Are technocrats good administrators?

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Charles Steinmetz was a scientific genius whose many ideas and inventions helped build the General Electric Company. Early in his career at GE, because of his tremendous abilities, he was made head of his department. Before long it was in complete shambles – for brilliant as he was, Steinmetz was a terrible administer.

The management of GE was in a quandary. To salvage the department Steinmetz had to be relieved of his duties. Yet, he was their most valuable employee and a highly sensitive man.

The problem was solved by creating a new title, chief consulting engineer, and “promoting” Steinmetz to the job. He was told that he would be a one-man scientific “Supreme Court,” passing judgement on all research at the company. At the same time he would be relieved of his administrative chores in order to devote full time to his new duties.

No matter how brilliant people may be otherwise, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll also be good leaders. Managing people is a different kind of ball game. Yet it’s amazing how many people, because they are obviously capable at their jobs, assume they would also be good managers or supervisors. The feeling is almost universal.

You’d think that a person who knew every job in a department backward and forward would naturally make the best manager. Actually, such people might have serious problems.

In the first place, if they judge everyone else by their own standards, they may expect their subordinates to do a lot better than they are capable of doing. And if these leaders insist on showing their people how much better they could do the job, nobody’s going to be very happy working for them.

Doing a job well yourself is one thing; persuading others to do it well is another. When people have moved into management positions they have crossed a significant line. They are no longer judged solely by what they can do themselves. Their value now depends mainly in what they do working with others.

A new factor has entered the picture – the interaction of human personalities. Dealing skillfully with human beings is just as much an art, just as much a specialty in itself, as any other kind of work. It’s not a natural ability all of us are born with. It has to be learned, usually the hard way through trial and error.

The transition may be especially difficult for people – no matter how intelligent – who have spent most of their working lives dealing with facts rather than people. Accountants, scientists, and engineers, for example, who move into management positions have a new problem on their hands. The more they appreciate that fact, the better their chances of coping with it successfully.

All managers must delegate to others many things they could do better themselves. If they want the goodwill and cooperation of those under them, however, it’s best to keep that fact to themselves. They can coach and train people, but it must be done tactfully – without flaunting their superiority or undermining the self-respect of their people.

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About Gintai_昇泰

I'm a Chinese Singaporean living in the Eastern part of Singapore. I tweet on current affairs & inspirational quotes. I blog on issues or events if they interest me. I write for pleasure. I also write mainly for my family and friends.
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14 Responses to Are technocrats good administrators?

  1. Lohcifer says:

    You are describing “Peter’s Principle” here – people are promoted to levels of incompetence. Example, a successful car salesman gets promoted to sales manager, then he bombs. Now I’m wondering about all those guys in government lording over us all. Oops!

    • Exactly! Too much emphasis on paper. They will only consider you if you’ve got the paper qualifications otherwise you are out of the system. The key to the organization is based on your paper. How is empathy or compassion or other intrinsic values measured by perfect scores in exams?
      If those incompetent CYA (cover your arse) idiots occupying middle and senior management posts in an organization always looking for scapegoats and creatively explaining away problems, how on earth is this organization going to excel in the likes of Apple or Goggle? Now you understand some of the mess we are in? Apology after apology has given us “apology fatigue!” Wonder no more why we can never produce world class icons like Ikea, Samsung or HTC even though we are No: 1 in everything!

      • Francis says:

        There is a belief that those who attend MBA in prestigious business school will make excellent manager. After all, if the resume looks good and academic qualification is outstanding, other factors can more or less be overlooked. Guess what, companies which hire these expensive elites soon realize what their MBA stand for => More Bullshit Attitude, LOL ….

  2. musingsofasingaporeretiree says:

    Delegation is an interesting management concept. It is used to train up a subordinate and prepare the person for higher responsibility. .When one delegate, one can only delegate the authority to carry out the work. The responsibility still rest with the higher up who should be held accountable should things do not work out well.
    Alas in our work culture it has been much abused. It has been an avenue for higher up to tola responsibility by shifting it downward and avert accountability

    • Yup. I’ve just added a pic on the post to reflect what you said. Langgar!

    • ape@kinjioleaf says:

      To put it simply, authority must be given to the one who holds the responsibility. The one with authority, even the authority of delegation, must be responsible for the authority thus given.

