Authors of online management courses seem to suffer from the same problems that earn criticism for authors of pop-culture management books: Primarily they tend toward platitudes like, “Leaders are focused on people,” a favorite phrase in the course I just plowed through.
Worse, course authors often point out what they claim are management best practices only by citing policies of companies that are doing well financially. But they have no control group for comparison. In other words, they seem never to have darkened the doors of companies turning in mediocre results. Thus, they have no way to tell whether average performers handle employees in ways worse than those of companies held up as being successful because of people-management skills.
This lack of a valid yardstick yields management courses that make questionable suppositions, such as “Companies with satisfied employees are also the ones that deliver the best overall results,” and “Anyone can learn to be a leader.”
Even so, one might say the insights course authors seem to glean from high performers are at best unspectacular. Many of them could be put in the category of common sense masquerading as business advice, such as “Employees want a nice, comfortable work environment… Sometimes it takes working side by side to properly show someone how to accomplish something… If you are teaching a subordinate how to do something, sometimes that is a good use of your time.”
OK, Captain Obvious.
Still, I must admit I learned something important from my management studies, though not about management: Starbucks, one of the companies often lionized by management writers, hires people off the street to be baristas and puts a lot of thought into training them. This fact only becomes significant by envisioning what this company might do if it behaved like a manufacturer.
If Starbucks behaved like a manufacturer, it wouldn’t train anybody. It would try to hire baristas with five years of experience. It likely wouldn’t find enough of these people to run its stores. So its top managers would write op-eds in business publications claiming there was a barista shortage. They would also insinuate that the dearth of experienced baristas proves there are serious shortcomings in the American education system. Starbucks’ CEO would then testify before Congress claiming the dearth of baristas will hamper U. S. economic growth. He would also plead for immigration reform that would let experienced baristas from foreign countries work in the U. S.
Oddly, my management courses have so far said precious little about training people who aren’t managers. The message seems to be that day-to-day employee skill training doesn’t have much to do with leadership. That might explain why there are so few companies like Starbucks