This book was picked by CIPD’s People Management magazine as one of their recommended top five stocking fillers for Christmas 2013 and, as you can see from the date of this review, it has taken me almost exactly three months to read it. Thankfully, it wasn’t a Christmas gift from a family member. The first question I ask myself is, why has it taken me so long to read? I have a busy life, of course, but that cannot be the only reason: I do have the opportunity to read books on occasion and Becoming a Better Boss is neither a difficult nor a lengthy read. Granted, I had other books to complete before picking up this one but even so, it has taken a long time to read for someone interested in good management, self-development and learning how to become better at things. I think the reason is that, for me, this book lacks a compelling ‘pull’ factor. Maybe it’s because I’m reading it for the purpose of writing a review rather as something I might have chosen after browsing through a bookstore, coffee in hand on a Saturday afternoon. But I am the kind of person who reads management books at the weekend out of personal choice, so why is this book one I found myself less happy to spend my ‘free’ time reading?
There are some good reasons why you might want to consider taking time out to read it, so I shall share these as well as explaining why I found it an arduous read (perhaps as I may not be the target audience?).
Focusing on the book’s good aspects, it is easy to read, full of examples, survey results and case studies to highlight Birkenshaw’s ideas and thinking. I was particularly impressed by the span of his corporate knowledge (perhaps unsurprising for a Professor and Chair of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School), and the use of so many examples as illustrations of key points was compelling. This is something other books often lack: they have good ideas but are often little more than theory or viewpoints on how the world is (or should be). The author gives good examples of how it is in practice.
Birkenshaw approaches his topic from the perspective of the person being managed, writing through the eyes of the employee: according to the inside cover, this is a fresh new radical approach to management book writing that is informed by his ‘time in the trenches’. While the book is credible, because its ideas are based on his interviews and research with many people in front-line roles in companies across a cross-section of industries (some of which was interesting reading), I’m not convinced that I’ve learnt about a ‘radical new approach’ to good management. Putting it down and looking at the front cover, my reflection is less ‘wow, a new approach, new insights, new thinking – I’ll use some of this in my conversations and the way I work with people’ and more ‘I’m not sure I’ve learnt anything new here that I’d actively share and take forward’.
I did find the model that he uses to get inside the mind of the employee – the ‘Four Aspects’ – engaging, particularly in his focus on identity and fears. Most frequently, managers are encouraged to talk to employees to find out what motivates them at work, so that they can build these motivators into the projects they’re given and the type of work they do. The focus on identity and fears takes this further, exploring areas often seen as ‘taboo’ in conversations about working life. Seeing these fears clearly articulated was thought-provoking – and seeing them grouped against Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs neatly summarised the model – although I would’ve liked to have seen more about what managers might do to prioritise their efforts in working with people for whom these feelings are real and tangible. Perhaps that is for another book?
The piece on motivators, however, offered little for me that was particularly new: most of us know the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. More memorable was the data on job satisfaction versus pay, where the reader was challenged to think about the levers they could pull to get more out of employees working in jobs where the motivators are less straightforward. This comes back to my earlier point about the target reading audience: if you were a manager of people in these roles, would you be reading this book when a more practical hands-on guide to motivating people might be more useful?
As well as taking an employee’s eye view, readers are encouraged to ‘look into the mirror and confront the biases and frailties’ of being a really good manager. In this section, the author shared concepts from the world of marketing and examples of what organisations have done to ‘get back to the floor’ and improve employee engagement. However, Reichheld’s Loyalty Effect, the Net Promoter Score and the benefits of focussing on Employees in the Service Profit Chain are hardly new or novel concepts. Birkenshaw explained marketing techniques and how these can be applied to address employees clearly and straightforwardly, but if this book is about taking managers out of their comfort zone and showing them how to do things differently, I’d question how far this section achieves that aim.
For me, the most difficult chapter looked at managing as being an unnatural act. Based largely on research, there seemed to be a stereotypical view of why people find management difficult to do in practice, even though they know what they should be doing and why. For example, the author states that managers find it difficult to let go. Not only is this a huge assumption – not all managers do – but is it really human nature to ‘hold onto power and hoard valuable information’? In today’s world of work, are those who don’t collaborate really successful? To what extent is this behaviour a more masculine, ‘command and control approach’ that is, in reality, outdated? Does this assumption about managers’ behaviour reflect the broad-based population who attend LBS programmes, who one might assume to be Birkenshaw’s typical readership? I can’t imagine that’s the case in today’s more virtual, enlightened, connected workplace. Secondly, is it really human nature to ‘take credit for your own achievements and to believe that your own skills and capabilities are superior to those of the people around you’? To whom is the author referring? It is a huge assumption that most people walk around with that belief in their heads and behaviour in their body. If that is the case, I’m glad I’m not working for anyone with such a traditional approach where the dominant focus is on himself/herself. Are these dinosaur descriptions really still relevant today?
Birkenshaw also suggests that the third principle, self-control – the ability to regulate your own emotions and instincts – is difficult for people to do and an area that must be better mastered to become a better manager. In my experience, most managers are constantly monitoring their responses to workplace situations to ensure that they’re acting in a way that is appropriate to the moment. The suggestion that people are habitually un-aware of their responses and are not thinking about the impact of what they say and how they say it on other’s perception of their leadership is surprising to say the least, if not bordering on disrespectful to the majority of managers. Most managers I work with are self-checking their behaviour while interacting with colleagues, constantly asking themselves ‘what is too much, what is too little?’ in each interaction.
More positively, the book was well structured, and stuck to what it said it would cover: the journey through the book was well defined and easily navigable. I liked the final chapter’s end note – scanning the horizon to see where the future of management lies and gazing into the crystal ball to assess the impact of changes known and unknown. Being a Better Boss was billed as offering great insights into what managers need to do differently – both as individual managers of others, and as architects of their organisations – and I thought it offered solid, grounded insights, some new and some not so much, but well-packaged into an understandable but not particularly ground-breaking or inspiring 154 pages. But if the book made it into the CIPD’s top five books of 2013, I’m left asking two questions: who made this selection, and how strong was the competition?