Interview with Julian Birkinshaw: On becoming a better boss


Vera: Congratulations on your latest book-‘’Becoming a better boss’’. Where do managers often get it wrong and what needs to change?

Julian: The evidence shows that most of us struggle to do a consistently good job as managers of others.  I use the word consistently here because it’s easy to be a “good boss” some of the time, i.e. when it suits us, but what we need to work on is being a good boss ALL the time.  And to make the point even sharper, I think most managers actually know (intellectually) what they should be doing to get the most out of their employees – it’s about giving people challenging and worthwhile work to do, giving a clear sense of direction but providing people with space to figure out for themselves how to do it, and it is about providing support and feedback when needed. But the surprising thing is how few managers actually do all this on a consistent basis.


Vera: Research suggests that good managers are few and far between. Who is a good manager and what can managers do to establish a constructive and productive relationship with their employees?

Julian: I have described above what being a good boss looks like.  But the point is that most managers don’t do all these things consistently, perhaps because they are busy with other things, perhaps because they don’t have the personal motivation or expertise to do them well.  So the best bosses are actually those who have the “self awareness” to know when they are doing a decent job and when they are not – and to adjust accordingly.


Vera: The responsibility for keeping the employee/boss relationship positive is often put on the employee. Your book takes things from the perspective of the employee. Where is the disconnect between how employees would like to be managed and what managers do and how can any gaps be bridged?

Julian: The biggest gap is that most employees want “freedom” – to figure things out for themselves, to make mistakes along the way, to learn – whereas most bosses keep their employees on a pretty short leash. So this makes one of the biggest challenges for the boss the ability to “let go” – to let employees make their own mistakes, rather than looking over their shoulder all the time.


Vera: What are the signs of poor management and what is the cost of such to any organization and its employees?

Julian: The most common problems are (a) micro-managing employees, almost doing their job for them, (b) providing a complete lack of context or explanation for why a task needs doing, (c) little or no feedback, and (d) getting angry and creating a fear culture among a team of employees.  There is a section in the book where I explain these and other traits as the “seven deadly sins” of bad management.


Vera: Management has always been relegated behind leadership although obviously it should be a symbiotic relationship. What do you see as the unique value in organizations of effective management?  

Julian: I have always seen managing and leading as complementary skills. Leadership is a process of social influence, management is getting work done through others.  If you think about this, even briefly, you will quickly see that you cannot be truly effective without doing both to a good level. An organization with leaders that don’t know how to manage can in fact be a very dysfunctional place to work, just as much as the reverse.


Vera: Bosses in many instances have managers too which should help them appreciate the importance of being well managed. How can managers leverage this dual perspective as boss and reportee?

Julian: Correct, the beauty of any hierarchical system is that we are almost all sitting in a place where we have a manager above us and subordinates below.  So if we are reasonably reflective people, we should be able to take insights about how OUR boss is helping (or hindering) us in our work, and apply that learning to how we manage our own employees.  But of course not everyone stops to think about this!


Vera: Research is clear that ‘’Employees leave managers, not organizations’’ and ineffective people management in organizations is not uncommon. What would you say to a CEO who came to you for advice on how to improve people management in their organization?  

Julian: Yes, I agree with this statement.  My advice to any senior executive is that if they want to make their organization work more effectively, there is only so much they can achieve through formal processes and top-down programmes.  Real improvements only happen “through” the line organization, which means putting the right people into management positions, and giving them the right skills and incentives to manage well.  Of course, this also means becoming much more disciplined at moving poor-performing managers out of their roles and into roles they are better suited to.


Vera: What should organizations do in terms how they develop managers to help retain talent, improve productivity and maximize employee potential?

Julian: Like any other activity, managing effectively requires training and reinforcement. So organizations need to provide development opportunities, and ideally this involves having personal coaching for individuals so they can get direct feedback on what they are doing right or wrong.  They also need to provide the right measures and incentives.  If you reward people for their financial results only, they won’t work on the people side of the equation!


Vera: What’s the deepest insight you’ve personally had and used to build better relationships with your bosses that has been consistently effective?

Julian: In my first management job, I allowed myself to be pushed around by those above and below me! So this taught me that you always need to take a position, to have a point of view, and to articulate that to those around you.  (We can call this leadership if you like).  This allowed me to improve the quality of the relationship with my boss, because I could then explain to him what I was trying to do, and I could decide which “battles” to fight, and which ones to concede.



Julian’s profile

Julian Birkinshaw is Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Director of the Deloitte Institute at the London Business School.  He is a Fellow of the British Academy, a Fellow of the Advanced Institute of Management Research (UK), and a Fellow of the Academy of International Business. He is co-founder with Gary Hamel of the Management Lab (MLab), a unique partnership between academia and business that is seeking to accelerate the evolution of management.. He has PhD and MBA degrees in Business from the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario, and a BSc (Hons) from the University of Durham. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Stockholm School of Economics, 2009. He is the author of twelve books, including Becoming a Better Boss (2013), Reinventing Management (2010), Giant Steps in Management (2007) and over eighty articles. Professor Birkinshaw was ranked 39th in the 2013 “Thinkers 50” list of the top global thinkers in the field of Management. He is regularly quoted in international media outlets, including CNN, BBC, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, Bloomberg Business Week and The Times. He speaks regularly at business conferences in the UK, Europe, North America and Australia.


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