Role of the Manager in Organisations: Revisiting the Basics

30 Sep 2013

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By Wale Fawehinmi

There is little doubt that management practice in Nigeria has been on an upward trajectory in the past two decades. To be sure, we have a globally ranked business school; and have in the recent past, witnessed an upsurge in the number of Nigerians attending cutting edge management programmes at some of the world’s finest institutions; ramping up their knowledge of best practises in the process.

The thrust of this article, however, is to caution practitioners of management that it is all too easy to be caught up in management ideas that are oversold as mould-breaking, but which ultimately turn out to be the next perishable fad. The insight I see as transplantable from my medical background to the discipline of management is that new ideas do not necessarily supplant tried and tested approaches. Going forward, this article should provoke thoughtful deliberation in the manager’s mind as to what exactly their functional roles are in an organisation.

In his widely acclaimed Management book of 2007, titled ‘The future of Management’ London Business School theorist, Gary Hamel, reminds us that the driving force behind the creation of modern management was the need for a solution to the intractable problem of inefficiency in organisations. Furthermore, he suggests that the chief threat to the performance of organisations, in the future, will be from a failure to recognise that their management models had become outdated.

The central thesis of the book is that future organisations will have to be far more adaptable than they currently are; by constantly renewing management processes and practices in order to survive. Hamel’s position has that familiar metaphoric ring of Darwinian logic to it. The view of this writer however, is that Hamel’s position must be regarded as highly contextual.

Regardless of my receptivity to his convictions in broad terms, I consider his postulations to be grounded on observations of the trend of management practices in mature western economies. As a point of departure from his perspective, I will argue that in emerging markets like Nigeria, managers cannot afford to get ahead of themselves by adopting sophisticated management practices too hurriedly.

Put another way, the basics of management remain relevant and are too important to discount. Given the constraints of word limitation in writing a newspaper column, it is a tall order to adequately discuss the role of the manager in the attainment of organisational goals. Be that as it may, a concise treatment of the subject that captures its essential elements, will suffice.

During my MBA studies, I was intrigued by a particular investigation carried out about a decade ago by Prof. Peter Sassone at the  Georgia Institute of Technology, which provided compelling evidence that a sample of middle managers in the USA spent just a quarter of their time actually managing. Unproductive activities, according to the study, took up the rest of their time. The conclusion was that managers tend to be more reactive than proactive.

Instructively, other credible studies also suggest that this recognised underperformance of managers is not limited to the USA. If this view is accepted as valid, managers need to look inwards and re-connect with the roles they are expected to play in their organisations.

What then is management and what precisely is the role of a manager? Henry Fayol in 1917 described the work of management as a process of “Planning, organising, commanding and controlling.” Ascribing more importance to the human side of management, Peter Drucker, years later, explicated that “Management is about human beings. Its task is to make people capable of joint performance to make strength effective and their weaknesses irrelevant”

Whilst Fayol and Drucker’s description function of management is helpful, it’s more important in practical terms for managers to be clear about their roles in pure play. For our purpose, it is important to situate the discussion in context to illuminate our understanding. Consider a scenario in which you are the Chief executive of a downstream oil company. You have just received the auditor’s reports for the financial year just past; a board of directors meeting is impending; and soon after, your foreign technical partners are due in town to meet over a major investment decision.

To complicate matters, you have a brewing executive compensation situation within the ranks of your senior executives. A close reading of this scenario indicates that in order to get a grip on these interwoven managerial issues, the CEO as a manager, will be  required’ to play several inter-related roles to square the circle. What then are the roles of a manager against this background?

In espousing the roles of a manager I make no claims to any ground-breaking ideas. From my wide reading on the subject, it is my considered opinion that in terms of analytic precision, Henry Mintzberg’s organisation of the diverse activities of a manager into ten distinct roles has the highest explanatory power. With hard to fault clarity, Mintzberg posits that the activities of a manager can be conveniently divided into the following conceptual categories: Informational, interpersonal and decisional.

The natural question then is: What is the applicability of Mintzberg’s theory to the management of the issues confronting our hypothetical CEO. Our CEO will have to act on information from the auditors (manage by information), engage with the board members interpersonally (manage through people) and make decisions on planned investments (manage by taking action).

A deeper appreciation of the roles of the manager can however only be gained if the roles encapsulated under the three sub-headings are further unpacked into the ten constituent activities. Under the informational category, the role of the manager necessitates that he or she must monitor events, disseminate information and be the spokesperson of the organisation. In an interpersonal capacity, the manager must be the figurehead, the leader and the liaison person. Finally in a decisional role, the manager is expected to be an entrepreneur, disturbance handler, resource allocator and negotiator.

In sum, I concede that it will be a daunting task for any manager to competently perform in each of these prescribed roles. There is however much to a gain if every manager reflects on them regularly, and adopts its core ideas as a guiding signpost.              

* Fawehinmi is currently a PhD Researcher in Health Policy at De Montfort University in the UK

Tags: Nigeria, Featuered, Business

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