Management Courses Go a Long Way

I spent four years away from Harvard working in the federal government to reform the way it buys $200 billion a year in products and services. During that period, a Cambridge colleague once introduced me to an audience in Washington by saying, "Steve Kelman, who to the surprise of many of his colleagues, has succeeded in Washington."

My colleague later apologized to me for the pleasantry at my expense. No apologies were necessary, I replied. I told him I was as surprised as he was.

I do not have any significant native ability at management, leadership or any of the related skills necessary to make things happen within the executive branch. Just about everything I did in government involved applying what I had taught in management courses at the Kennedy School, which in turn is similar to what's taught in management courses in other public policy schools around the country.

The flip side is that while in government, I frequently ran into people with l5 to 20 years of federal experience who could have benefited from an introductory public management course. Among the career workforce, people are often promoted into management positions because of individual accomplishment-an attribute at best weakly correlated, and possibly negatively correlated, with the ability to get people to produce. Lacking both native ability and training, they are nightmares as managers or leaders, usually holding subordinates' reins too tightly and continuing to perform work that should be delegated.

A Few Good Goals

What is taught in management classes that's so helpful to a practicing manager or executive in government? First, and perhaps most importantly, is the virtue of having an overall strategy to guide your actions as an organizational leader. By strategy I mean a small number of important substantive goals, an understanding of the few key things your organization must be able to do to achieve those goals and of what political support you need, and a plan for creating the operating capacity and political support you require.

How does all that help you? Well, first, it provides you a basis for focus-the ability to concentrate on a few issues, rather than trying to do a little bit of everything. Focus is a key element distinguishing successful from failed leaders and executives. However, in the frenetic, crises-from-every-direction atmosphere of Washington, focus is perhaps the hardest virtue of all to cultivate. Jimmy Carter lacked focus; he tried to do everything. Ronald Reagan had it; he concentrated on a few big things.

It is amazing how many senior people in Washington are managed by their ever-overflowing in-boxes. They have lost control over their destinies and accomplishments. To be sure, some who behave this way have a good time going to lots of exciting meetings on the topic du jour, like a moth attracted to light. But at the end of the day, to switch metaphors, the cupboard is bare. If you try to do everything, you'll end up accomplishing nothing. When I was in government, I did everything I could, the laws of bureaucratic empire-building notwithstanding, to avoid taking on new responsibilities, so I could focus on my core job of procurement reform.

Understanding the importance of focus is one of the most crucial lessons of management education. But once you have steeled yourself to resist the temptation to try to do everything, having a strategy is a prerequisite for being focused. Your small list of strategic goals should guide your small list of priorities for your organization.

Putting Things Into Perspective

Having a strategy also helps in another way. Any senior person in government is overwhelmed with a huge volume of decisions. Arguments pro and con, taken in isolation from any larger picture, often seem equally compelling. Having an overall strategy makes the right decision much clearer. Consider the first case I teach in my introductory management course, featuring the head of the agency that runs Sweden's college student aid program. The agency is in crisis, and the new chief hopes to change the agency dramatically by improving customer service and saving money. At the same time, the government is considering across-the-board budget cutbacks, and many agencies are resisting. Should the new leader resist as well? Hard to say in the abstract, but easy to answer in light of his strategy. Accepting the cutbacks would show his organization that business as usual is impossible and that change is necessary, while signaling to his political environment that there's new, change-oriented leadership in charge.

Your strategy will suggest your political message. If your strategy is parsimonious and focused, your message can be so as well. My goal in procurement reform could be summed up in one sentence: We seek to make the way the government buys similar to the way a world-class company would buy products or services. A good strategy is easy to explain to the political system.

Aside from teaching the value of strategy, other lessons in our introductory management courses are also helpful. We teach lots about negotiating, but the first two insights we give students in that area are also the most important.

Win-Win Is Critical

First, for a negotiation to succeed, all agreeing parties must believe the outcome makes them better off than they otherwise would have been. Second, and counterintuitively, negotiations have the best chances of success when the parties value different things, not the same ones. Many times while in government I got support or agreement from others by conceding a point that was important to them and insignificant to me.

When the controversial rewrite of the Federal Acquisition Regulation was being finalized, I looked for ways we could change the final rule to resolve strong objections in areas that were peripheral as far as I was concerned. For instance, we eliminated a provision on accepting late bids that aroused significant opposition and wasn't, in my view, central. Examples like that arise far more often than you would expect in government, but many people spend too much time trying to find solutions-often an uncreative "split the difference" approach-to issues that all sides value but where there are strong differences about what the result should be. Rather than splitting the difference, we should look for more opportunities to give each at least some whole loaves.

The bottom line is, some people may be born managers and leaders, but for those of us who aren't, there's hope. Management skills can be taught.

Steven Kelman, Weatherhead professor of Public Management at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, was administrator of OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997.

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