Sunday, November 16, 2008

Leading Through Chaos; Does a Manager Need a Psychology Degree?

So I’m sitting at my computer on a rainy Sunday morning, with a cup of coffee, pondering what to write. I’ve been thinking about how challenging it is in these uncertain economic times to be a leader. What does it take to keep yourself and your people energized and motivated, while at the same time, keeping them realistically informed about the state of your business?

We spent some time brainstorming about this topic at work last Friday. Our managers, like most managers today, are faced with some tough challenges. This is not the time to be pushing anything their way that’s not directly relevant to improving sales, lowering expenses, or improving client service. At the same time, while focusing on the bottom line, they need to keep their teams productive and sane.

How can we support our managers? What tools or advice can we give them? How can we help them support their employees?

After a second cup of coffee, I came across a column in our local business section by Mimi Bacilek, a local executive coach and president of SuccessBuilders LLC . I’ve known Mimi for a while, and have always had a lot of respect for her and the work she does.

Here’s the introduction:

Change is assaulting leaders from all angles, driven externally and internally. The environment is uncertain. Budgets are being slashed, orders put on hold, positions placed in jeopardy. While your competitors are circling the wagons and slashing their way to greatness, you can ready your organization for the predictable turnaround.

Now is the time to invest in your business by deeply engaging your people to create the future. The cost to the leader is time and energy; the benefit is tapping into the amazing talents people bring to the workplace.

Mimi talks about six things a leader should do in tough times:
1. Focus on the future
2. Set the vision
3. Rally the troops
4. Empower teams
5. Monitor progress
6. Rewards success

I like the approach – it’s not overly complicated and seems like it would be effective in many cases.

However, simple doesn’t always mean easy, especially when it comes to great leadership. A leader needs to have the drive and passion to want to succeed under any conditions, and have a genuine desire to want their employees and company to succeed. Taking the time and effort to plan and implement these six steps, and other leadership best practices, is what sets a great leader apart from an average manager.

After pondering Mimi’s advice for a bit, I then opened up my email and read the following question from a reader (presumably from the other side of the world, because who other than deranged bloggers are at their computers at 5:30 in the morning?):

While I was reading yours and other Leadership blogs, another question appeared.

Quite a few friends of mine decided to take additional degree in psychology after graduating, claiming it would help being a manager. However, after reading articles online and also some other books on leadership, I came to conclusion, that experience and personality are more important for leader and manager than psychology degree, though some psychology knowledge helps, but it can be acquired outside of formal education.

I would like to hear your opinion on this matter.

I love the question! Sometimes, as a leader, it often feels like a degree in psychology is what it takes to be effective. After all, a large part of what it takes to be an effective leader is an understanding of people – what makes them tick and how to motivate them.

Managers are also overwhelmed with all kinds of leadership advice that to me just comes across as overly complicated, touchy- feely, psycho-babble, and probably written by pseudo-experts with little actually leadership experience.

Yes, being a great leader requires a good amount of emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, collaboration skills, and knowing how to inspire and motivate.

But is getting an advanced degree in psychology the best way to obtain these skills and knowledge? I don’t think so.

In fact, I’d be afraid that a manager armed with a toolkit full of Freudian and Jungian theory would end up just annoying people.

Certainly obtaining a college degree is a good way to start any career, and there’s merit to continuing on for an MBA or some other advanced degree. It’s even better if students can pick up some real work and leadership experience along the way, through internships, co-ops and plain old summer jobs.

The reader is right, in that, most of what’s written in this blog, as well as other research on what has made great leaders successful, is all about learning and development through experience.

When I talk to executive coaches, the ones that impress me the most are the ones who have had executive experience, much more so than the ones with professional coaching certification or psychology degrees. Often times, the ones who come at with too much of a psychosocial approach scare me a little.

So I’d say yes, go ahead and go for that advanced degree, but if your desired career path is management, I’d recommend a few years of work and then an MBA over staying in school to pursue an advanced degree in psychology.

And for you experienced managers, no, it’s not as complicated as we make it seem sometimes. Try following Mimi’s advice – invest your time and energy in leading your teams and we’ll all come out of this in a better place.


American Heroes Radio said...

Experience is certainly valuable and necessary. I would make two points - since leadership is generally about groups of people, studying both sociology as well as pyschology, is helpful. Indeed, you will find most business degress have that. Second, while experience is a great teacher, the further you go in your studies and experience you will see the complimentary power of both - what you see happening in the work place will often mirror theories you learned in school, giving you new insights into what is happening.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan

Thanks for alerting me to Mimi's original article and I also found your follow-on comments most interesting. While qualifications are indeed important and useful, there can be no substitute for experience.

Both Mimi's article and your own have been recommended in our roundup of the top leadership posts and articles.

Many thanks

Dan McCarthy said...

Raymond -
Thanks for the two points. I hope I'm not giving anyone the impression that I'm down of formal education - or the field of pyschology - I'm not. I agree, both education and experience are important. I just wouldn't recommend an advanced pyschology degree for someone who’s looking for a career in management. 1-2 courses as a part of a business dregree, sure. Any more would be overkill, given the breadth of other subjects that would be just as useful.
Also – how many CEOs can we name with a pyschology background or degree? I’m sure there might be a few, but I can’t think of one.

Dan McCarthy said...

Simon -
Thanks for the mention!

James Higham said...

No, he doesn't need a degree. He needs aptitude to begin with and experience, then a bit of uni learning can help.

CherryPie said...

learning and development through experience

That sums it up nicely I think.

Anonymous said...

Hey, all great points and great discussion topic too.

In my experience there is a difference, on average, in the conduct of managers with high level qualifications and those without. Whilst there are outstanding leaders with no qualifications, you are more likely to be a stronger leader if you have them.

Good leaders with both experience and qualifications tend to be more balanced, more open and more resilient when compared to good manager who only have experience.

Managers who don’t have the qualifications are also more likely to follow trends or management fads.

Of course, experience is the minimum requirement …….

And about psychology, I have a management degree and a MBA and would love to study psychology sometime. This would support my goal of moving in to an organisational development executive position.

Wolfie said...

I think the notion that formally studying psychology say as a degree will give you some insight into the thought processes of your employees is slightly optimistic and perhaps a misunderstanding of the discipline. Physics degrees prepare the mind for problem solving and academia but don’t prepare you for re-wiring your home. Likewise the formal study of behavioural science does not prepare you for the employer/employee dynamic or help you be an effective leader.