How I Learned About Management

Last Updated Sep 28, 2011 3:51 PM EDT

How I Learned About ManagementIf you think successful managers learn their trade from business schools or books, think again. I'm sure some do, but I guarantee that the vast majority don't.

Years ago, when I first started writing about my experiences in the business world, my mother surprised me with an odd question:

"How do you know all this stuff?"

It's as if she just woke up one day and, confronted with irrefutable evidence that her son had actually made something of himself, couldn't reconcile how in the world that could have happened.

I mean, she must have known that I was up to something all those years - climbing the corporate ladder with ever more impressive titles, quotes in the press, TV appearances, and all that - but I guess it sort of snuck up on her.

In all fairness, it is a valid question that I've been asked more than once. So, here's how a guy from an ordinary working-class American family learned about management and how, by extension, anyone can:

From Bosses - Good and Bad
The most important thing I didn't say in Busting the Bad Boss Myth is that, when you judge bosses too harshly, have unrealistic expectations, or stereotype them as good or bad, you sort of miss out on the most important thing: listening and learning how management, business, and companies actually work.

Like it or not, your bosses are the number one source of management knowledge. Just because your boss is a jerk and you don't like the way he micromanages you doesn't mean you shouldn't be a sponge when it comes to learning everything you can from him.

Contrary to so much of the eyeball-catching rhetoric all over the blogosphere these days, you can indeed learn positive lessons from bosses who exhibit qualities you don't necessarily like. I know I did. And, what you do with the knowledge is entirely up to you.

It also helps to learn from bosses at different levels and in different sized companies. In a startup, for example, you might work directly for a CEO and learn more about how all the different functions and aspects of a company are run. In a larger company you'll learn processes and methods for improving organizational effectiveness and productivity. It's all good.

I, for one, also learned a great deal from bosses who weren't my boss, i.e. my peers, board directors, executives I've consulted with, and of course, my employees.

From Doing Business in the Competitive Marketplace
Contrary to so much of the leadership fluff and contrarian headlines we're all bombarded with these days, next to your bosses, the most important source of management knowledge comes from doing business in the real world: winning and losing, competing in the marketplace, negotiating deals, making and marketing products, and serving your customers.

Every current or aspiring manager who has never engaged directly with customers, never carried a bag, never built and marketed a product or service, will forever be missing a big chunk of the management picture, in my view.

I also learned more about management from making mistakes than from doing things right, from losing rather than winning. After all, failure is how we learn. Failure teaches us how to do things differently. How to do things better. It's for that reason and that reason alone that competition brings out the very best in managers and business people.

From Teachers
Come on, you weren't really buying that, were you? Actually, I didn't learn a single thing about management in college or grad school, but I did learn quite a bit in the New York City public school system. My high school teachers were some of the best "management" teachers in my life.

They taught me how to groom talent, as they were surely grooming me. How to hold people accountable, the way they held my feet to the fire when I thought I could rest on my laurels or started to screw up. They also taught me the importance of humor and humility in the way they motivated students.

Speaking of teachers, I can't forget my parents, who taught me the importance of work ethic and how to tell right from wrong. These days, I actually feel less proud of what I accomplished and more proud of how I accomplished it, with hard work and a solid value system. That came entirely from them.

From Life
If it comes as a surprise - that management insights come from real life and vice versa - then you really need to listen up.

When you manage, you manage people. When you lead, you lead people. Sure, you're also managing a business or a function, but it's also an organization made up of people. Likewise, your customers and competitors are all people.

So, to the extent you spend your life with people - as opposed to sitting in front of a display of some sort - that will inform your management ability. What works and doesn't work in your personal life also applies to management.

Life lessons are work lessons and vice versa. It's all about people, and understanding what drives them and motivates them contributes to a skill-set you use as much 9 to 5 as nights and weekends.

From Yourself
Guess what? Some of the most important lessons you'll learn about management and leadership aren't about others, but about you - what motivates you and makes you tick. You see, the more self aware you are, the more consistent that is with how others see you, the more comfortable you are in your own skin, the better you'll be at managing and leading others.

This proverb from the Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu says it all:
He who knows men is clever;

He who knows himself has insight.

He who conquers men has force;

He who conquers himself is truly strong.
Last word. Obviously, there are specific qualities that make some people better managers than others. It helps if you have a thing for people, a thirst for knowledge, and are unusually driven to better yourself and succeed, come hell or high water.

That said, the knowledge has to come from somewhere, and when it comes to management, the broader and more diverse your range of knowledge and experience, the better. How well you listen and learn will make all the difference.

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