That management thing: look, sorry, hang on…

One of the very best things about blogging and writing generally is when something you write, or say, becomes the prompt for, or the focus of a debate, and when that debate includes some fine minds and mighty voices, it is genuinely an instructive and informative experience. However, it’s also rare that someone responds in detail, so when I saw this impassioned response to my original post it was tremendously exciting. I absolutely prompt you to read it, particularly if you are thinking about management roles and are having a quandary because of people (well, me, anyway) whinging about them all the time.

As is the way with such things, he’s absolutely right (and with more experience at it than me, why wouldn’t he be?) but I disagree on a couple of points. For one, the manager who views learners as data does exist, but, and I don’t know if I made this point properly, not at every level. A manager can be the immediate line manager of teachers, for example, and have a responsibility for their professional well-being and performance, as well as having a direct responsibility for the students under the aegis of those teachers. But my point here was not meant to read that all managers are organisationally-frenzied data-junkies (but I bet there’s a few), but rather that the distance from students does grow as you move to more senior roles in an institution. It has to, because the human brain simply cannot hold the individual stories of that many students, and because a part of your role becomes reporting that data upwards. On the teacher level, a student who has failed her exam and hasn’t a resit because she was about to give birth becomes a figure which you have to report and explain to your line manager, because they have to report upwards as to why the achievement rates are down in that team. But much beyond this and there simply isn’t time to process much more than “a fail, but with good reason, so we’ll take it on the chin.” A couple more links along the reporting chain and even that detail can be lost. But this is perhaps less a comment on managers, than it is a comment on the role of data in an institution, and about the ominous presence of unsympathetic audit and slavish accountability in a cash-strapped sector.

I’d also like to point out that I like to think that I’ve blogged sympathetically before about the challenge of being in the lower echelons of management. I’d probably change a couple of things (reading it now, and in sections presents managers as disempowered unquestioning drones, which I regret), but I still stand by the dig about best practice, and, most importantly, that sense of the line manager acting as a buffer between stroppy teachers, stroppy students and a senior management who are themselves pretty stroppy because of the ignominious tosh that gets thrown at the sector as a whole by people who either should keep their business to themselves, or should learn more about the sector before commenting. (The former Head Death Eater for Ofsted in the link, by the way, fits into both categories). It’s hard, and yet it is rewarding.

I absolutely did miss a valid point. As our man suggests, one doesn’t go into management because you love data, but because you love people, and management is more about managing people than it is about data. My throwaway line about cat herding was glib, and failed to dig into the detail enough. The line manager of a group of teachers has to deal with the complexities of those people’s lives and the issues they have, and for missing this point I am genuinely apologetic. Writing as someone who is either a nightmare to line manage, or (more likely) fairly mundane but thinks he is a nightmare because he’s an egotistical snot, I can imagine that this is a challenge, and an interesting one at that.

But, and the whole online discussion that followed rather dwelt on management and the whys and why nots, but still missed my original point. Even allowing for this more realistic and far better view of what it means to be a manager, however, it still might not be entirely for you. Perhaps you can honestly evaluate your own skills and say that actually I’d be no good at it. I’m not so sure anyone can be a good manager – I’m a bit of a believer in talent and personality, I’m afraid, which I know is a terribly unpopular thing these days of growth mindset and whatnot, and personality is a big part of managing people. I can do empathy and listening, for sure, but I’m not sure I have the necessary a inner steel that enables you to not only nudge when necessary, but to nudge and mean it. It’s not so much that management isn’t made for me, but rather that I’m not made for management.

Whatever – the debate could rumble on. Yet so what if it isn’t for you, for whatever reason? Many institutions, like the businesses they seem so keen to emulate, have a culture of aspiration that is centred around management, and this can sometimes suggest that an absence of aspiration to management is a bad thing. All I wanted to say is that aspiration can take many many forms, and you simply have to choose the one that works for you. And if that is managing people, then I join my voice to the Chimpster’s and encourage you to get your act together and start applying.

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2 comments

  1. First rule of management: never apologise.

    Hmm. I may have got that wrong.

    In all seriousness, blogposts are great vehicles for provocative writing and anything that sparks a debate is a welcome thing. The real value is when we all start inching towards slightly different opinions – or more clearly articulated opinions- as a result of the debate.

    Your rapprochement inches me along the road to remembering that it is invariably the context which makes people frustrating blighters to deal with, and it doesn’t matter which end of the hierarchy they are sat at. That’s a really useful thing for any manager to keep at the forefront of their mind.

    The fundamental attribution error -my favourite cognitive bias of all- trips us up constantly. Teachers who are convinced that the manager must be a tosser because otherwise why would they have done that; the manager who thinks that the teachers are malintentioned reprobates because otherwise why would they not have done that. We’re all trapped in our own view of the Other as the Baddy.

    It’s the people who can step back and review their original oversights who make the best managers. And unfortunately, Sheppo, you seem to be one of them.

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