Friday, April 8, 2011

Michael Bloomberg's Mismanagement

With one hand he was showing her the door. With the other he was proclaiming her “a phenomenally competent manager.”

Yesterday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg fired his beleaguered school’s Chancellor, Cathie Black.

Having gotten into city government after a stint as chairman of Hearst Corp, Black lasted slightly more than three months on the job.

In that time she managed to offend just about everyone, to convince most of her senior staff to head for the exits, and to demonstrate that, as John Podhoretz explains, managing a business is not the same as managing a government bureaucracy. Link here.

The point has considerable merit and deserves attention. More so, at a time when many Americans are considering whether or not it might be a good idea to make a corporate executive the nation’s chief executive.

In marked contrast to our current president, business executives have serious managerial skills. Whether we are talking about Mitt Romney or Donald Trump or even, for those whose remember, H. Ross Perot, these men have run successful businesses.

Why would one not think that they could not run the federal government? At the very least, they could run it better than the current occupant of the oval office. It would take some considerable effort not to clear that low barrier.

Podhoretz wants to emphasize the salient point: your ability to manage in one domain does not necessarily mean that you can manage in another.

Being a great manager of a media operation does not mean that you can manage an enormous bureaucracy or deal with the public in town meetings.

The same applies in other contexts. Being a great manager at the office does not make you a great manager of your family or your relationships. Just because we comfortably use the same word for these different kinds of management does not mean that we are talking about the same thing.

As Podhoretz writes: “Perhaps Bloomberg was right to think Black was a brilliant private-sector manager (although whether that's true is a matter of some contention among those who have worked for her).

“Where he was disastrously wrong was in believing that someone skilled at selling ad bundles to Madison Avenue for a national newspaper and consumer magazines could bring those skills to bear on raising third-grade reading scores in South Jamaica.”

It is reasonable to ask whether Black was really such a phenomenal manager in her previous jobs. Even if she was, she had no background and no experience in education. Forget about whether or not she knew how to lead a bureaucracy and direct public policy. She had never even worked in a bureaucracy.

Why was she chosen? Perhaps Bloomberg decided he needed to put a woman in the job. If so, then his own managerial skills are sorely deficient.

Or perhaps, Podhoretz suggests, he believed that if his own background in the information business prepared him to be mayor, why wouldn’t Cathie Black’s experience in the information business prepare her to run the school system?

Ironically, many New Yorkers have, until recently, been fairly pleased with the job performance of their mayor. Lately, however, the bloom seems to be coming off the berg and more New Yorkers have turned off to the Bloomberg mystique.

To this New Yorker, it seemed most clear when Mayor Mike, a notably moralistic scold on his best days, undertook to educate the city and the nation in constitutional law during the Ground Zero mosque controversy.

Being a billionaire entrepreneur does not qualify you to negotiate a thorny public policy dispute. It does not make you an authoritative voice on matters concerning the first amendment. Sanctimoniously promoting yourself as an intrepid defender of the constitution does not make you a great manager.

At the time of the controversy, I felt that the mayor was putting himself out front because he wanted to run for president.

If so, the Ground Zero mosque controversy showed that, even with years of experience as mayor of New York, Bloomberg was not ready for national politics.

I thought then, and I think now, that Bloomberg’s empty pontificating showed him to be the slave to intellectual trends. Being a master of the marketplace of business information does not make you anything more than a neophyte in the marketplace of ideas.

For reasons that escape me entirely Bloomberg seems to count himself among those pseudo-intellectuals who believe that if their opinions coincide with those expressed on the New York Times editorial page, then they are serious thinkers.

Podhoretz explains that Bloomberg’s was a conceptual mistake. He believed that the ability to manage in one place meant that a person would be able to manage in a completely different area.

Once you think about it, the point is almost self-evident. Knowing how to coach baseball does not mean that you know how to coach basketball.

You may have taken a course in management, and you may have boned up on all the world’s management, but if you have no experience in the domain where you are working you cannot, as the old saying goes, get from here to there.

Podhoretz explains: “Good management is, of course, key to any successful business-- indeed, any successful enterprise. But there is a problem with the notion that you can be a brilliant manager when you know nothing about the task you are managing. That's what it means to make a fetish out of management. The problem is that it's a ridiculous notion.”

By calling it a fetish, Podhoretz is suggesting a comparison. If a man is a fetishist he is aroused by the presence of his fetish-- be it a shoe or a lace doily-- regardless of the woman attached to it. If he likes to be beaten, he is more concerned with the thrill of the beating than with getting to know the person who is beating him.

More normally, a man will be attracted to a woman, will have an experience with her, regardless of the presence of absence of a fetish object.

Making love to a woman is vastly more complicated than being aroused by a fetish. Using a fetish as a single object for arousal does not teach one anything about getting along, to say nothing of, living with or loving a woman.

