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Why most management skills can't be taught in business school

A drill instructor at work

Ewing Galloway/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Christopher Allen got a rude awakening when he graduated with an MBA four years ago and moved into real-world management.

Hired as a sales manager at an auto company, he recalls how in one of his first meetings the chief executive officer ordered the marketing team to raise prices.

"From what I was taught in the classroom, when the top executive gives out an order, it will happen. But that wasn't the case here," said Mr. Allen, 35. "After the meeting, the sales people found a way not to do it, because they realized if the prices were higher, it would be harder to sell as much."

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He said it was just one of many lessons not given at business school. "People need to have a vested interest in following your direction. What the CEO should have done is talk with them separately to 'pre-sell' the idea and get their feedback and try to get them on board," said Mr. Allen, who left the auto industry recently for a new job as a senior manager with KPMG in Toronto, advising companies on strategic planning.

Trish Clifford is a managing partner of Clifford Strategic Services in New York and co-author of a new book, What I Didn't Learn in Business School, How Strategy Works in the Real World.

She agrees that the biggest adjustments people need to make as they start out in management come from dealing with the realities of office politics and learning to lead people with diverse motivations.

"As an instructor on management, I've been as guilty as any of giving MBA students the tools without the practical experience of how to use them," Ms. Clifford said in an interview. "But nothing prepares you for reality like experiencing reality."

She spelled out the seven most common rude awakenings managers face when they move from theory to reality:

Wrong is right

In the real world, having exactly the right answer shouldn't be your goal. It should be to be "right enough" to get the organization moving to find a solution and "wrong enough" to encourage dialogue about priorities and what resources are available to help solve the problem. Once you get the right people involved and engaged, they will invariably come up with a great answer and will be excited about taking it to conclusion.

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Slow is fast

A team or company shouldn't move more quickly than it can move effectively. Setting unattainable deadlines and pushing people beyond their limits results in burnout and resistance. It's much better to know the group's natural ability to move and absorb change. Being a leader is like coaching a marathon - the goal is to be the fastest, but starting off slowly can lead to a faster sustained pace over the long haul. And there's less chance of injury to the team members or the company's long-term performance.

Don't fear failure

Many managers do everything they can to avoid failure, but failure can be a good thing. Failure is a clear signal from the marketplace about what won't work. From it, you can change direction and try something else that will. Of course, success is better, but failing is more definitive than living with ambiguity, partial success, or lack of results. If you fail quickly, you can quickly move on.

Humans aren't machines

New managers often think everyone's experiences and expectations match their own. Unlike machine capacity or budget resources, however, it isn't easy to interchangeably deploy employees. Their skills, talents and temperaments are unique. An employee's mindset - and how it meshes with the manager's - will ultimately determine whether they succeed in an assigned role.

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Analysis isn't the only solution

Analysis will give you data and information; it might even provide an answer to a specific question. But for true insight to solve a complex management problem, you need a combination of analysis and intuition. If analysis gives you the answers you need to do your job, you're not really a manager - you're an analyst. To be a stronger manager, consider analysis as one of your problem-solving tools, not the source of the "final answer."

Less is more

In the classroom, students often spend a lot of time working out projects to the tiniest detail. But in the real world, you have to know where you want to get to, and get moving. Working out details along the way and picking up support as you gain momentum is far more important than waiting for the ink to dry on your perfect plan.

Setbacks are opportunities

An optimistic manager looks at every challenge as an opportunity, and learns from them. If a new regulation or competitor comes on the scene, for example, it might seem like a hindrance. But couldn't it instead create new marketing techniques or revamped products? This is part of the mindset of the best managers: They aren't simply optimists, they are also keen strategists who look for ways to use every situation to their advantage.

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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