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An interview with Henry Mintzberg: still the zealous sceptic and scold

Interview by: Robert J. Allio, Strategy & Leadership

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Image: Henry MintzbergHenry Mintzberg is a world-renowned business thinker. He first came to prominence with his book The Nature of Managerial Work. Since then he has written a number of books covering a diverse range of subjects, from corporate strategy to the ordeals of international travel. These include Managers Not MBAs, Tracking Strategies and Managing.

A new compilation of essays titled Management? It's Not What You Think! features thirteen broadsides by the veteran observer and outspoken critic of corporate follies, Henry Mintzberg, Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal.

Edited by Professors Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand, and Joseph Lampel, the collection published by AMACOM also includes brief contributions from sages Peter Drucker, Richard Pascale, David Hurst, Edward Tufte and many others. Strategy & Leadership took the occasion of its publication to chat with Professor Mintzberg about the state of management and management education.

S&L's interviewer was Robert J. Allio, a contributing editor and a founder of the publication. He is the author of The Seven Faces of Leadership.


Strategy & Leadership : In your classic 1973 study on the nature of managerial work, you took contrarian views about what managers really do. How have your perspectives changed since then?

Henry Mintzberg:

My perceptions have evolved, but I'm not sure that managerial practices have changed. Trends have changed, as witness the current emphasis on leadership. Organizations lean one way or another, but the fundamentals are no different. Managers' time is filled with interruption, but basically managing is about influencing actions, working through people and information. Managing can't be programmed or simulated.

Effective managers are connected. They know what is going on in and around their organizations.

S&L: Do you espouse the idea that leadership and managing are different modalities?

Henry Mintzberg:

The notion that one can be a leader and not a manager, originally postulated by Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik, is wrong. An executive cannot lead without managing. If they're not coupled, the organization becomes dysfunctional.

S&L: So how do we teach more effective management? Indeed, can managing be taught?

Henry Mintzberg:

The short answer is no – and the long answer is also no. Managing is a natural practice that cannot be reproduced in the classroom – you need experience to appreciate it. No simulation, no HBS case study can replicate the experience, can communicate the complexity – or rather the intricacy – of managing.

As an alternative to conventional management education, at McGill University we developed an approach to teaching called the International Masters in Practicing Management (www.impm.org). In this programme practicing managers sit around tables, sharing experiences with their peers, reflecting on what they've learned. In this way we give practitioners the opportunity to enhance their understanding and insight.

S&L: Then does management education, as taught in most business schools at the undergraduate and graduate level, have no utility?

Henry Mintzberg:

We can teach undergraduates business – that is, economics, industrial history and other courses – but we can't teach them management. Undergraduate education should teach students how to think, and provide courses in economics, psychology and anthropology, for example. All are appropriate so long as they don't delude students into expecting to leave to go into management positions.

And the MBA is great training for some management functions like marketing or finance or accounting. But mastering those functions does not equate to mastering the practice of managing.

S&L: In the past few years we've witnessed a deluge of programmes that purport to teach leadership. The concept of management appears to have become an unfashionable anachronism – it's the drama of leadership these days that resonates more strongly with the expectations of society. Has McGill followed this trend?

Henry Mintzberg:

Yes, we do offer programmes highlighted with the word leadership … But we don't pretend to teach leadership. Americans these days revere "leadership," probably because they get so little of it. So we label programmes to get students into the classroom.

But our programmes do not profess to create leaders, and we don't aspire to create leaders in the classroom. In our IMPM (International Masters Program in Practicing Management) we take people who are leaders and get them to be more introspective about their leading. We also have a programme that carries all this into the workplace. It is being used around the world in seven languages. Cathay Pacific, ING Bank, many other international firms have adopted it.

S&L: Isn't the entire idea of a leader rather an artificial construct? Leadership events occur from time to time as the organization coheres around a particular challenge or opportunity. In these situations doesn't the role of leader inevitably fall to those who temporarily exhibit some unique traits or characteristics?

Henry Mintzberg:

I compiled a comprehensive list of the 50 qualities various experts claimed to be manifested in leaders. Many of these traits can be helpful, but no individual can possibly possess them all. But successful individuals acting as leaders are effective in the context in which they perform. Many successful managers and leaders are rather healthy people – likable, considerate, decent.

