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Advice For New Managers: Develop Principles (Newsletter 033)

Advice from individuals, journalists, and experts is more than not useful. It's downright harmful, at least in the sense that it distracts you from focusing on what you could be more profitably doing.
Advice For New Managers: Develop Principles (Newsletter 033)


It is primarily bad advice that awaits the new manager. By this, I mean a great mound of well-meant, but ultimately useless advice. I would save you the decade or so I spent following what turned out to be fads more often than not. I propose there is a simpler, better way. But to fully appreciate the simple path, you must first understand the pitfalls that lie on the new manager's road.

Here are some categories of advice I believe are as likely to lead you astray as help you: almost everyone's first-hand explanation of what made them successful, almost all articles in management and business journals, and the majority of psychology or economics research purporting to find some surprising quirk of human thinking or behavior.

You can identify potentially bad advice from among the following tells: it is largely anecdote-driven, it contains statistics expressed as percentages and only few absolute numbers, and it is included in a best-selling book with a dust-jacket blurb from Bono, Bill Gates, or Barack Obama. (Not to pick on these three fine individuals; you may choose any celebrity endorsement for this tell.)

Most of all, bad advice falls in the set of suggestions described as "this worked for successful person X or company Y, try it and you can be successful too!" Because we humans are fantastic pattern recognition machines, we seek patterns everywhere and we find them everywhere. This would be wonderful except that we regularly assume causation in the face of nothing more than correlation. We are easily taken in by anecdotes and stories because they trigger our pattern recognition function. We recognize a pattern, and we are primed to look out for the moral or lesson of the story.

You should consider one person's description of their own success to be an interesting story, nothing more. That person experienced a unique situation, with unique challenges and opportunities, and brought to bear their special skills and experiences. That person encountered far more randomness than they realized in each of their settings, their actions, and the outcomes of those actions. Even if you could replicate their actions precisely (which you cannot because are your own person), what are the chances that you will be in a similar enough situation and not influenced by a different set of random interactions?

Management and business journals are in the business of selling advertising, which means they need to drive viewers. Surprising and interesting stories bring eyeballs and clicks. The truth of those stories is of secondary interest. Turns out if you tell people what they want to hear, and occasionally titillate them with something surprising along the way, they'll read your stories.

How about scientists? Can we take refuge among tenured professors, the scientific method, and peer-reviewed journals? Alas, you must be vigilant. Most published studies cannot be replicated, in most fields. Many supposedly statistically significant findings are just random artefacts, dredged up from data lakes in desperate p-hacking. Even studies with some validity are blown out of proportion in the push to publish. And reporters describe findings sensationally and without context because they want to grab your attention.

In the business context, such advice from individuals, journalists, and experts is more than not useful. It's downright harmful because it distracts you from focusing on what you could be more profitably doing. "And what is that," you patiently ask? It is to focus on your own situation, your own skills and experiences, and your own challenges and opportunities.

What works for someone else is not really likely to work for anyone else because they are not you and they are not facing what you are. But what works for you is something you should focus intensely on: how did you make that decision, why did it work (or often, not work), what will you do differently next time? The reasons for your successes and failures will be particular to you, with your particular skill set, and in your context, i.e. what's going on around you at that particular moment.

Carefully observe your thought process and your decision-making process. Write down the principles that you are following. Discuss them with your colleagues on your team and refine them over time with the direction you'd like to take. When I ran a legal team, I described our Legal Team Principles, called the Six Ps, as follows:

  1. Proactive – We address risks as early as possible.
  2. Protective – We protect the company's long-term interests.
  3. Pragmatic – We take informed risks.
  4. Purposeful – We work on high risk and high value topics.
  5. Plain – We seek to reduce complexity.
  6. Powerful – We follow continuous improvement principles.

To someone outside our team, this may look like a list of not so helpful buzzwords. To me, it was a framework to help us decide among many competing priorities. It contained the seeds of our values and our mission. It reminded us to only work on topics that were directly supportive of the company's strategy.

I am not recommending the Six Ps to you as candidates for your own principles. I am suggesting that you spend time first considering and then committing your own principles to paper. By focusing on how you make decisions and what you are doing in your unique situation, and then describing and improving your principles, you can drown out the distracting noise of others' unhelpful advice.

The only advice I'd like you to consider is this: you know how to improve your own results better than anyone else, believe me.

Although business advice is fraught with risk, I feel on much firmer ground when passing on Stoic philosophy as it relates to your personal improvement. In that sense, this week's Moral Letters offer two powerful lessons. In Moral Letter 065 On Fundamental Rules we explore why it is so helpful to be curious and read widely. Your training of the mind will be aided by pursuits beyond philosophy.

065 - On Fundamental Rules - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Any person alive today may yield up answers to the questions that have propelled humankind’s search for meaning and for reason. Although Heisenberg tells us in some realms we must be satisfied with uncertainty, I am sure that humans will never stop searching for meaning.

You will find a delightful and direct summary of Stoic virtues in Moral Letter 066 On Stoic Virtues. Virtue based on the reason of a well-ordered mind is the highest state a person can achieve. This letter explores whether virtue depends on either the person or their circumstances, be they positive or negative, and provides a simple, clear answer.

066 - On Stoic Virtues - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Today I want to talk with you about the Stoic virtues, and how to value the pursuits that people seek. This is not only not a trivial question, it is the only question that matters.

This week's Stoic advice puts you well on the path to knowing how to improve your personal situation. Add to that the manageable task of identifying your decision-making principles, and you're better prepared for whichever success you are seeking.

Be well.