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JOHN F. LAWRENCE

Human Touch in a Boss Shows Touch of Class

June 07, 1987|JOHN F. LAWRENCE

Although it was long after normal working hours one Friday evening, a number of people were still at work in the suburban storefront real estate office. An otherwise drab place, with rows of desks too close together, it had an atmosphere of excitement about it. It was an atmosphere created in part by the big bouquet of fresh flowers on each row and the fresh pineapple on each desk.

A young man named Eric emerged from the office and paused to chat with a visitor. "It's a great place to work," he remarked. "Being here is like being at a party."

He added that the owners of the firm use such touches as the flowers and the pineapple to motivate people and that it had helped them to make it big. It gave him the feeling he could make it big, as well. The desire burned so brightly in him that he was willing to extend an already long day to discuss even with a total stranger what it took to run a successful business.

Youthful enthusiasm like that is always infectious and a reminder of what good management can accomplish. It is a reminder, too, that good management isn't comprised only of complicated financial strategies learned in business school but also human touches often not taught anywhere.

Touches like the one displayed by a Los Angeles executive who was sitting with a group of his colleagues and employees at lunch in the corporate dining room. The table was full, and so when he spotted another late-arriving employee forced to sit alone, he excused himself, gathered up his plate and utensils and joined the latecomer at the other table.

Or the managing editor of a Midwestern newspaper who was always mercilessly tough on his reporters' copy but also frequently found the time to invite even the greenest of his staff members to his home for dinner.

Or the auto plant manager who called production workers by name as he made his frequent walking tours of the massive factory.

Defensive Management

Amid the growth of big, impersonal companies and the increasing detachment of top corporate management from the day-to-day doings of myriad divisions, the importance of some of these activities can get lost.

What replaces them, too often, are some of the common traits of bureaucratic executives--defensive management. And it comes in many forms.

There's the department head who felt so insecure in his position that he would never tell those under him where an idea came from, even if it wasn't his own. Hence, his employees would never know when an assignment came from his boss and thus had top priority. And when an employee would write him a memo with a smart suggestion, he would redraft it over his own name before sending it up the line.

Or the university official so concerned about being shown up by subordinates that he hired mostly incompetents.

Contrast such examples with executives who take pains to manage for others rather than for themselves. Instead of fearing the strengths of those beneath them and capitalizing on their weaknesses, these executives make an effort to help employees build on the former and overcome the latter.

The problem with most managers, even in this era of the ubiquitous business school, is that too often they come to the job without much preparation. They have been the best salesperson or a crackerjack accountant, but they have to learn to manage on the job. MBAs generally come to management armed more with money skills than people skills, a problem that cries out for changes in the courses they are offered and required to take in school.

Little wonder then that for starry-eyed up-and-comers like Eric, the question of how to run a business is an imposing one. The simplest answer is that no one style of management is universally successful. The authoritarian approach has been discredited in recent years, but it seems to work as well as the more modern democratic style in some situations.

Either approach, however, can work only if those down the line in the organization believe that those at the top care about them as individuals. For that there is no substitute.

Those flowers and those pineapples are no small thing.

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