S&L: Although formal planning has been around for long time, it's discredited in many firms today. What do you see as the utility of formal strategic planning, as compared with an opportunistic approach, the emergent strategy model?

Henry Mintzberg:

I prefer a learning approach, as compared to a planning approach, to strategy. You cannot formalize the process of creating strategy – you can only formalize the implementation of strategy through budgets, programmes, and so forth.

"Everyone is responsible. Everyone is learning at all levels, and management is listening."

Take the case of IKEA – the enormously successful Swedish furniture company. Their business model comprised two critical elements: offer furniture unassembled, and give customers access to the warehouse.

S&L: IKEA has certainly excelled. They now run over 300 furniture and housewares stores around the world, with revenues in excess of 22 billion Euros. And as a private firm they can allow some stores to operate for years before making a profit. Do we know the genesis of their strategy?

Henry Mintzberg:

Yes. One of the workers, frustrated in trying to get a table in his car decided to take the legs off. Insight number one – all customers have the same challenge. And IKEA began selling unassembled merchandize. Insight number two: when a large new store in Stockholm became inundated with customers, staff began to allow customers to retrieve products from the warehouse – the go get-the-stuff-yourself model. Opportunism? I call it learning.

S&L: So businesses need a culture that enables that kind of behaviour, one based on collaboration and communication. In the well-managed corporation, who's responsible for this learning process? Doesn't the CEO have a role in all of this?

Henry Mintzberg:

Everyone is responsible. Everyone is learning at all levels, and management is listening. Middle managers are important, although they do need the support of senior management. The problem with the concept of leadership is that it implies everyone else is a follower. But we don't need more followers. We need a world of community-ship in which employees have a sense of belonging, and a willingness to work hard for it.

S&L: What overall advice can you offer executives managing in today's turbulent environment, particularly those in places like Kenya or the BRIC community?

Henry Mintzberg:

Don't use the American model. Much of US practice is off the rails, and much of corporate America is sick. Not all of it by any stretch – there are some notable exceptions. Apple, for example, has been an explorer par excellence, not an exploiter. But it is hardly mainstream corporate America, which is precisely what makes it so notable.

The current crisis is not simply a banking or financial sector crisis, it is a management crisis. America's legendary sense of enterprise – embodied in the energy and resourcefulness of its people, has been the key to its economic miracle. The dismal state to which the American economy has now fallen can be attributed significantly to the steady deterioration of many of its large enterprises, which has undermined the country's very sense of enterprise. Publicly-traded corporations are dreadfully badly managed.

Paul Krugman, the economic columnist for the New York Times and other editorializers keep calling for economic solutions – but it's not an economic problem, it's a management problem that cannot be fixed with modifications to fiscal and monetary policy. But no one wants to hear that message.

S&L: That's a pretty severe indictment. Share with us some of the evidence to support your conclusions.

Henry Mintzberg:

Let's start with the disproportionate bonus system. Anyone who accepts excessive rewards is not a leader. Almost every CEO of a Fortune 500 company is therefore corrupt. Although they're not breaking any law, they are allowing the bonus system to disconnect them from their organization.

Downsizing has wreaked havoc – and most of downsizing has not been because firms had their backs against the wall, until the recent severe economic slowdown. Pfizer, for example, fired thousands of its employees, not because it was threatened with failure, but because its profits failed to be as hugely high as they had been. Actions like this destroy sense of community.

S&L: What then is the prescription for fixing today's management crisis?

Henry Mintzberg:

The slow fix can begin with the heads of large corporations. The narcissists will have to be driven out of their executive suites, along with their shameful bonuses.

In their place will have to come some real leadership – people truly engaged in their enterprise, personally and deeply, in order to rebuild its sense of community. Not birds of passage, not MBAs who macro-lead rather than micromanage, who believe they can run anything by demanding performance, but people with a profound appreciation for their industry, their enterprise, its products and services and especially its people.

Let's bring decent regular people into CEO roles. And then get them reflecting on their experiences in programmes like the IMDM and coachingourselves.com

November 2011.


This is a shortened version of "Henry Mintzberg: still the zealous skeptic and scold", which originally appeared in Strategy & Leadership, Volume 39 Number 2, 2011.

The author is Robert J. Allio.