I am a technology person. I am an engineer and I always wondered why people choose to do engineering when they wanted to end up doing a management job by pursuing an MBA degree later. I used to think that management studies are not meant for me. My first job with a Research and Development Organization, and the first prize (a group prize we won for the best presentation) was ‘HBR’s 10 Must Reads – On Managing Yourself’. I did not touch the book for quite some time. When I did, the heavens titled for me. I had no idea that I would want to do a book review when I had ordered the complete set, compelled by the sheer need to gorge into this treasure trove. In fact, it isn’t a book review either. It is more of reflecting on what I read and then what I saw, or found.

Now, I understand why I used to think the way I did. “Engineers and scientists are at home with machines and test tubes and production plants which are testable or manipulatable in lab. Doing this shortchanges the realities of the market. Consumers are unpredictable, varied, fickle, short-sighted, stubborn, this is what engineer managers believe and because they cannot control it, they focus on what they can – product research.”[1]. Go figure! I realize I was wrong. “Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team. More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business mean buying, selling and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.”[2]. I second that. I am fascinated by this field. Not that I am letting go of my technical field and enrolling in management courses, but yes, I am not going to pass on opportunities or discourage engineers from entering this field.

As we climb up the corporate ladder, irrespective of what domain we were entrenched in, we will be managing resources. Even at the bottom of this ladder, we’ve got one huge asset to manage, ourselves. We need to manage ourselves just like a CEO of any company. It is a full time job, no vacations, no breaks. Organizations and organisms are almost similar on multiple aspects, the points of differentiation mainly being in scales and stakes.

With knowledge comes better sight and no one can be as powerful as the person who knows himself, one who can detach himself from his self and watch from the balcony and get the perspective. People have been emphasizing on this very point since time immemorial. ‘Know thyself’ said the Delphic Oracle. I learnt that I need to work on a lot of things. There is consensus that Emotional Intelligence is one of the primary factors that creates good leaders (not necessarily good managers). Self-awareness, Self-regulation, empathy and social skill are its prime constituents and a few of these hardly come by in technical managers. “Top managers frequently put the best technical people in charge, not the best leaders. These technically oriented managers, in turn, mistakenly assume that the ideas will speak for themselves if they are any good, so they neglect external communication. Or they emphasize tasks over relationships, missing opportunities to enhance the team chemistry necessary to turn underdeveloped concepts into useful innovation.”[3].

Also, new managers are often promoted as a result of their individual performances on the front lines, where they’ve been dealing with technical issues. This sudden change of paradigms often stings them into poor performance and getting on top of this tide is a tough nut to crack without proper insight or mentoring. With higher positions come bigger responsibilities and tight deadlines, and seniors put a lot of pressure on them to produce results. ”The natural response of rookies when faced with such challenges is to ‘just do it’, thinking that’s what got them promoted in the first place.”[4] It has roots in some very real fears of losing stature. It is hard to let go of power, our egos are way too big to let someone, a subordinate, steal the show.

This leads us to one of the key takeaway points of this entire series. Without further ado, I will give all of them to you in a rather unconvincing way, the gist that I could make of all these books. For being convinced, I implore you to read them. The first 3 books were the foundations where I read and made a hypotheses of what the authors had been trying to say and in the rest three I was validating my hypotheses. It turns out that it is quite right, if not exhaustive and accurate.

