What is a manager’s raison d’être?

Tags: Op-ed
What is a manager’s raison d’être?
HELPING HAND: Managers are expected to grasp the ‘big picture’ and from a systems perspective, understand how a decision in one department can potentially affect the entire organisation and the surrounding ecosystem
Sometimes even the most basic question can lead to profound reflections. Recently, in an MBA class, we took a line of questioning that looked at the structural foundations of modern day jobs. The students were asked: what is the job of a police officer? Expectedly, there were different answers, but essentially, these amounted to being the protector of law and order.

But then the question arose: Why does society need law and order? After a few iterations, came the insight that a police officer’s job is to protect the property, limb, and life of the society. What about the doctor’s job? This was relatively easy. Most arrived at the conclusion that the doctor’s job is to ensure good health, prevent disease and save life. We can do this exercise for judges and/or lawyers, teachers, and other professions and find a direct positive correlation with the sublimity called life.

We came to the climax of this line of arguments. The class would be graduating in another three months, and therefore, what does being a manager mean to them? This question became important for another reason. Almost 90 per cent of a typical MBA class comprised graduates with engineering background. So why have they chosen to be managers rather than engineers? After a pregnant silence of a few minutes, some responded that their job would be to bring profits for the firm, or to create value for the owner, or to ensure the sustainability of the firm.

Typically, engineers and scientists are trained to think by slicing or isolating a problem and then applying their technical knowledge to re-solving it. Their tools are logic and deduction using a rational approach. But as they go up the organisational ladder, technical minds need other skills including those of supervising projects, coaching and mentoring, delegating, motivating the team, and leading from the front. This transition is often difficult for engineers and scientists who excel in solving problems while sitting on their computers or in laboratories. So far, they cherished peace of mind, autonomy, and large chucks of undisturbed time. We repeatedly see in our experiences how newly-promoted managers struggle with delegation of tasks and coordination of work.

Can managerial skills be acquired ‘on-the-job’ or do organisations require their growing employees to undergo specialised training? Often it becomes important to unlearn attitudes acquired as an engineer and develop newer perspectives. For instance, spending time with employees, dealing with paperwork, communicating with internal and external stakeholders can take up major part of the day of a manager compared with solving challenging technical problems.

Professional managers are the children of modern-day large corporation. By definition, they work in collectivities — their role magnified as businesses industrialised, became large, diversified, and global. Originally, they were hired by the owner-promoter-investor to manage and supervise the firm as it became too big for one person to manage and control. Modern organisations are complex in nature with high degree of interdependencies and unpredictable behaviour, resulting in emergent strategies. This means managers have to deal with uncertainty and unpredictability. Managers are expected to grasp the ‘big picture’ and from a systems perspective — that is, understand how a decision in one department can potentially affect the entire organisation and the surrounding ecosystem. They have to decide not only on managing cost efficiencies but also on the future competitiveness of the firm especially when planning, strategising, or allocating resources.

Yet, we are still at the basic question: What is a manager’s over-arching, sublime raison d’être? Obviously, it has to be something beyond earning profits for the firm, or improving organisational and resource efficiencies or doing a competitor analysis. Compared with a doctor or police officer, a manager’s values are intertwined with those espoused by the organisation in which he or she is to function.

Thus, it is the duty of every company’s board to articulate clearly: ‘Why do we exist and why should society buy its products or services’? ‘What does it expect from its managers in terms of values, knowledge, and behaviour’? The overarching values determine behavioural boundaries that can resolve situations of conflict of interest and crises. A manager thus cannot act independently at least when it comes to making choices for the organisation.

As just seen, a professional’s raison d’être is to enrich society with his or her services. In that case, it becomes imperative that they ensure quality services at reasonable prices, with minimal damage to the environment. Being an agent of the promoter earning seven-digit salary does not limit the role, responsibility, and accountability of the manager to the society. It also demands a high moral and intellectual contribution. Does this expectation change with major upheavals in newer technologies and globalisation of markets? Once we have a good answer to these questions, perhaps we should revisit the entire MBA curricula.

Jobs, careers, disciplines, specialisation, professions must be linked to core, irreplaceable human values; without that professionals can only become dispensable automata! The road from a seth’s munshi to globe-trotting manager is a long one — but the existential crisis persists.


(The writer is a professor of strategy and corporate

governance, IIM-Lucknow)


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