An Interview with Henry Mintzberg

The following is an interview with Henry Mintzberg, renowned professor and management authority and co-author of Management? It’s Not What You Think.

“Provocative. Irreverent. Unsettling.” These are words you use to describe some of the pieces in your new book, Management? It’s Not What You Think! What were you thinking?

Henry Mintzberg:
“The whole purpose of the book is to shake people up. The title has two meanings. Management, it’s not what you think—meaning it’s not what you think it is—and also management, it’s not just about thinking. It’s about seeing and it’s about feeling and it’s about doing. In the first sense, the purpose is to get people questioning the standard beliefs. So, we open with Peter Drucker’s analogy of the manager as orchestra conductor, because many people think of a manager as this great one standing on the platform managing things grandly. Then, we counter this image with another quote that basically say, yeah, managing is like conducting an orchestra, but you’re always in rehearsals when everything’s going wrong.”

Speaking as a thought leader—one of the ten most influential business thinkers in the world, according to the Wall Street Journal—why do you have a problem with the way managers think about management?

Mintzberg: “The managers that concern me are the ones that disconnect themselves from what they’re managing. Now, the very fact of being a manager is disconnecting. If you were a salesman yesterday and you’re a sales manager today, you’re not selling. If you were a designer yesterday and you’re the head of a design studio today, you’re not designing. The higher you go in the hierarchy, the more pressures there are to disconnect. If you’re a chief executive, you’ve got to deal with stock analysts, government people, and so much else disconnected from the organization you’re running. But the key for managers is to somehow stay connected. Good managers stay connected to the business they’re managing and to the people they’re managing.”

Why, to quote you, is it “time to think about how to take management well beyond thinking”?

“We’re just so cerebral, especially with the pressures of bottom lines and the pressures from stock analysts and strategic planners. I don’t think strategy is a planning process at all; I think it’s a learning process. We’re getting further and further away from the seeing and the feeling and the doing of management, and we need to get back to that.”

As an esteemed Professor of Management Studies at McGill University and an outspoken critic of conventional MBA programs, would you share a few of your thoughts on the best approaches to management education and development?

Mintzberg: “First and foremost, you can’t create a manager in a classroom. All of management education and development should be for people who are practicing managers and about managerial concerns. It’s okay to have MBA programs to train technical skills, like marketing and finance, just don’t pretend that’s management. In fact, most MBA programs are about the business functions; they’re barely about management. After focusing in on management, the key thing is to spend a lot of time getting managers to reflect on their own experience. So we, as professors, can drop in our pearls of wisdom, but managers have to run with them or not run with them, depending on how they feel about them, on their own agendas. ‘Is this of use to me in my job and what I’m concerned with?’ That’s what managers in the classroom have to ask themselves.”

As a teacher, how do you motivate managers to collaborate in learning?

Mintzberg: “In our programs at McGill—the Advanced Leadership Program ( ), the International Masters in Practicing Management ( ), the International Masters for Health Leadership ( ), as well as the independent program—we sit managers at round tables in flat groups and let them learn from reflecting and sharing and working with their colleagues. The same approach applies to corporate management programs. Sit managers at round tables, shut up the professors or whoever’s doing the teaching for 50 percent of time, and focus on less teaching and more learning. I just had a session with a group of about 40 people, average age about 40, and the amount of energy and experience and knowledge in that room was phenomenal. The professors should be paying the managers, because we learn as much as they do.”

In Management? It’s Not What You Think!, you urge practicing managers to manage more “modestly.” What exactly do you mean?

Mintzberg: “I mean we’ve had enough of the hubris, of the great one coming in and announcing the wonderful strategy, and driving everything as if there’s only one person in the organization. The bonus system is designed around that—the assumption that there’s only one person that really matters in the organization. And I think that’s nonsense. Organizations are communities and when people get energized and have trust in their organization, they’re fantastic.”

If you had to choose just one, which popular management myth or maxim would you most like to shatter?

Mintzberg: “Wow, it’s a big list! The one myth I would absolutely attack is the separation of leadership from management. The idea that leaders are separate from managers means that if you’re leading without managing, you don’t know what’s going on, and if you’re managing without leading, you’re pretty uninspiring. So, managing and leading have to be combined together. The myth of leadership in general—the notion that one person is going to come in and change the whole organization—is very damaging. I’d like to shatter the myth of what I would call leadership versus communityship. Certainly communities need leaders, but good leaders recognize the importance of culture and community. Leaders and managers need communities.”

Are there any organizations you especially admire as models of management?

Mintzberg: “You have to be inside an organization to know what’s real. So, rather than name names, I’d say, as a general rule, almost all the organization people I truly admire have a sense of communityship. We have a little organization called, which enables practicing managers to develop themselves in small groups. The entire staff is about eight people. We just had a three-day retreat. We had major customers from all over the world—Europe, Asia—flying in, at their own expense and on their own time. We had advisors and we had authors of the topics we write about. They were all there because they love what we’re doing; they think it’s a movement as much as a business. Phil LeNir, who runs the program, just has this chemistry. Everybody feels engaged and part of it—everybody’s a member. Organizations with that sense of communityship, organizations that inspire that sort of enthusiasm, are models of management worth emulating, I think.”

Do you have any final thoughts to inspire or incite today’s and tomorrow’s managers?

“I think management is a critically important function in society, and it becomes more important and more functional when people don’t overemphasize their importance as managers. A manager’s job is really to help create a system where other people can be very constructive. Managing is about the feeling and the seeing and the doing, about balancing leadership with communityship, and it’s often messier than managers think. Managing is a job not for supermen or superwomen, but for flawed and caring humans.”

Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal and the winner of awards from the most prestigious academic and practitioner institutions in management. He was ranked in the top ten in the Wall Street Journal’s list of influential business thinkers.


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