The Manager’s Job 1.

From a student of renowned Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, as reported in Lane Cooper's 1917 Louis Agassiz as Teacher:

"I had assigned to me a small pine table with a rusty tin pan upon it. When I sat down before my tin pan, Agassiz brought me a small fish, placing it before me with the rather stern requirement that I should study it., but on no account talk to anyone concerning it, nor read anything relating to fishes until I had his permission to do so. To my inquiry, 'What shall I do?' he said in effect: 'Find out what you can without damaging the specimen; when I think you have done the work I will question you.' In the course of an hour I thought I had compassed the fish. I was anxious to make a summary report and get on with the next state of business."

But Agassiz paid no attention to his student that day, the next, or during the following week. So the novice, after suppressing his impatience, took another look, and then another. To his surprise, he learned more: "I set my wits to work upon the thing, and in the course of 100 hours or so though I had done much—a hundred times as much as seemed possible at the start."

Agassiz eventually responded: "On the seventh day came the question, 'Well,' and my disgorge of learning to him as he sat on the edge of my table puffing his cigar. At the end of the hour's telling, he swung off and away, saying, 'That is not right.'"

Reluctantly, the student went back to his rusty tin pan. After another week of hard, silent labor, he had results that astonished him and passed muster with his taciturn teacher. Agassiz acknowledged the student's success by bring him a big pile of bones, with the order to sort them out.

Much more agonized examination was in store, with stupendous results: "Two months or more went into this second task with no other help than an occasional looking over my grouping with the stereotyped remark: 'That is not right.' Finally the task was done and I was set upon a remarkable lot of specimens representing 20 species of the side swimmers. I shall never forget the sense of power which I felt in beginning the more extended work on a group of animals. I had learned the art of comparing objects, which is the basis of the naturalist's work."

The manager is in fact a teacher, akin to Louis Agassiz. She or he has, in effect, only one objective: pursuing improved performance by fostering long-term personal (and team) engagement, learning and continuous development. There is in fact no other path than deep immersion and indeed frustration to master any topic, in 1917 or 2010, from the nature of a lab specimen or the intimate workings of some small part of the firm's purchasing activity. Hence the de facto goal of the superior manager is to more or less create a workplace that mimics the peerless Agassiz's lab.

I have become obsessed with the idea and professional practice of helping, partially as a result of ingesting Ed Schein's magisterial book Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help , mentioned here before. Helping is a profession, in fact the primary task of the manager. Helping, like listening, can be mastered—through hard and sustained work, not unlike that of our budding professional zoologist.

Tom Peters posted this on June 25, 2010, in Leadership.
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