  3. askmelah says:

    I used to have scholar subordinates and they are often the star players due to their intelligence and hard work. You are blessed if you have a constant streams of scholars come under your charge as many of these scholars are often on the fast track and they will stay in the same dept for max 2-3 yrs. I have also seen many scholars being promoted to managers, but not all their subordinates are Ferrari like them, they ended up doing most of works themselves instead of managing their charge. If you happen to report to one such manager, good luck to career development. The state of the affair of our society is in no small part attributed to this phenomenon: a disconnect from the elites from the working class. Your observation that brilliant individual contributors are not necessary good managers is spot on!

  4. dotseng says:

    Gintai,

    Based on experienced. I don’t think its truly a black and white case. Some technocrats do make good administrators. Some don’t. Even those who stand every reason too. I think it has a lot to do with the perceptive shift in the mind. You know shifting gears to met whatever is ahead of you.

    That’s the way I see it Gintai. But what disturbs me about this essay is how it presupposes that if a thing is going to work or fail. Then it MUST either be a black or white. To put it another way Gintai, it is a binary world. Where we are all either functional or dysfunctional, switched on or off, team players or just plain narcissistic, with them or against them.

    But how true is this assumption Gintai? How true is the idea that the real answer to whether technocrats make good administrators or whether scholars? Maybe. Just maybe Gintai. The answer may reside somewhere in the grey zone. Where we aren’t really sure whether it’s black or white.

    What Gintai if the answer lies in people like you. You may not have had a great education. Me as well and that may well explain why I am always change the subject whenever you ask me which tin pot university I graduated from. But you certainly make up for the deficit through life learning along with your ability to think deeply about issues – you show a curiosity to peer deeper into darkened interiors. At times you even question many of the contradictions that you see in your daily life – you use this blog as a means of righting what you see to be the wrongs of the world.

    What if I said to you everything really boils down to ATTITUDE. Take a man who loves Singapore. And I guarantee you will get results. Take another man who has all the education in the world. But his heart is elsewhere or in the wrong place. And all he does is serve himself.

    Have you ever asked yourself how many who are pursuing scholarships happen to be the former.

    Now you see the problem beyond just black and white.

    Life is ruthless.

    Darkness 2012

    • Darkness2012,
      As usual, I must thank your insightful analysis. Your take on this subject is much appreciated. Yes, you are correct to say it boils down to “attitude.” No one can fault this quality.
      You see my “attitude” in life is shaped by my social background and mainly my previous job. I was an investigation officer. No one would want to go to a police station unless there is some problem. Visiting a police station is totally different from strolling along Orchard Rd shopping malls or Gardens By The Bay. Everyday, as a PO, I had to handle the shit side of our society. The habitual drug addicts, loan sharks harassment, thefts, fighting, gambling, house-broken into, criminal intimidation & threats, family disputes, etc etc and not forgetting the “jumping cases” or horrible industrial accidents. I’ve seen them all.
      Already, there is so much nonsense and stress in a police station, yet they still deploy scholars. All kinds of scholars attached to us for short stink maybe 9 mths to a year doing all kinds of investigation i.e. crime or routine etc. They under-study us.
      They know that they are here for record purposes only. Just to have some some basic hands-on ground work only. Their career path is set and they shall go on to HQ or some other higher management posts. But then they created lots of IPs like nobody business. They left behind piles of shit for us to clear. Only us without the big paper are left to clear the mess. Why shld they bother with thorough or painstaking investigation leg work? To be fair, not all of them are like that. But most are like that. After all if they are given the coveted ASP rank without earning it the hard way, why would they bother to slog so long as there is no major wrong doing or blunders on their short stint with us, their iron rice bowl is secured!
      You need to be in the system to really understand what I’m saying here. What I say here is just a little of the madness I had to endure. It’s a process that kept repeating year in and year out.
      I was in that mad house facing pressures from the top, within and without the organization. If I go on describing in details, I might risk implicated under OSA!
      Suffice to say that once you’ve been through hell, you will appreciate and value simple living. That’s how my “attitude” was forged in that hell furnace.
      You see I was a farmer in the system. Out of the system, I’m still a farmer tilling a small miserable plot of space without any hope of ever striking it rich or live a comfortable retirement life. The powerful landlords are always reaping profits by their ever increasing demands. In the circumstances, how are we to raise a family? Such is the common farmer’s life living on subsistence farming. It’s either you are a farmer or scholar here. Do we have an entrepreneurial class? I don’t think so. I only know we have many types of landlords – big and small, only waiting to snatch your harvests leaving very little leftover for the poor farmers. The elite scholars are well taken care whereas the farmers are often neglected.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts here.

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