Managers and Professionals: can the Twain Meet?

When, as I do, you coach doctors, accountants, architects, lawyers and the like, you can’t help noticing the striking differences between the way their brains work and the typical thinking style of people who opt for a managerial career. No wonder there are so many problems – for instance in health services where each side accuses the other of uncaring incompetence. So to doctors, ‘The Suits’ (managers) are obsessed by performance indicators (watch how a doctor’s lip curls as he or she says this last phrase). To health service managers, doctors are addicted to ‘shroud waving’, yelling ‘patients will suffer’ while all the time being just out for themselves or unmanageable troublemakers who lack corporate loyalty.

The trouble is that different types of people are drawn to these roles and their assumptions about work are strikingly different.

Professionals believe in a relationship based on mutual trust honed out of many years of shared high quality training where access to the profession is stringently controlled, based on tough exams with constant re-accreditation. There is a carefully cultivated mystique born out of in-depth knowledge whether it is science, as in medicine, or a complex understanding of case law as in the higher reaches of the legal profession. Many of these professions involve taking risks where only an individual can decide what to do: a barrister in court during a high profile case, a surgeon faced with an emergency during a routine operation. Self regulation is at the heart of a professional’s attitude to work. How could it be possible for instance for a manager to make a decision about the best treatment for cancer when the manager knows nothing of the clinical complexities? To the true-born professional, management is irrelevant and most meetings are a waste of time, possibly they are about ‘politicking’, something the professional detests because he or she does not understand it, and because meetings take you away from your ‘real’ work – ie being an expert.

Professionals value the acclaim of other professional experts. The ideal reward is a Nobel prize but failing that, speaking at conferences, writing books and getting merit awards will do nicely.

Managers see their work as being about getting large numbers of people to do what they would otherwise resist. Management is about alignment not individualism. They like the idea of objective measures of performance because how else can you judge whether the organization is thriving or not? They believe in audits, controls and guidelines. Expert opinion is fine, but it is just one source of data, not the be all and end all. They resist individual decision-making because they recognise that it can be hijacked by mavericks. They dislike the black or white thinking of some kinds of professional, recognizing that in what they like to call ‘reality’, there are only shades of grey. Entry to management as a profession is easy – the barriers are low. You can start young with a small range of responsibility and if you don’t like it you can change careers readily. 

Managers like tangible reward – the office with two sets of windows, the impressive title, a decent bonus. They understand that influence is everything and that means reaching out to people in other departments, organizations or countries. Meetings are the glue that keeps the organization together, they are all part of the consultation process which gets buy in.

What helps?

No wonder these two sets of people find it so difficult to work together. The truth is that the world needs both. Left to themselves, professionals can descend into a whirlwind of chaotic competition and individualism with their professional associations stultifying as conspiracies against the public interest. Left to themselves managers can forget that the only true purpose of the organization is to serve its customers, clients and users and can become isolated, obsessed with pompous jargon and meaningless targets.

  • First, recognize that these differences have value
  • Openly acknowledge and name them rather than pretending they are not there
  • Arrange ‘shadowing’ and secondments of and to each other’s jobs and functions. This is usually enlightening and reduces the tendency to see evil and malign forces where there are none
  • Offer professionals training in managerial skills but make sure it is tailored to their needs. Make sure that managers get regular stints as helpers in whatever the core business of the organization is, whether this is as porters in a hospital or runners in a media company
  • On any project, make sure you have representatives of each role and discipline
  • Chair meetings using expertly applied facilitation skills, for instance spotting and managing any tendency to sulk or show off
  • Create and commit to regular informal review processes to ask, ‘How are we doing? How far are we getting the best that each of us can give?’