Captured by Management

A few weeks back I was fortunate to hear Richard W. Leblancrenowned York University professor and author of “The Handbook of Board Governance.” The forum was a CBC discussion pertaining to the 2018 Ontario Election and the controversy surrounding not only the partial sale of Hydro One, a lightning rod of provincial politics but, more importantly, how the organization had been “captured by management” – resulting in one failure after another (including the now infamous $25,000 pay increase to board members).  This phrase has stuck with me and inspired this post.

Working for nearly two decades in the corporate world, building and developing a number of small businesses I thought I had a very clear perspective of what “management” was all about. As an owner I was constantly looking for motivated, intelligent, and innovative “managers” willing to take on challenges and deliver on the vision set by those in leadership. I relied on this team to in turn work collaboratively with my wider myriad of frontline workers who, at the end of the day, delivered our product to customers. To me, great managers took the initiative, reported clearly, were dually responsive to employees and ownership, and holistically inspired the troops to embody everything the company stood for.  In short, middle managers, for me, were pivotal in delivering success.

Today, my opinion about middle management has changed from an “outcome” point of view. If robust management can produce a general “lifting of the ship,” even in troubled waters, what results when there is an acrid core, a fatalistic or non-engaged troupe unwilling to listen, lead, or even take question? My own transformation of opinion has come in large part due to a change of perspective – from the corporate world to that of the social service / social work world. Working in the world of crisis, as a frontline emergency shelter worker, I now realize how critical good management is (open, responsive, non-punitive) for clients, and, more importantly, how toxic bad managers / management can be to the overall anatomy of an organization. This is not a specific commentary, but rather a general observation. 

This realization, that entire systems and agencies like Hydro One can be “captured by bad management,” leads me to further think that this is a major contributing factor to an emerging and singular narrative in our communities today – something is seriously broken in our societal foundation. What we are doing, point-blank, is simply not working. Our social, economic, political, and health systems are desperately reacting to one of the greatest crises our world has ever encountered – addiction, mental illness, homelessness – a perfect storm of human chaos seemingly only to be building in momentum.

Yes, there are amazing people, agencies, and places arising to meet today’s greatest challenges; however, where I see a problem is in both a layer of management that 1) doesn’t even care about the real issues in our community, and 2) is infested with toxic people obsessed with power, control, and the growing size of budgets, departments, and authority. This bureaucratic phenomena is nothing new; big organizations always want to get bigger and more complicated so as to justify their existence.

In today’s world, where hundreds of lives are lost everyday to addiction, mental illness, and homelessness a revolution of middle management is needed if change is going to take place.

It is a fascinating thing to realize that often times, in my opinion and experience, the top line of leadership – owners, executives, elected members – is aligned with those out there on the frontline, or at least in theory. How much is lost in translation or diluted through management processes?

In today’s world of marvel and innovation surely there has to be a way to radically transform, or at least inspire middle management to embody a true sense of hope and leadership.