Blog: What I really think

...about listening

1 March 2018

I write a good deal about the disconnect of leaders/managers from the ongoing activities of their organizations. An organization can’t be run by remote control: people “on top” have to get on the ground to see what is going on. And, no less, to hear what is happening.

I write a good deal about the disconnect of leaders/managers from the ongoing activities of their organizations. An organization can’t be run by remote control: people “on top” have to get on the ground to see what is going on. And, no less, to hear what is happening.

Let me give you an example from the thin air. I am doing a collection of my blogs, using the title “Managing Scrambled Eggs” because the first story is about the CEO of a failing airline who sat in First Class while the passengers in the back had to eat some excuse for scrambled eggs. I was one of them, and when I asked the flight attendant why they served this stuff, she said: “I know, we keep telling them; they won’t listen.“ How can that be?  If they were running a cemetery, I might understand not listening to the customers. But an airline? Feasting in First Class is not leadership, let alone management. Among the most important qualities of managers who truly lead is a captivating capacity to listen, really listen.

In my book Managing the Myths of Health Care, I cite a study of patients who were explaining their problems to physicians: on average, they were interrupted after 23 seconds1… and rarely had a chance to continue! Modern medicine makes a thing about being evidence-based. Sure, evidence is important, as the collected experiences of many people. But how about the particular experience of the person right there? If medicine had to rely solely on evidence, without tangible experience, it would shut down. Evidence puts numbers on abstracted experience; listening to someone’s full message brings out what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.” We need this to understand what is happening, beyond just putting people into pat categories.

How about this example of the difference between evidence and experience, from my own experience, and probably yours too in one way or another. If you go biking in the mountains, say up to a pass and back down, you will have done four times as much uphill as downhill. Everyone I tell this to is puzzled:  Haven’t I gone exactly the same distance up as down? Sure, but we don’t experience distance, we experience time. Distance is an abstract calculation in our brain; time is what we feel in our body We may boast about having done so many kilometers, but while doing them, believe me, what we are acutely aware of is the effort, across the hours, not the kilometers. When we are living an experience, it’s not the numbers that count but the feeling—what our body is telling us. Listen to it too!

How often have we heard that “Gerry just doesn’t listen” or that “Sally is such a good listener!” By listening to others, we get in touch with them, and thus with ourselves. So let’s spend more time listening to what really matters: listening to our partners, to our children, to our friends, to our patients, to our employees, to our managers, to ourselves, and especially to our bodies.

© Henry Mintzberg 2018, who can be listened to on mintzberg.org/videos.

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1Marvel, M., R. Epstein, K. Flowers, and H. Beckman. (1999). Soliciting the Patient’s Agenda: Have We Improved?  JAMA  281(3): 283-287.

The truth about Truth

5 May 2016

Last week I raised the issue of truth, concerning my comments about orchestra conductors. In early 2015 I did a blog about truth, which is revisited this week, with some editing.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered truth: that the world is round, not flat. Did he? Is it?

Not long after that, in 1535, Jacque Cartier crossed the same ocean and sailed way up a mighty river, until he had to stop at an island just short of the first rapids. There he saw a mountain, which was later named Mont Royal, for the king of France. Now, almost half a millennium later, my office in Montreal faces that mountain. Have a look at the photo below; it offers definitive proof that the world is neither round nor flat.

Last week I raised the issue of truth, concerning my comments about orchestra conductors. In early 2015 I did a blog about truth, which is revisited this week, with some editing.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered truth: that the world is round, not flat. Did he? Is it?

Not long after that, in 1535, Jacque Cartier crossed the same ocean and sailed way up a mighty river, until he had to stop at an island just short of the first rapids. There he saw a mountain, which was later named Mont Royal, for the king of France. Now, almost half a millennium later, my office in Montreal faces that mountain. Have a look at the photo below; it offers definitive proof that the world is neither round nor flat.

Mount Royal from my Montreal office. Sorry about what Santa, my assistant, calls our stained glass windows. They are not cleaned in the winter.

