Do you have to Understand it to Manage it?


30th May 2013

Do you have to understand it to manage it?

A former British government minister recently caused a stir when he claimed that one of the real problems with modern politicians is that they know nothing about the work of the departments which they were responsible for."They simply do not understand the thing they are supposed to be in charge of". He asserted.    

His comments made me reflect on a recent visit to a retail store where I spent time observing and talking to the store manager. I was very impressed with how much she understood the store environment and seemed a “natural” in that role. Her staff seemed motivated and energetic and the atmosphere was positive and purposeful.

Whether or not the former minister is right is a debate for elsewhere. What he said, however, does raise those difficult questions for those of us who work in organisations about who do we put in management roles. How do we choose them? What should they be good at and how do we develop them? 


Maybe we need to look at these questions from the standpoint of what we want our managers to do and then look at who really understands that and has the skills to do it. Understanding is more than knowledge. Understanding is also more than skills. If we think about driving a car, we know that we drive at our best when we feel “at one” with the vehicle. It is that state of naturalness that was so impressive with the store manager referred to above. The skills of steering, judging distances and road positioning are all present when we drive well. The difference is they become second nature and natural. How many organisations can look at who it has in management roles and say with confidence that they are “naturals” for the role?

At best when we appoint managers too much emphasis is put on technical knowledge and transferable skills. At worst they are appointed for some other reason like “they need to experience the operation” or “it would be good to develop his/her people skills”. The catch is that these seem plausible reasons, especially amongst the HR community. They are often vigorously defended, but should we accept them as reasons to let loose individuals who are neither suitable nor ready on vital parts of our business? Sadly, many organisations do.

Having done the job oneself is nowhere near enough to justify a management role either! Someone may understand fully the operation or the department but if they are unable to get others to perform, to communicate priorities and then get people aligned behind them and motivated to deliver the required results they will surely fail as a manager. 


We think that the problem is often at root a misunderstanding of what being a manager requires. To have any chance of being the “natural” that I saw in that store, requires two base requirements – an understanding of the business, not just knowledge, and a genuine affinity and liking for people. On to these foundations we can build knowledge and skills to achieve excellence in the management role. That is the proper role of management training and development.

So does that mean that if either of these requirements is lacking people will not make good managers? People can gain knowledge and experience of the business over time and this will bring understanding. To appoint a manager, however, who does not have this is a recipe for real difficulty, certainly in the short and frequently in the medium term. Real consideration needs to be given to how they can gain the required understanding before being given managerial responsibility. Otherwise real damage to morale and results will quickly appear. 

More critical, though, is the person without that affinity and liking for people. If this is not there, any number of training courses or 360 feedback surveys is very unlikely to turn this person into an effective manager. When it is there and we invest in good management training and development for these people, we will then reap the business benefits that strong management can deliver. 

After all, despite our fantasy that excellence is given not developed, when we look closely at most people whom we describe as “naturals”, what we really see is some talent to which has been added real understanding and high levels of skill.   


 Graham Stickland, Director 

Read more about how we have helped organisations with Management Development programmes 

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