  1. Have some values. It does not matter whether they are right or wrong, but we must have some, and live by them. If anything conflicts with them, we’ve to think about it and act in a way that is consistent with those values. This is how we can be comfortable with ourselves. But be warned, anything that can change with time is not a core value, these are something that will guide us through thick and thin, through life full of rife or revelry and are like the pole star that stays despite everything. “The core values embodied in our credo might be a competitive advantage, but that is not why we have them. We have them because they define for us what we stand for, and we would hold them even if they became a competitive disadvantage in certain situations.”[5] These are not decided on a whim, they need deep thought.
  2. Only when we are true to ourselves can we honestly understand ourselves and be comfortable in our skin. Thus ‘know thyself’ comes when we acquiesce to our mistakes and reflect on them. The only way we learn from mistakes in a way that endures the test of time is to record them. “Those who don't record history are doomed not to learn from it.”[7] This has implications not just in our personal lives but also professional lives. For example, while coding, if I don’t make myself clear through adequate comments on what I am doing and how, then after a few months I cannot comprehend the logic of doing what I did and I think, “was I possessed or what?”. This not only helps in finding out what went wrong, but also helps discover patterns, future problems, scope and ultimately make predictions that are far more reliable than any expectation. This is a field where data analytics companies are minting money (ever heard of SAP?).
  3. Being honest paves the way for the next take away – communication. Most problems that were discussed in these books arose because the organization or the unit was beset with communication problems. “What we've got here is (a) failure to communicate”[Cool Hand Luke]. “Failure to ask reflects human stupidity less than it reflects human history.”[6]. This enables us to make bonds, to reach out in times of trouble, in being more effective as a team and developing trust. Also, a leader’s vision is of no use if it cannot permeate into every nook and cranny of the transformation he seeks. Personal egos or interests come in the way of communication. Thinking that knowledge is power, we often exercise discretion in disseminating all the information to the people concerned and withhold some vital parts of information so that our egos are fed when people flock to us for that resource. Being a genius is good, but trust me, once you are the jack of all trades, you will be fighting fires more often than doing what you are supposed to do and in essence, hurting yourself mentally and professionally.
  4. All of this easily extends to encompass entire organizations. Knowing what we can do also defines what we cannot do. This is a central theme of carving an indomitable niche in the market through strategy. “Anybody can survive some way or the other, even the skid row bum. The trick is to survive gallantly, to feel the surge of commercial mastery: not just to experience the sweet smell of success but to have the visceral feel of entrepreneurial mastery”[1].

Even the noblest of intentions fail to bear fruit due to lack of one thing or the other. It is hard to let go of ego; but it is equally important to understand that the ‘command and control’ operational hierarchies of the late 70’s and 80’s don’t work today. Today is the time of knowledge workers and knowledge economies. Every individual in the organization holds some information over which he has exclusive access. In order to use that information, we’ve got to make them speak up, not with fear or apprehension, but with a trust of fair treatment and acknowledgement of their efforts. “Knowledge workers outlive organizations, and they are mobile”[6].

I felt that the first 4 books “The Essentials, On Managing Yourself, On Managing People and On Leadership” contained everything that would be said in the remaining two. You relate to these things more when you see them in action. And do you know what would be the best place to learn? The place that has many wrongs waiting to be turned right.

What is my suggestion after having read them? They are definitely a good read if you are looking for guidance. While some articles (mainly collaborations or case studies of how the programs devised by the authors worked wonders) did beat around the bush, it is the veterans like Christensen Clayton, Kaplan and Norton, Kotter, Peter Drucker and many others who moved my heart through beautiful prose in argument. A real story is often more influential than those with ‘A construction company in America’ type of themes and yet some researchers have used the latter. To me, this reduced the credibility, though I understand that the research might be under a Non-Disclosure Agreement. If we analyze closely, many of the features have just been given different names, sold under different change management initiatives by different people, but actually, they are the same, revolving around the top 4 points (and Emotional Intelligence).

While I might not become a leader after reading these books, I find ample guidance to consider and have identified many holes in my façade. I cannot sell myself like many people can. (aah I almost forgot, Marketing and Selling are like heaven and hell, while Marketing is creating something that a customer wants, i.e. it has its source in their needs, selling is tricking the customer to exchange the coin in their pocket for our services or product. And that is the beauty of Marketing, the intentions are noble.) I cannot even tell you personally that “Hey, I wrote this book review and I think you must read it”, even with a “Please” injected in between. I have ego issues too and I am a control freak. I want that heaven and I want it now. But I also understand that a strand can be stretched only as much it can take. Only through a keen eye and experimentation can we learn. Stereotyping and categorizing is a natural way of the mind to keep itself organized, but this can lead to serious prejudices that interfere with our decision making process. So, challenge every assumption because “In God we trust, everyone else brings data.”[7]

[1] Marketing Myopia, Theodore Levitt, The Essentials

[2] How will you measure your life, Christensen Clayton, On Managing Yourself

[3] Innovation- The classic Traps, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, The Essentials

[4] Saving your Rookie Managers From Themeselves, Carol A. Walker, On Managing People

[5] Building your company’s vision, James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, On Strategy.

[6] Managing Oneself, Peter Drucker, On Managing Yourself

[7] Competing on Analytics, Thomas H. Davenport, The Essentials