The problem is, business and government are not the same thing. There is, with government, a different purpose, a different level of complexity, a different kind of leadership, a different engagement with ideas and with the public.

Podhoretz explains it well: “In hiring Black, Bloomberg was indulging in the conceit, especially popular in times of dysfunction, that government can and should be run ‘like a business.’

“It sounds wonderful, and that's why people fall for it. But it's nonsense.

“Government can't be run like a business. Government is by definition a collective. It's run not to earn a profit or produce goods people want but rather to provide services with money it appropriates for the purpose.

“The questions that government must address are: What services will it provide? How will it provide them? And at whose expense are they to be provided?

“These are practical questions, yes, but they're also moral ones, because government has the power to take people's money, to order their children to attend failing schools and to imprison them if they fail to heed the government's mandate.

“The people who run governments aren't merely supposed to be managers. They're supposed to be leaders who guide the body politic -- while at the very same time serving as the employees of the same body politic they're supposed to lead. It's a rather complicated role.

“Black, who mishandled almost every public interchange with parents, teachers and principals by acting highhanded and condescending, proved to be spectacularly ill-suited for the role. That should have been predictable; after all, running a department of education is typically not an entry-level job.

“Except if you're a managerial fetishist. And the problem with fetishes is that they're no substitute for the real thing.”

Surely, this is something to think seriously about. It might spare us from thinking that since we are currently burdened with a president who has no clue about management we should entrust the presidency to someone who only has experience managing a business. Strangely enough, when it comes to managing the federal government, the one thing we do not need is another neophyte.


vanderleun said...

Perhaps sometime this cult of "management" in all things might reflect that "management" is not the same as "leadership." The first is a skill set and the latter an innate quality. In a few people both co-exist but that is a rarity.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point... it gets confusing these days because our current president does not know how to do either.

It's exceptional to see anyone rise to the top without knowing how to lead or to manage.

David Foster said...

"Black, who mishandled almost every public interchange with parents, teachers and principals by acting highhanded and condescending"

...investors, suppliers, customers, and subordinates in a business usually don't usually enjoy being treated in a high-handed manner, either.

While there are differences in the culture of organizations and of types of organizations, I do think there is a core of management and leadership skills that will serve someone well in whatever kind of organization. Some of these may be learned by education and by extensive reading; mostly, they are learned by doing and observing.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

What I was trying to get at, and what I think Podhoretz was getting at, is that a manager has to know his organization and his industry. He has to have command of the details about the way things function, about the history of the company, about the people he will be working with.

I don't think that anyone can really do that effectively without having had the relevant experience.

It seems, as you suggest, that Black also had a very bad attitude... and that leaves us to wonder how good an executive she really was in her previous jobs. She would not be the first to have been discovered to have crafted an impressive resume on air.

At the least, she seems to have been lacking in humility and in respect for the people she was coming into contact with.

Doubtless, that was a sign of insecurity... or perhaps a fear of finally being found out.

Retriever said...

I thought she was a dumb choice. It's a tough job, and she was a lightweight. As a parent of three kids who have graduated from a (very good) public school system, I would have been LIVID if an ad saleswoman had been put in as a political appointee. Particularly since she sent her own kids to private schools. I have nothing against private schools, but one has to feel that the head of the schools has some skin in the game themself. Otherwise it's like the Big Zeros pontificating about public education but sending their own kids to private school.

As far as management goes, it seems to me that the companies that prattle the most about management are qickest to lay off Americans and busiest outsourcing, whilst going tax free (give me a G, give me an E) so aren't really that exemplary at all. But perhaps I'm jaded since one of those firms bought out and trashed my husband's formerly mighty employer early in our marriage...

If you want a diverting example of how NOT to manage, I just reviewed a fun several hours idiot box viewing, the PBS "Texas Ranch House" reality show. They got a bunch of modern people to live life as if they were ranchers and cowhands in Texas in 1867, having to rope longhorns, make a profit, etc. Really fun watching. The rancher's Xantippe wife from hell...Rancher the World's Worst Manager. Great fun!

Retriever said...

Please excuse my rabid Workers of the World one above--have just had an exhausting week at work....(for which I am of course, dutifully grateful to my wise and benevolent employer)

David Foster said...

"a manager has to know his organization and his industry. He has to have command of the details about the way things function, about the history of the company, about the people he will be working with"...I certainly agree with that. If someone comes in knowing all the answers before he has spent some time learning about the local realities, he's almost certainly going to fail. But there is also the countervailing danger of someone who knows an organization/industry entirely from the inside will tend to share the forms of blindness common within that world.

Cappy said...

Very good posting. Even Neutron Jack Welch indicated that running a government entity is a different funcion than running a business.

Also, for quite a while Management has been almost indentical with reducing head count. That may not produce results in areas such as education, or the military.