Management skills

As some of you know my next book is set in New York City in the early 1930s. I’ve been reading many accounts of the Great Depression, learning what happened. The why it happened is a lot harder to understand than the effects. But the current world-wide financial crisis means that there are many people speculating about what happened back then and how it relates to now. Great for my novel!

I was fascinated by Background Briefing’s recent documentary about the emergence of business schools and their effect on corporate culture and its relationship to the current crisis: “MBA: Mostly Bloody Awful“. This program is genius and you must all listen to it!

It’s always struck me as strange that someone could walk into an industry, like say publishing, armed with nothing but a degree in management and start managing people without knowing anything about that industry, or what it is the people in publishing do. Why, yes, I have seen this.

I came into the publishing industry knowing a lot about books and reading. I’d even hung out with authors and editors and other publishing folks for many years before I sold my first books. And, yet, I knew almost nothing about the industry. And frankly five years later I’m still learning. So colour me skeptical that a total newcomer to the industry can walk in and start running it. Selling books is not the same as selling sprockets.1

Ditto for any industry. In the olden days people used to start at the bottom and work their way up. It made for bosses who knew everything about their company and their industry. It made for good management. According to the doco bringing in people trained in “management” with no hands on experience has been a disaster.

Which is not surprising—most people in most industries learn how to do their job on the job. A friend of mine’s a doctor. She said she learned more in her first year as a resident than in the many years of her medical degree. And she’s learnt buckets more working in ER and as a GP over the last few years. So is some wet-behind-the-ears MBA type going to suddenly know how to manage a business in an industry they know nothing about?

How does all of this apply to my book? The 1930s is the beginning of the era when business schools such as Harvard’s were beginning to make inroads into general business culture. Okay, slightly tenuous. But, trust me, is all grist to my mill.

Or maybe I just like ragging on MBAs . . .

  1. That goes either way. Of course, now I’m wondering what a sprocket is. []


  1. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    This is simply senseless, Justine. My brother did an MBA, and he now has a flourishing career!

    . . . As a professional poker player. Never mind.

  2. Brendan Podger on #

    Where I work we have the worst of both worlds. Clueless upper management with MBAs etc, and the middle management have been there forever and still operate as if it is twenty years ago – afraid of anything new.

  3. Nicholas Waller on #

    I had a friend who was in college publishing with me, did an MBA and then worked in consultancy on various projects – one for the oil industry, about which she knew nothing. But she’s back in publishing now as a CEO.

    One criticism I saw of MBAs of the case-study variety is that it is backward-looking, much as the armed services are accused of tooling up to fight the last war rather than the next one.

  4. Annalee Flower Horne on #

    Sprockets: in motorcycles, at least, the sprocket is the toothed cog that allows the bike’s chain to turn the back wheel, thus powering it. I assume it’s the same for bicycles, but with a different kind of engine :).

  5. (past) margaret on #

    As a former employee of a B-school library, I can guarantee you, from personal experience, that MBAs *are* mostly bloody awful. Especially to library staff.

  6. Justine on #

    Sarah: Hahahahaha!

    (past) margaret: I will admit that part of my dislike of MBAs comes from having met some truly appalling MBA students back in the day. Worse than the aggies or the engineers by far!

  7. J on #

    Ah, don’t we all wish life worked that way? you could just walk in a room and with your wonderful management skills (which i don’t seem to have yet my groups always make me the leader. poor me.) and sweep up the entire room with your brilliance and MANAGE everything. what a dissapointment. on the bright side, finished my short story! why do so many of my stories end in death? something i must ponder. well, back to the word mines for me.

  8. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    I am currently the property manager at an apartment complex. Anyone want to guess what job I did when I started working there?

    I was the cleaning lady’s *assistant*. I wasn’t even the cleaning lady. I was her helper, which means “go-for and general doer of undesirable things”. I do not think you can go any lower on the apartment complex staff hierarchy.

    Now I am manager, and although I have ZERO schooling in management or business or rental law or any such thing to do with this job, I’m very good at what I do because I’ve been in the middle of it for five years and learned a few tricks along the way. Check my tenant balances and vacancy rate, they are proof of my success in the face of un-business-education-ness.


  9. Nicola on #

    We had a new manager start at our workplace a few months ago having come from another industry and, while none of his eff-ups have been huge, they have been ongoing. When a colleague suggested at a meeting with other management staff that the problem seemed to be that the new manager didn’t seem to understand what we do and what we are trying to achieve she was told, ‘A good manager doesn’t need to know those things.’ WTF?! This is the kind of thing that makes me want to stay in bed, hide under my covers and never come out again.

  10. bookwormchris on #

    I have failed to find a video about sprockets which I have no doubt that you would have found quite amusing.

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