Before his retirement Tim Hornblow was the Director of Management Education Programs at one of the world’s great and highly regarded companies – Rolls-Royce. Having heard of his unique and outspoken style towards management development we sought an interview with Tim to explore some of his experiences and retrospective thoughts. A lot of material came out of this interview so we’ll be posting it in segments. Here is segment 1.
ITV: How long had you been with Rolls-Royce?
TH: 35 years. I began in one of its manufacturing units and moved ultimately into Corporate HR. During that time I also worked in other organizations on behalf of Rolls-Royce. These were mainly customer organizations (both actual and potential) such as airlines, or related organizations; for example, aviation regulation authorities and airports. Where management was concerned I learned a lot by listening to other managers talk about issues they were trying to resolve or were faced with. But more than anything else you learn best by listening to the people who are managed. When you listen to the stories they tell, and strip away some of the biases, you hear some really difficult things to deal with. I think one of the wisest comments I’ve ever heard was from a guy on the shop floor who pointed out that the problem for him was that his organization had far too many managers and far too little management. I understood what he meant.
ITV: So you eventually got into a position where you were responsible for developing managers at Rolls Royce?
TH: Yes, I was responsible for the management education programs. That was the position I retired from.
ITV: While you were doing that, what were the biggest challenges you faced in developing managers?
TH: There were a number of challenges, for the most part stemming from one particularly huge challenge, which was also a personal challenge, and that was in getting others to recognize how extraordinarily difficult the manager role actually is. Of all the things that are written, the theories produced and concepts espoused about management, far too many of them fail to acknowledge how difficult it is. It’s like a comment by a former England soccer manager explaining his view of the difference between talent and skill. Talent, he said, was the ability to do all the things a soccer player needs to do; pass, shoot, control the ball and so on. Skill was the ability to apply those talents while 80,000 people were watching and 11 opposition players were trying to kick you up the ass! So there is a context in which those skills are applied.
I think we far too often overlook the context in which the managerial role has to be performed. From my own experience I know that being a manager means being confronted by a life that’s full of paradoxes, ambiguities and dilemmas and you need to resolve and cope with those while at the same time keeping your eyes focused on the goal. That actually creates all the difficulties. In my management development roles it was important not to lose that perspective for it’s far too easy to become the equivalent of a ‘Monday morning quarterback’; too easy to be critical and to carp from the sidelines without even trying to get into the shoes of the people who are managing.
Management is an easy activity to understand but an extraordinarily difficult one to perform. I have seen far too many people who don’t understand that and end up engaging in development activities that amount to nothing more than misguided, futile attempts to reduce the problems facing managers. So often those solutions become a set of simplistic, fuzzy and ambiguous statements about ‘competence’.
Take the ongoing debate around leadership versus management as an example. I don’t really believe most people understand what they mean when they use those terms. In my experience we use them interchangeably and it’s usually in the context that management is in some way bad and leadership is good. Well, that’s kind of odd because if we believe leadership to be taking people from one place to another then, yes, there are leadership roles in every organization. But when that definition is taken in association with the direction of the organization at a business, corporate or functional level you are talking about pretty senior roles – and there are not that many of them. But if we have the direction and people have clarity about it, then what leadership means to me is whether they are emotionally engaged with that direction; something they see as worthy of pursuit. (Something from which they would also gain because it’s helping them to realize their own expectations.)
Well, I see that getting to whatever that defined direction is, and achieving the necessary goals and targets, requires management and effective management is as important and probably more so than leadership. Effective management means determining and setting targets and milestones to get to the goal. It’s allocating and making sure the resources are there to achieve them. It’s making sure the right people are in the right place. It’s organizing them and identifying problems. It’s facilitating the resolution of problems. It’s providing the right tools, training, equipment or anything else that will enable people to perform effectively in the pursuit of that goal. And it’s the way these duties are discharged that people experience every day at work. I rarely hear people complain of lack of leadership but I often hear people complaining of poor management. Consequently, if management isn’t wholly effective what hope have you got of emotionally engaging anyone in the pursuit of a particular set of goals and going in the direction necessary? You just don’t. If it is effective and managers are skillful in undertaking their role then at least the environment has been created for leadership to emerge. But I don’t think we often work out what that means. What happens is that we end up making statements of behavior that we believe to be a cluster of traits that are appropriate to leadership and then fail to focus on the skills that managers require to discharge their duties. That was the real challenge in the end; to get people to focus on what the role of a manager really is. We’ve been derailed by this focus on some spurious concept of leadership and the assumed ‘behaviors’ that we believe are essential for it.