A Superstar Manager

On Monday, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg appointed a new schools Chancellor, Cathie Black, describing her as a “superstar manager who has succeeded spectacularly”. Sounds like a good choice... before you realize that her success has been in publishing, not education. Mayor Mike comes down on the side that believes that good management trumps good domain expertise. So do I. It's an old argument: can a good manager manage anything? I can just hear the shouting now.

Back to basics. Management is the body of knowledge and practice that makes organizations work. The best (________ fill in the blank with whatever domain: accountants, engineers, marketers, bankers, baseball players, teachers, ... you name it) will not spontaneously succeed without effective management. That management is more likely to generate results, quicker, if the manager can relate to what the individuals do and foster the creation of the conditions of success for those individuals. If they can't relate... well good luck with that.  The vast majority of us work in a team sport, so getting the players organized to apply their talents and providing feedback on progress is critical for any manager.

So what does Cathie Black have to do to be successful? She has to be clear on the mission of the schools, and her outsider's perspective will help to take a fresh look at that. In doing so, she would do well to enroll her new colleagues and stakeholders (teachers, administrators, unions, parents, … oh yeah, and the kids) in the dialog, and act as a catalyst for them also taking a fresh look. Getting them enrolled will be her first, and perhaps most important, challenge, for without that, this is going to be a bumpy ride where everyone stands a good chance of losing. Enrolling them will require more interpersonal than educational skills, especially letting everyone see her personal commitment to their joint success. If she's good at this, watch how quickly skeptics drop the argument that she doesn't come from Education.

Once enrolled, all need to generate a clear vision and specific goals, so everyone knows where they're going and what they are committing to accomplish. With the vast resources that exist in a system as large as the New York City public schools, anything is possible, but an org that size makes it a huge change management challenge, so everyone would do well to remember that while they can do it all, they can't do it all at once. Having come that far together, they can generate the strategies, information, and processes to make their vision a reality by enabling the people at the front line of the school system to make it happen, then communicating their expectations for performance. 

Now forget that we're talking about one instance in one place in one sector. The same approach is relevant everywhere, with good managers knowing that they'll have to adapt the approach and themselves to suit the particular circumstances.

That's why I believe good management trumps domain expertise in any field. Those who know me would have predicted that before they started reading.

What do you think? Tell us why.