#55 Hillary & Obama & Your Management Style

by Steven Cerri on April 21, 2008

Presidential management and you.

Hello everyone!

I was listening to National Public Radio (NPR) a couple of days ago to a segment regarding the anticipated management styles of Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The commentators were saying that Hillary has a tendency to be a very “hands-on” manager and Barack tends to be more of a delegator. The commentators continued to wonder how the candidates’ management styles would differ if one of them became president.

Now somewhere along the early portion of this news segment one of the commentators said something that really surprised me. He said and I’m paraphrasing to the best of my recollection, “Barack would probably have a management style that would rely on delegation and Hillary would be very hands-on. In fact, this question, if it’s better to be a hands-on manager or a delegator, is a topic still being debated in business schools. There are plenty of examples where hands-on management works and yet there are plenty of examples where delegation works. It’s still uncertain which is the best approach.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. The idea that someone is still debating which management style is best, hands-on or delegation, is absolutely ridiculous. It shows they don’t understand management.

Let me give you an example that will clarify how I see this whole discussion. Lets assume you are doing research regarding the national spelling bee. Lets say you want to decide what the best age is for children to be in order to win the spelling bee. And lets also say that you’ve got 10 kids who were 10 years old when they won their spelling bees and you also have 10 kids who were 11 years old when they won their spelling bees. And then you say, “It’s not clear which is a better age for winning the spelling bee, 10 years old or 11 years old. The universities are still debating this issue. ”

The answer of course is that if you’ve got kids of both ages winning spelling bees, winning is probably not a function of being 10 or 11 years old.

The same holds true regarding hands-on or delegation management styles. If we have cases of both styles being successful (and of course both styles being unsuccessful as well) then the management style is probably not the determinant of success. DAH! Something else is going on.

So what is the determining factor in the success or failure of hands-on or delegating management styles? What should we be looking at?

Those of you who have been following my blogs for a while know I’ve been talking, at various times, about something called “Contextual Definition©”. Contextual Definition says that the best management style is a function of seven parameters which include the expertise of the direct report, the expertise of the manager, and other parameters derived from the management situation itself.

So depending on the situation, Barack’s delegating style might work or it might not and depending upon the situation, Hillary’s hands-on management style might work and it might not.

Let’s take this one step further. Let’s hypothetically assume that they both got to be president. This means that they both have the same “tasks” to perform, governing the country. Lets assume that regarding the things that need to get done they have the same mandates. How would their respective management styles work given that they both have the same “things to accomplish”?

Barack’s hands off, delegating style would work well only if he selects people to delegate to who are very competent in the areas he has assigned them to. He can only successfully step back if the people he selects to delegate to have a great deal of expertise in their respective areas and if they share Barack’s philosophy, mission, vision, and will communicate back to Barack in a way that provides Barack the visibility he wants. If he selects people who are not extremely well qualified he will end up with what George Bush’s administration has encountered. George Bush has placed in positions of authority people who were not very well qualified and then he has managed them with a generally hands-off management style. If we need examples we need only look to Katrina as the first of many examples.

On the other hand, Hillary should select people to manage her departments who are competent but not too competent. If she is going to use a close, hands-on style with her direct reports, then her staff ought to be just competent enough to implement her wishes and her vision, but not so competent as to have their own vision of what should be done. Or at the very least, they must be willing to forego their own vision of their departments’ direction for hers. If she hires extremely competent people and then manages them too closely, they might feel micromanaged. (More about this in a minute.)

So there you have it. It’s actually very simple. I can’t believe the debate about hands-on or delegation is still going on. The fact that both styles can be found to work means that there are circumstances in which each is best suited.

In my career I always did well with delegation because I always attempted to hire people who were extremely competent for the positions I wanted them to fill. In fact, I often hired direct reports who were more qualified than me in many ways. However, if I ever had a direct report that was in over their head and they were having difficulty I didn’t hesitate moving in and managing them very closely (i.e., more hands-on).

And it was the process of Contextual Definition that allowed me to manage closely, to be a hands-on manager without appearing to be a micromanager. And that is the constant balancing act that good managers must deal with. As a manager your job is to manage a the people who perform the tasks. You hire people with certain qualifications. Those people may be well qualified or they may not. You must manage them so that they can be successful. If Barack has a default management style of delegation that’s a mistake if he hires less than “stellar” people. He won’t always be able to find the perfect person to fill the slot. Therefore, his best management style is one that fits the context. He must be flexible at times managing hands-on and at times delegating.

The same holds true for Hillary. If her default management style is to be hands-on that can also be a mistake. She will undoubtedly at some time hire a person or persons who are extremely well qualified and if she manages them closely they will feel micromanaged. Her best approach is to be flexible enough to adjust her management style to the context as well.

And if you want to know what to do in order to avoid micromanaging your direct reports and if you want to know how to avoid being micromanaged by your manager, check out my new 3-CD set.

I just completed a 3-CD set in which I lay out the complete model of Contextual Definition and Contextual Leadership. It explains and puts to rest this debate about which management style is best. In the final analysis, they all work best, but only in their optimum context.

(I have no information on John McCain’s preferred management style).

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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