How to learn to be a big company manager?

I’ve an academic interest on a topic of big company management. An armchair variety of an academic interest, to be precise.

What they teach in management schools? That question has intrigued me for a long time. Either they teach wrong things or getting thousands of employees to stay motivated and work efficiently is a really tough if not an unsolvable problem.

Today I accidentally encountered a succinct description of management that resonated with me. Ben Horowitz, a VC and an ex-serial entrepreneur, describes management in an answer to a question in Quora:

If you think of management as a systems problem where your task is to design and maintain a system where it’s 1) easy to get meaningful work done and 2) is fun to work in and 3) you will be recognized for your good work, then the relevant experiences for management are to a) work in a company and find out why it’s hard to get things done or b) run a company and carefully observe how you are screwing it up.

I’ve worked in two big companies, Nokia and Google, and in various smaller entities.

Nokia, at that time, was dysfunctional. Working there felt like driving several months with a gas pedal fully pressed down, but a gear stucked on 2. You could smell the smoke. Capable people worked a lot, but a little useful came out. And then there was an equal amount of less capable people. I don’t know if they worked a lot or not, but it probably didn’t matter.

Although there was several problems, I put the main blame on a deeply hierarchical organization that Nokia had at that time. I had three levels of management sitting next to me and I never talked with anybody from the high management. Neither did my team mates, thus the lack of communication was not just a sampling issue. How could the high management ever understand problems that us in the execution level had, if they only heard them from company-wide intranet surveys and from the middle management 10-steps-deep. In my opinion, all the other problems followed from that.

Google is a poster-child for a company with a great work culture. During my short 1-year-stint there, I had an interesting 20 minute discussion with Larry and bumped into Eric in a party despite the fact that I was mainly located in London instead of Mountain View. And of course they had a TGIF events on every Friday, with high management talking to employees and taking questions. Thus they definitely didn’t have a problem that Nokia had.

But Google wasn’t without its own growing pains: Supersmart PhDs doing Javascript hacks and feeling empty inside, a lot of killed projects that clearly had left emotional scars with long-time employees, certain less-inspiring personality types climbing up the command chain. You know, the usual big company stuff.

I sometimes felt that a some kind of reality distortion field of “this amazing work place with free gourmet food” was the main motivator for many.

Google has been very innovative in how to be a company with 3000 employees, but I felt that they had deliberately decided that they are not going to innovate how to be a company with 20000 employees. It’s risky after all and they are already taking risks in their innovative products.

Though, I honestly think that Google might have the best possibility to innovate in big company management, if they choose to try out radical new approaches.

When it comes to Ben’s description of management, I think I’ve personally done enough of the a) and I’m now having a start on the b). Maybe someday I know what they should teach in management schools.

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2 Responses to How to learn to be a big company manager?

  1. A great post, with a refreshingly new view on Google.

    Thinking back, the best managers – or rather, more generally, leaders – I have worked for haven’t had any formal management training. Also, they never made it to the top management despite of their outstanding results because a) the (formally trained) top management didn’t understand how could they were or b) they weren’t even remotely interested in getting promoted.

    Sometimes it’s not obvious to spot this kind of talent and even the person herself/himself may not realize that she/he is an excellent leader. For example, in the army a goofy guy who drove a garbage truck in his father’s firm turned out to be superb leader when we were in the woods. (And, of course, he was never promoted.)

    Good luck with the experience b), by the way!

  2. teemu says:

    Petteri, I agreed that leadership is a much better term. I see that it’s especially relevant for the top management. Some people have a natural or somehow learned ability to be inspiring, but I think another aspect and another way to be a good leader is to understand the execution level problems in detail.

    I’m reading a book about early days of Apple. Although many less flattering things can be said about Job, no doubt he is an inspiring character. But he also had the second aspect nailed down. He apparently understood hacker mentality very well, as he had hanged around in hacker clubs through 70s although not being a hacker himself in a traditional sense. He was also very obsessed how things were built, there’s an excerpt in the book which describes his office as a messy place full of gadgets that he had opened to understand how they were built.

    You can see a similar obsession for details in Jonathan Ive. Watch this excerpt from the movie Objectified excerpt from the movie Objectified . He is clearly very interested in all aspects of industrial design from technical processes to design. I could imagine that if I were an industrial designer, I would love to work under his leadership.

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