It can be interesting to pick up a book that describes management challenges some organization faced in days gone by and compare that with what we face now. We inevitably run into things that have changed dramatically, but a surprising number of management problems remain the same.
I recently read Susan Armstrong-Reid’s biography Lyle Creelman: The Frontiers of Global Nursing (Lyle is a distant relative). Creelman was Chief Nursing Officer at the World Health Organization (WHO) from 1954 to 1968. In many ways this may feel far removed from the context of most of my readers; the stories are 50 years old, and from a public sector organization with operations scattered around the world in days when long-distance phones call were expensive and unreliable. For me, the differences in context make the similarity in issues all the more striking.
Here are five issues faced by Ms. Creelman and WHO that are relevant today:
1. Be ready to resist showcase projects.
There is a great temptation to put on something that looks really good to distant stakeholders. For WHO, this might be pressure to invest in a showcase hospital in a poor country. It might look good in a press release but often this kind of hospital was unsustainable and did not meet less glamourous but more important needs. It is easy to see why top leadership would want something dramatic to show stakeholders; however as practicing managers we need to resist this. I can’t help but think Target’s disastrous failure to launch in Canada was in part driven by the desire to do something splashy, rather than make a less glamorous but safer entry to the market. Target invested $7 billion in a launch that ended up less than two years later with Target Canada in bankruptcy.
2. Be ready to battle intruding agendas.
We are familiar with the idea of competing agendas, for example marketing and HR fighting to get budget or senior management attention. However, WHO faced even more serious challenges. For example, in the days of the Cold War many political interests in the US were more worried about communism than global illness and attempted to have the WHO’s practices driven by a political rather than health care agenda. Today not much has changed: most senior managers will find themselves immersed in a world of politics and intruding agendas. Battling those agendas is a core part of senior jobs.
3. Understand the local conditions.
We think of global organizations as being new, but even in the early 1950s WHO was global and that meant it had to understand conditions on the ground before issuing orders form HQ. For example, Creelman ran into problems because in some countries female nurses would not be able to deal with male patients. It would be hard to understand the nature of the issue, and how to manage around it from a comfy office in Geneva. You have to get out in the field to find solutions. Today managers in a global firm need to spend time in the field, hopefully including some years actually based in a foreign country so they appreciate the subtle (and not so subtle) differences that exist from place to place.
4. Do leadership instead of being a leader.
Does it sound glamorous to be a senior leader at a UN agency based in Switzerland? In fact, Ms. Creelman’s day to day work was frustrating, difficult and sometimes dangerous. Steven Sample in his great book The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership says there are a lot of people who want to be leaders, not so many who want to do the hard work of leadership. Creelman was driven by the desire to improve global health, not the desire to have a fancy title. We should promote people who are devoted to the mission and do the work of leadership because they really care about achieving the goal. When I see ads for MBA programs saying “Take our MBA and be a Leader!” I think they are attracting exactly the wrong kind of person. I’d love to see an ad “Take our MBA so you can apply your skills to achieving difficult but valuable goals.” I’d hire people who chose that latter school.
5. Keep in touch with the human side.
WHO nurses around the world, often working in difficult circumstances, greatly appreciated letters from Creelman showing that she cared about them as individuals. Often she could not do much to improve the situation, but she could always show she cared. In our mission to handle big things we shouldn’t overlook how big the small things are.
There are lessons for HR everywhere we look. I suggest that all HR leaders take a break from reading the usual management books and see what there is to be learned from unexpected sources.