Corner Office-Should Management Be a Profession?

Corner Office-Should Management Be a Profession?

Management is integrative thinking, not deep professional skill.

Many business leaders, politicians, and business educators are seeking the root cause of the Great Recession. Some are blaming MBA programs for not teaching the right management skills and ethical standards. Some blame business leaders who failed to regulate behavior in their own industries. Some are advocating for more government regulation.

The problem is that these finger pointers assume that managers are members of a profession, similar to doctors or attorneys. It’s true that many business leaders have graduate degrees like physicians and lawyers. But running a business isn’t like performing surgery or writing legal contracts, which require deep expertise in a specific subject. Rather, business leaders must be wide-ranging integrative thinkers, dealing with many complex issues simultaneously. I don’t expect everyone will agree that management is not a profession, but the distinction between requiring deep knowledge in a particular subject versus integrative thinking is at the core of the debate.


Not a New Debate

In 1922, in the first issue of Harvard Business Review, professor John Gurney Callan said that business may be thought of as a profession, and that “we may profitably spend a good deal of time in considering what is the best professional training for [those] who are to take important executive positions.” A novel concept in 1922, the idea of a professional versus a manager has evolved since then.

It took 24 more years before Peter Drucker introduced the idea of management as a discipline in his 1946 book Concept of the Corporation, the first study of a big corporation (General Motors). Drucker spelled out the professional manager’s role as a leader and decision maker.

While studying Alfred Sloan, the CEO of General Motors, Drucker defined the basic concepts of management, including organization, planning, strategy, measurements, and decentralization. These concepts were a foundation for our country’s economic leadership in the post-war years and after (until the Japanese improved upon these concepts and became an economic superpower).

Drucker’s concept of the professional manager evolved as business became more intricate. In 1990, he wrote an introduction to a new edition of Alfred Sloan’s My Years with General Motors, first published in 1963. Drucker wrote that for Sloan, the discipline of management was a distant second to the profession of the manager. Sloan believed that intangible things such as his ability to lead and exhibit high ethical standards were more important than his management skills.

Drucker advocated in other writings that managers should be professionals and that the ultimate would be to create a system similar to medical or legal professions, in which managers would need to obtain a certain level of education and a license to practice. If a manager failed to act in an ethical and responsible manner, his or her license could be revoked.

Recent unethical behavior by business leaders has again raised the idea of making management a “proper” profession. But despite my devotion to Drucker, I have to agree with an article in the July-August 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review, titled, “No, Management is Not a Profession.” The author, Richard Barker, a professor at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, wrote, “Management is not a profession at all and can never be one. The manager is a jack-of-all-trades and master of none—the antithesis of the professional.”


A Conductor, Not a Violinist

Does this topic really matter to a leader’s everyday work, or is it just something for business school professors to write about? I say it does matter, because it has a lot to do with how leaders think and make decisions.

For instance, when launching a new product, the CEO will be more successful by not trying to be an expert about every facet of the product—the market research that defined its features, the technology used to develop it, the manufacturing processes that produced it, and its sales, marketing, and distribution channels. Instead, the CEO’s most important contribution is considering all these inputs, combining them, and creating a superior result.

Most people, including proper professionals, avoid complexity and ambiguity. We like things to be clear and simple, and often force complex issues into defined boxes in our minds in order to make a decision. We tend to think there is always a choice between the “right” way or “wrong” way.

But the most effective business leaders are the ones who actually delight in chaos. They can swirl those opposing forces around in their minds. They know there’s not always a “right” or “wrong” choice, but an answer that’s a hybrid of all the possibilities. Managers, not professionals, have the ability to see problems as a whole, examine how all the parts fit together, and how seemingly little decisions affect one another. They generate innovative solutions that are better than the either-or choices.

Integrative thinking isn’t something that can be taught in business schools as a standard for a professional “license to manage.” Business management is just not that simple or definable. The manager is like an orchestra conductor who integrates the woodwinds, brass, percussion, and string sections to play a Stravinsky composition. While the conductor must understand the basics of how to play the violin or the oboe, it’s more important to integrate the pieces into a whole, so that the output is melodic. Integrative thinking, not professional skill, is the essence of management.

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