New ‘Dummies’ book – a great primer for first-time managers

When assessing a non-fiction work (especially one found in the Leadership or Management shelves of your local Chapters-Indigo bookstore) it’s best to do so in the light of the author’s own objectives.

This may seem self-evident, but many a review faults a book for not achieving what the author never intended to accomplish (or conversely, extols it for all the wrong reasons, though it falls short of meeting its own stated objectives).

With the Dummies’ series books, uncovering the author’s objectives is fairly easy.

In fact, there’s usually no uncovering required.

In most of these books, the Introduction clearly specifies the author’s goal, and who the book is targeted at. Usually a brief synopsis of each section is provided to help the reader understand how the material is structured.

Managing for Dummies 3rd Edition is no exception.

The book is co-written by Bob Nelson, president of Nelson Motivation Inc., a San Diego, Calif.-based management training firm and Peter Economy, former staff management expert for TIME magazine, and author of more than 50 books, many of them on management and corporate leadership.

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In the Introduction, the authors claim their work is different from most other management books in at least a couple of ways:

  • It focuses on “tried and true” solutions to typical situations real supervisors and managers face.
  • It demonstrates that managing people can be a blast … that “you can get the job done and have fun in the process.”

The target audience, says the Introduction, includes all levels of management.

“If you’re a new manager or a manager-to-be you can find everything you need to be successful.” Experienced managers, it says, will be challenged to take a fresh look at their management philosophy and techniques. “Despite the popular saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, you can always incorporate changes that make your job (and the jobs of your employees) easier, resulting in more fun and effectiveness.”

The 354-page book covers quite a bit of ground.

It starts off with nuts-and-bolts stuff, such as understanding different management styles, and offers tips and strategies for cultivating (or honing) three most basic management skills – leading, inspiring, and engaging.

It then gets more granular, chunking down a manager’s role into specific tasks he or she needs to master to successfully get the job done.  

Next, it deals with strategies for hiring good employees, setting goals, mentoring staff, working with teams, managing virtual employees, and monitoring performance and execution.

This motif is continued in the next section, which describes some tools and techniques managers can use to accomplish the above tasks. These include technology tools, but also other strategies, such as delegation, budgeting, and applying social responsibility.

So overall, how much value can you get from Management for Dummies? The short answer is quite a bit if you’re a new manager, but very little if you’ve been at the job for some time.

In other words, despite claims in the Introduction, there aren’t very many great takeaways for veteran managers.

Let’s consider the chapter on Harnessing the Power of Technology (Chapter 15), for instance. It’s replete with generic, ho-hum information.

Despite the authors’ promise that the book will “steer away from recycled platitudes” you have an abundance of these here.  

The chapter drones on about how you can’t turn back the clock on technology but must keep pace, lists some of the negatives of information technology — the menace of hackers, spam, unclear email (all self-evident stuff), how technology can drive competitive advantage  (again top-level, generic data).

The most useful part in this chapter is at the very end and deals with developing a technology plan.

But here too, suggestions presented – taken from eBusiness Technology Kit for Dummies – aren’t elaborated on sufficiently.

The following steps are suggested for preparing the technology plan: Set a major one-year goal for your company (guided by your vision); list strategies for achieving that goal; brainstorm tactics that help you achieve your strategies; identify technologies that support your strategies and tactics; and, source out vendors who can provide those technologies.

A far better approach would be to detail specific technologies that help a manager (responsible for a team of people or a project) do their job more effectively.

At the start of the chapter there are two or three paras on how technology can positively impact your business by automating processes and personal management functions. But again, this is presented in a generic way, with no examples, or information about some of the better tools out there for tasks such as scheduling, performance evaluations, business intelligence, and so on.

The chapter on managing virtual employees, by contrast, is a good read – largely because it offers several very practical tips and suggestions, backed by great examples and anecdotes.

The “quick-and-easy checklist” at the start of the chapter, if filled out honestly, can definitely help you determine if you and your company are ready for virtual employees. The checklist includes relevant considerations, such as whether:

  • The work can be performed off site.
  • Prospective virtual employees have the equipment needed to work off-site
  • They have demonstrated they can work effectively without day-to-day supervision
  • Supervisors can manage and monitor employees by their results rather than by direct oversight
  • The company policy on flexible work arrangements is clear and has been well communicated
  • Employee work sites have been checked to ensure they are adequate equipped

Empty checkboxes represent areas you have to work on before “virtual employees” is a reasonable option for your team or organization.

The chapter also includes great practical tips on helping virtual workers plug into company culture, providing long-distance recognition, using online tools to interact and collaborate with remote employees, and more.

When discussing  online interaction, the chapter lists sites and tools that provide these services — such as FreeConferenceCall.com, Accuconference (for teleconferences), Microsoft Live Meeting and GoToMeeting (for virtual meetings) and BaseCamp and EasyProject.Net for project collaboration.

One chapter that packs a whack of useful information, tips and case studies into 14 pages is Creating an Engaged Workforce (Chapter 4).

It beings by citing the fining of a Gallup Organization poll that just 29 per cent of workers are really engaged in their jobs.

It then identifies key strategies for igniting employee motivation and engagement.

These include giving your staff  a clear and compelling vision, modifying strategies to to meet business goals (and getting staff involved in this process), opening  lines of communication, techniques for handling bad news and rumours, and creative ways to encourage initiative.

What really makes all this information come alive are the case studies in this chapter.

One of them relates how a San Diego-based computer equipment and software company successfully got employees involved in reassessing and reformulating business strategies.

The firm’s earlier business model required customers position to buy both hardware and software from them and then pay ongoing maintenance fees to have the firm service that equipment and software.

With shrinking capital budgets, customers were no longer able to do that, and the company saw future orders drop significantly. As a short-term solution, it laid off 10 per cent of its workforce and froze salaries. Then top management met with the firm’s sales reps and brainstormed revised strategies to deal with the changed market situation.

Several new strategies devised as a result of this exercise including:

  • A change in the payment model – A new “per use” leasing option was introduced, so customers were not forced to purchase expensive equipment
  • Customers were given the option of buying only the software applications and run them on their existing computers or equipment that they wanted to purchase from other vendors
  • A new financing option was introduced where the company would finance purchase of its customers’ equipment. This enabled clients to use the company’s product without initially tapping into their own capital budget.

Bottomline – Managing for Dummies is a worthwhile read especially for new managers, and can offer them a grounding in the fundamentals of effective management. Veteran managers may also pick up a few nuggets here and there, but could safely give this volume a miss. 

The book is available at Chapters.ca for $17.15 – 34 per cent less than the list and “in store” price of $25.99.

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