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Leadership theories: What they don't teach in management training

Often management training glosses over the critical thinking skills needed to institute organizational leadership, according to Esther Derby. She explains more in this Q&A.

“I suspect most management training programs do attempt to teach organizational leadership and improvement programs--under some definition,” says Esther Derby, but then adds, “In my experience, that definition usually doesn't include seeing and steering the system.” 

She's been a programmer, manager, internal consultant, and, for the past fourteen years, an independent consultant for companies from Wall Street to your street. Along the way, Esther Derby managed to co-found the Amplifying Your Effectiveness (AYE) Conference, serve on the initial board of directors of the Scrum Alliance, and yes, even fill a current board member seat for the Agile Alliance.

This year, at the Agile2011 conference, she'll be presenting a talk entitled "Seeing and Steering Systems;" here is an excerpt from her abstract:

When managers get out of the day-to-day work and focus on leading and improving the organization, they need a different set of tools. These tools aren’t new; but, they haven’t been widely taught in management training programs. These tools help leaders at all levels move beyond “telling & selling,” and provide a way to influence patterns of behavior, understand causes and effects, and generate options for action...

Matt Heusser: Your abstract starts out by telling us that management training programs don't teach organizational leadership or improvement programs. Can I ask for a bit of contrast; what do those programs teach, and how is what you are suggesting different?

Esther Derby: Hmm. What I intended to convey is that to work on the organization, managers need a different set of tools than those that are necessary when managers focus on the day-to-day work. Those tools aren't widely taught.

I suspect most management training programs do attempt to teach organizational leadership and improvement programs-- under some definition. In my experience, that definition usually doesn't include seeing and steering the system. When people in management roles don't have those tools, they tend to rely on telling and selling. They don't build in system feedback loops. They pull the wrong levers, or pull the right levers too hard.

But, you've reminded me of the management training I attended when I was promoted to my first management role. The thing that stands out for me-- after all these years--  is being instructed on how to fill out a staff requisition form in quadruplicate, where to send the goldenrod copy, the pink copy, etc. Absolutely absurd! They were teaching people who were presumably intelligent and responsible enough to act as an agent of the corporation how to fill out forms.

It would have been more useful to teach us how to think about the skills, qualities, and preferences needed to do a job, or how to interview and audition candidates.

Perhaps they assumed we knew the difficult stuff, but needed help with the mindless stuff. Perhaps they only knew how to teach mindless stuff, so that's what they taught. Perhaps they valued forms over understanding the work, and hiring people who were a good fit.

That course didn't teach organizational leadership, improvement programs or any useful management skill. So I learned on my own, and from mentors outside the company. I hear similar stories from many people who moved from technical roles into management roles.

Heusser: About that first management training seminar -- the one where they taught you how to fill out a staff requisition form. Can I ask -- did they ever tell you how to decide if you needed additional staff, or, when interviewing, how to decide if a candidate was worth hiring? (That's one of my pet peeves with training programs: Giving you the template, but not explaining how to make the tough decisions.)

Derby: Nope. Really, that training was an almost perfect model of what not to do. It reduced management to forms, templates, and checkboxes-- which couldn't be further from the essence of management.

Heusser: You also founded the AYE conference, or "Amplifying Your Effectiveness." Can you tell us a bit about AYE, what does it do, what is its mission, and what differentiates it from other technical conferences?

Derby: A group of us started the AYE Conference in response to our experience both as participants and presenters at other conferences. We were all doing experiential and simulation based training in our consulting practices. So we knew how much more effective, meaningful, sticky, and fun it was. When we started the conference in 2000, it was unique. Now, most of the tech conferences have at least some experiential sessions. We are still unique, in our focus on human interactions and human systems in technical contexts.

In part two of this two part interview, Heusser questions Derby about three tools used to provide a systematic view when encountering organizational change, Eoyang CDE, Expand the Problem Horizon, and Finding Factors.

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We need more articles like that.
First of all, they do well in breaking the assumption that leading and managing is a "natural" skill, and people should be selected instead of being trained.
Second, wanna-be managers need to learn systemic thinking.
Third, to manage others effectively, people must manage themselves effectively in the first place.