Correcting Misconceptions About ‘People-Centered’ Managers

Tom Peters

Regaining competitiveness through improved quality, customer responsiveness, innovativeness, and productivity requires a wholesale commitment to putting our work force front and center. Value added through people much more than through machines must become the nation’s economic rallying cry. That has been a constant theme in this column. Furthermore, I’ve argued management practices need total revamping to execute such a force- or people-centered strategy.

So what are the characteristics of a people-centered manager? Conventional wisdom holds that this emerging new breed “is warm and tender,” “gives pats on the backs a lot,” “sets easy goals,” “removes rigid systems such as management by objectives,” “acts as a helper and friend.” That’s precisely wrong, in my opinion. The best people-centered managers are, instead, a no-nonsense lot:

1. They work with employees to set exact, demanding goals. They routinely challenge every person to exceed his or her highest personal expectations.

2. They model exorbitantly high standards. They demand a lot, but show by energetic example that they exceed the standards they demand—daily.

3. They delegate. Once standards are demonstrated clearly,
workers—whether bellhops, dispatchers, or junior managers—are set out on their own to constantly innovate. Moreover, at the first sign of trouble these managers do not readily rescind authority they have delegated.

4. They clear hurdles from the employees’ path. Their penchant is
to make every person successful by sweeping away excuses. They fight daily to eliminate Mickey Mouse rules and regulations, such as excessive written reporting requirements and low spending authority that requires endless approvals of every motion.

5. They don’t tolerate inaccountability and don’t suffer bureaucrats lightly. The people-centered manager considers it a cardinal sin when anyone displays petty bureaucratic behavior, especially turf-guarding. They hit the ceiling whenever a subordinate reports, “I’m still checking it out,” “It’s being staffed further,” or “Accounting (purchasing, etc.) held me up for six days.”

6. They’re obsessive about trying things—acting fast, testing. Action comes first, last, and in the middle on their list of priorities. They would be the first to salute the wonderful phrase I just heard, “fail forward,” which means to act fast and adjust fast after the inevitable setbacks that come from a real-world trial. People-centered managers really get peeved when someone fails to move forward, for any reason.

7. They provide all the tools in order, once more, to destroy excuses for inaction. They fanatically insist that workers are constantly trained and retrained. They also provide the best equipment. For instance, they spur 100 percent self-inspection of quality by providing each person with state-of-the-art measurement gear.

8. They motivate through an inspiring vision. Whether a hotel’s housekeeping department, a plant’s maintenance group, or molecular biology lab, they create a worthy challenge in as large a context as possible—for instance, provide the best check-in service of any hotel, at any price, in the greater Cincinnati area.

9. Above all, they respect each individual and see enormous potential in the average person. Now that doesn’t mean they are sweet, warm, gooey, or tender. They probably don’t hug much, and they may or may not pat people on the back often. But whether they are soft- or hard-hearted, they do something much more important—in a host of ways, each day, they unmistakably demonstrate belief in the talent of and concern for the dignity of each worker.

Retailer Nordstrom, high technology firm W. L. Gore & Associates, and steel maker Nucor Corp. are on most lists of best-run firms and best firms to work for. Yet the three companies have reputations for being tough-minded environments not for the faint of heart. Nordstrom provides lots of support in a bureaucracy-free environment; and then expects front-line people to sell, sell, sell. Gore keeps Mickey Mouse to a minimum, too; and then insists that every person—whether receptionist, factory hand, or bench scientist—be an innovator/risk taker from day one of his or her employment. Nucor offers sky-high, team-based financial incentives; resultant peer pressure to perform is legendary.

Each of these firms, and their management, has an abiding regard
for every employee. They provide the conditions to enable employees to do well; they remove all the excuses that impede solid performance. And then they demand that each person come through.

We desperately need people-centered management. But it’s not what
most think. Instead of being warm and fuzzy, it’s demanding in the context of deep esteem, the provision of supporting tools and training, the absence of silly and unnecessary procedures, and guidance by a worthwhile vision for personal and organizational achievement.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications.

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