Why must I tell you this? Because we have to appreciate that while facts may be true—that mountain is there—theories are not. How can they be when they are just generalizations, namely words and symbols on paper or screen, not reality itself?

Theories can, however, be useful, or not, depending on the circumstances. The flat earth theory is still quite useful for building football fields in Holland.  (Can you imagine an engineer saying: “Please raise one end a millimeter or two to correct for the curvature of the earth”?) But when it comes to sailing ships, the round earth theory works much better (even though the earth is not round—it bulges at the equator—although what to do with the oblong theory of the earth I do not know). And anyone who likes to climb mountains has to be a fan of the bumpy earth theory (although I heard somewhere that if we reduced the size of the earth to a billiard ball, we would not be able to feel Mount Everest).

Many proper scientists just don’t get it. They fight with each other furiously over their respective theories, without recognizing that all may be right, and wrong, depending on the circumstances. Don’t we still make greater use of Newton’s theory of mechanics, which was supposedly debunked by Einstein’s theory of relativity? It has been much the same with those economists who poo-pooed Keynesian theory for years, only to rediscover it during the recent financial crisis.

There has been concern of late about the measles vaccine: by failing to have their children inoculated, parents are being accused—rightly—of putting other children at risk. To convince these parents, proper scientists and physicians have been announcing that the vaccine has been proved safe. This is not true, nor is it proper science, which can disprove beliefs but never quite prove them.1 The truth is, so to speak, that the tests have not found the vaccine to be harmful, so far. If you doubt the difference between these two wordings, consider all the medical treatments that were declared safe only to be later declared unsafe. Science marches on, unpredictably.

So beware of any claims about truth in theory, including those that I have advanced furiously in these TWOGs. But do check out the claims about their usefulness, while keeping your mind open for the next theory that comes along. As D.O. Hebb, the great psychologist, put it: “A good theory is one that holds together long enough to get you to a better theory.” (He worked at McGill, and probably looked out at the same mountain—unchanged.)

© Henry Mintzberg 2015/6   Photo © Lisa Mintzberg Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. I also just started a new Facebook page.


1 Karl Popper wrote a famous book entitled The Logic of Scientific Discovery, which was not about the discovery of theories—the interesting part—but about the falsification of them. Another assistant of mine once typed his name as Karl Propper.

Some quotes about Truth:

“There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths.” (A.N. Whitehead)

“Add a few drops of malice to a half-truth and you have an absolute truth.” (Eric Hoffer)

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” (Andre Gide)

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” (Niels Bohr)

“All astrologers are liars. Even when an astrologer tells the truth, he is lying.” (proverb)

 

...about family business

4 February 2016

I am a fan of family business, if only it could resolve its problems of succession. I have suspicions about sons who follow their fathers into the business and even greater suspicions about fathers who insist that a son take over the helm. (I am writing from my personal experiences about this, which go way back, when mothers and daughters were rarely in the picture. I’ll get back to this below.) Family businesses need to cast their succession nets widely, but not into the stock market.

Following the father  My father was an entrepreneur, not a major one but successful enough. He built a business in the garment industry that kept us comfortable. I came out of the womb claiming I would never work for my father. So when the time came, I became an academic and he eventually sold the business.

I am a fan of family business, if only it could resolve its problems of succession. I have suspicions about sons who follow their fathers into the business and even greater suspicions about fathers who insist that a son take over the helm. (I am writing from my personal experiences about this, which go way back, when mothers and daughters were rarely in the picture. I’ll get back to this below.) Family businesses need to cast their succession nets widely, but not into the stock market.

Following the father  My father was an entrepreneur, not a major one but successful enough. He built a business in the garment industry that kept us comfortable. I came out of the womb claiming I would never work for my father. So when the time came, I became an academic and he eventually sold the business.

Many of the kids I grew up with were also raised in entrepreneurial families, but came out of their wombs differently. They went to work in their family businesses, almost automatically. A few did fine, and the occasional one grew the business substantially. But most either sustained the business for as long as they could or else dragged it down. And no few encountered rivalries with relatives and left the business, to settle into a life of investing whatever remained of their inheritances. All told, the record was not good: out of all the businesses I knew about when I grew up—some of them quite prominent—few remain.

