The Four Most Powerful Lessons in Management

It’s humbling to work with those great men and women whose actions speak volumes. I experienced this in a dramatic way early in my career following the tragic death of a colleague.

My partner and I both felt the loss deeply, but while I sent condolences to her family and expressed heartfelt grief, he turned his grief into action. He flew to the family’s side, assisted with funeral arrangements, and established a scholarship to educate her child. He did all this quietly and without fanfare. His decisive actions put my expressions of sympathy to shame.

I said, but he did.

This realization has shaped my view of management over 40 years and helped me to establish four core principles:

1. Do it — don’t just say it. Ever since my experience with the death of an assistant and friend, I’ve tried to show what I care about instead of just talking about it. Talk is cheap. Have you ever visited one of those companies that posts mission and value statements on the walls? I’ve found that they tend to have cultures that suffer from cynicism — employees are told what the mission is, rather than seeing it in action. When, on the other hand, companies “walk their talk” by investing in team members’ capabilities, they’re likely to inspire both loyalty and commitment.

2. It’s all about people. Great businesses aren’t built on products or services — they’re built on the people who create and use them. In companies, this means that leaders invest in their workforce. With customers, it means that companies invest in deserving long-standing trust and goodwill. Businesses grow when the people who work for them grow. When this happens, people know they’re on a winning team.

3. Meaning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing. If people don’t believe their work has meaning, they’ll either lose heart or find work elsewhere — at great cost to the companies that can’t keep them engaged. The knowledge workers who now shape the business world are effectively volunteers, so it’s up to managers to give them the incentive to stay active and interested. To do that, respect is paramount; as is the message that making meaning – not just money – is a priority for the organization and for its members. As I’ve written before, in great companies, money can never be the ultimate endgame.

4. Talk doesn’t solve problems. Breaking down big, complex challenges into manageable parts makes sense. But analysis is useless if those parts aren’t put back together, and distilled into a solution that’s both innovative and simple enough to execute. Too much analysis and too much complexity do lead to paralysis. Critical thinking can slide into criticism. Polemic is often the triumph of analysis over synthesis. It’s the synthesis of conflicting viewpoints into new ideas, and clear plans, that becomes the groundwork for action. That’s true in both personal situations and in business, when you’re looking for the smart and ethical way forward.

These four principles have kept me from getting bogged down in abstraction and from thinking of people as a means to an end, and they’ve guided me to design meaning into my goals. Leaders and managers who couple these approaches with solid knowledge of the market and a worthwhile product or service will find that, over time, they can’t help but succeed.

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