the long term. And business of course is a long-term enterprise. Which is why I say the best managers practice “sustainable” management.
What are some of the characteristics of sustainable management? Here are three.
Respect for resources: In all their various forms. Financial resources. Environmental resources. And of course human resources. It’s like the old military saying, “Take care of your people and they’ll take care of you.” It’s only natural: People want to work for, and do their best for, people who treat them with respect. It’s a little like NBA players wanting to play with LeBron James. Overall, he makes the people around him better. It’s a better experience. There’s a higher probability of success.
Approach to risk: The best managers have keen consciousness of risk. They’re not overly risk averse, just aware of it. How quickly we forget 2008, when by a kind of collective managerial amnesia, excessive financial risk nearly brought the global economy to its knees. And risk of course exists every day at the micro, not just macro, level. A tasteless ad can damage a brand. Lack of quality control can damage a product. Inattention to safety detail can create a consumer hazard. Good managers at all levels understand that sustaining a company’s strength tomorrow depends on being well aware of risk today.
A long-term rather than short-term perspective: The most thoughtful managers have long time-horizons. They know that in the big picture the best successes aren’t just minute-to-minute wins, but something replicable. An example comes from the life insurance business, where I worked for many years. Life insurance companies can always sell more product and increase revenue by relaxing underwriting standards and undercutting competitors with cheaper, actuarially unsound products. But what happens down the road when a bad book of business deteriorates and an excessive number of claims result? Will the company still be strong enough to pay all of them? Whatever the industry, management practices have to be sustainable – not just for a day or a month or a year, but far into the future.
The best managers will often do their jobs for a long time. Not by leaving bodies in their wake but by ensuring the people in those bodies want to come back and do their best tomorrow. And the day after that.
By Victor Lipman
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