The most prominent of all followed a well-known trajectory: the first generation makes it, the second generation sustains it, the third generation blows it. Sam Bronfman of Montreal built a fortune in whiskey (Distillers Seagrams); he was reputed to be the richest person in the world at one time. His son Edgar took the heart of the business to New York, where he sustained it until his son, the junior Sam, enamored of film-making, blew it in an ill-considered merger with a company called Vivendi.

Being born to a business genius, let alone inheriting the wealth of one, has never made anyone a business genius. Nor does it necessarily bestow the ingenuity and energy necessary to run a vibrant company. But being surrounded by sycophants well aware of the wealth has turned many an offspring into an arrogant failure. I do, however, have great respect for the real entrepreneurs, the ones who build and love their businesses.

Now here comes Fred. He contacted me out of the blue, to visit from Singapore and talk about management. When I discovered Fred to be the third generation head of the family’s big shipping company, I thought: Oh oh, not another one of those.

In good family fashion, Fred arrived with his daughter and brother as well as an assistant. As soon as I saw him, my impression changed: he didn’t look the third generation part. We hit it off immediately, dining, going off for cake, marching around to buy some of Montreal’s famous bagels. Fred’s a fun guy. We became friends. So what’s the story?

Fred too was determined not to work for his father. So as a young man he borrowed some money, went off to Malaysia, made his own money, and came back: to buy every one of the family businesses, one by one! That’s an entrepreneur!! Fred was not about to go through a whole process with his siblings, he told me, so in effect he bought them out—through his father.

Blame the father?  Now let’s consider succession from the other side. Why are so many clever entrepreneurs so dumb when it comes to succession? Why are they determined to pass the baton on to their own kids, usually a son? This is like playing Russian roulette with 5 bullets in the 6 cylinders.

A study some years ago suggested that entrepreneurs often develop in families with strong mothers and weak fathers—the latter ne’er-do-wells, or drunkards, or simply absent. This is certainly not always true, but it does seem to be rather common. Perhaps the son becomes the surrogate father at home, strong and responsible—not bad traits for an entrepreneur. So when I meet an entrepreneur intent on being succeeded by his son, I ask: “Was your father a great businessman?” Often not. “So what makes you think your son is?”

Casting the net widely  What I like about family business is the spirit that is often present, the soul of the place, and a certain respect for the customers and the employees. This is certainly not always true—some entrepreneurial firms are the worst in these regards—yet it is true often enough. But the question of succession has to be resolved, and these days the IPO (Initial Public Offering, on the stock market) is a lousy solution, at least if that spirit is to be carried forward. Surely we have enough mercenaries in stock markets running around killing decent company cultures. There can be something precious about a family legacy, for the family to be sure, but also for the economy.

Don’t get me wrong: there are sons who are natural successors—to sustain the legacy and grow the business—if only the fathers can distinguish the ones who truly are. Learning the business from a devoted parent can be a profound form of training. And increasingly these days, there are daughters who are natural and interested successors too, maybe more so because of a different relationship with their fathers. (For one thing, the fathers may be more inclined to listen to them! Does this suggest that sons may be the more natural successors to entrepreneurial mothers?!)

The net can also be cast wider. Cousins were significantly responsible for DuPont’s great success. They offer more choices for succession. And it was a son-in-law who made Marks and Spencer’s a great company. (Perhaps some daughters are inclined to marry a man in the fathers’ image.)

And how about family trusts for large firms, as have been created for Tata and Novo Nordisk? Both companies have shares listed on the stock market, yet keep voting control in the trusts. The family spirit might be retained while the choice of who runs the company next is widened. Indeed, the offspring may be better suited to overseeing the family trust (as other offspring often end up doing anyway).

A vibrant economy is developed by people who build, not hang on. A democratic society is reinforced by people who succeed by their own wits, not some birthright. We need people who chart their own course, even if that means coming back to buy their family’s own businesses.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing at mintzberg.org/blog.