Leadership

5 management myths that may surprise you, according to a top Harvard Business School exec

The Office, episode 3
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The Office, episode 3

When it comes to what makes a successful manager, there are certain misconceptions that are now widely accepted. So what's myth and what's reality?

Patrick Mullane, executive director of Harvard Business School's online learning initiative HBX, debunks management myths for CNBC Make It. Here are five that may surprise you:

Myth No. 1: Managers spend most of their time on long-term planning

The truth: Managers spend a majority of their time actively reviewing, monitoring and overseeing operations and projects, says Mullane. Often, this takes the form of informal meetings and conversations as well as putting out small fires in the day-to-day operations.

Managers who spend more time strategizing instead of executing typically don't last long, Mullane says.

However, constantly executing can be stressful, says Mullane. In this case, he suggests that managers find time to take a step back and strategize once in awhile.

"[Strategizing] rejuvenates and helps to give perspective," says Mullane. "This may be one reason Warren Buffett famously said that the difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say 'no' to almost everything."

"When you say 'no,' you free up time to just think and create," says Mullane. "It seems to have worked out well for him."

Myth No. 2: Management involves telling people what to do

The truth: Mullane says that while people like to have a goal in mind and appreciate it when their managers provide a framework for setting priorities and picking strategic projects, few react well to commands.

Sometimes, barking orders and expecting them to be followed is imperative, says Mullane. However, "management is much more about influence than about orders."

Myth No. 3: Management is orderly and predictable

The truth: Most processes and tasks that managers oversee are not simple straight line paths, says Mullane. He likens them to a bowl of pasta filled with "loop-backs and unexpected twists and turns."

Mullane admits that, for many, unexpected turns lead to chaos. "But neat, step-by-step processes are rare and, worse, often not appropriate," he says.

He adds that business leaders gather information as they go and adjust their plans accordingly. "Good managers certainly strive for structure, but they also allow for flexibility knowing that no one model fits all situations," Mullane says.

Myth No. 4: Good managers can meet goals even with a bad team

The truth: Yes, good managers can do more with a given team than bad managers, says Mullane. But even great ones "cannot work miracles if the team members don't fit the mission, strategy and culture of the organization," he says.

That's why it's imperative that bosses spend adequate time hiring the "right people in the right place with the right focus," says Mullane.

Doing so makes it much easier for a team to achieve set goals. It also frees up the manager if the team can be trusted to perform without heavy supervision, he explains.

"This free time can then be used to step back and think more strategically, which in turn increases the likelihood the organization will meet its goals," says Mullane. "This virtuous cycle, in my experience, is critical and one many don't take time to create."

Myth No. 5: Managers should always build consensus

The truth: "Yes, when possible, consensus is a good thing. But it's also a very rare thing," says Mullane.

Both billionaire Warren Buffett and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg say that leaders must surround themselves with people who share their values and who push them to succeed.

However, as managers expand their circle it becomes increasingly likely that opinions will differ.

"While it's alright, in fact it's critical, to collect diverging opinions," says Mullane, "at some point, somebody has to decide."

That final decision falls to the leader who sometimes has to make a judgment that will frustrate those who didn't advocate for that decision, says Mullane.

"The only thing that frustrates a team more than the position they advocated for not being adopted is no position being taken by management," he says, "leaving the organization in a state of limbo."

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