My goals as a manager

The Pointy Haired Manager from the Dilbert Cartoon with a slide saying "Best Practices"

I will shortly be returning to life as a senior civil servant, and I am looking forward to it. I’m fortunate that the Department for International Development is a very successful department, recognised as one of the most effective development organisations in the world.  But like every part of the public service, we could do better.

In that context, I have been thinking about how I can be a better leader and manager. At the risk of sounding like Martin Lukes, here is my personal manifesto.  These are my goals as a manger.  I would welcome feedback – both from my own staff (positive and negative feedback welcomed) and from others.

1.  It is amazing what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit.
If something goes right, I’ll make sure the credit goes to the people who did the work.  If something goes wrong, then the buck stops with me.  It is my responsibility to ensure that the team has the right resources, leadership and remit to succeed; if they do not, then I have failed to ensure that they have what they need.

2.  Help others to become stars.
There are some very smart people in my team. I want them to succeed and become stars, but I know this is very demanding.  This is not entirely selfless: I want more great people to want to join the team to join the talent we already have. We will achieve more together if they have everything they need to succeed. It is my job to see to it that they do.

3.  If everything is a priority, nothing is.
If we want to keep things ticking over as they are and take no risks, then we should do a little bit of everything. But if we want to change the world, we need to identify a small number of important and ahievable tasks and focus our resources on achieving them.

4.  Build a shared vision, then empower others to deliver it
As a leader, my priority is to build common understanding about what the team can achieve together. With that in place, I will trust the team to get on to deliver it to the best of their ability.  In my view, the managerialist approach – micromanaging staff with rafts of performance targets – is a fall-back for those who cannot lead.  Command and control is both a cause and a consequence of failure.

5 .  Say what you mean, mean what you say
I will never have a hidden agenda: I will always be open, honest and direct.  If my team feels that they have to interpret what I say for hidden meaning then I am not building their trust and not communicating openly enough.   In general, colleagues want more communication rather than less.

6.  We have a responsibility to take risks and face the consequences
One of our responsibilities in DFID is to dream big and to take risks.  We will let down the poor if we care more about protecting our own backs from the risk of failure than we do about seizing every realistic chance we can for change. We should ask ourselves: “what is the worst that can happen?”  This is not a rhetorical question: we have to identify what could go wrong, and then decide how to mitigate those risks.  It is important to realize that the risks are rarely very serious.  We will keep a sense of proportion.

7. Build a diverse team and listen well
One of the most common causes of bad decisions and poor implementation is group-think. Every time we put a bunch of similar people in a room – with the same background, the same training, the same attitudes and the same experiences – they will reinforce each other’s faults and prejudices. Instead, I will nurture a diverse team, so that we have a variety of ideas, disciplines and discourses in every conversation.  I will listen well, especially to people who challenge my assumptions. Together we will demonstrate the ‘wisdom of the crowd‘.

8.  Be patient.
Nothing really important happens quickly.  If we can reach out to others, to build understanding and trust, and open ourselves to learning, we can build a long-lasting shared vision for change.  If we try to take short-cuts we will end up with clever language that means different things to different people and which never leads to sustained and serious change.

9. I will not take myself too seriously.
The long term drivers of change are not the actions of individuals, but the collective effect of social trends, of evolution of institutions and incentives, changes in attitudes, incremental changes in technology, and incremental changes in systems.  None of us is indispensible.  I will do my best to contribute positively, but I ultimately I am not that important.


I would welcome thoughts (in the comments below) about this agenda for management.

14 thoughts on “My goals as a manager”

  1. Dear Owen,

    We disagree on many things – however, all sincere best wishes in your new post.

    All I would ask you to remember is that many of those who provide the resources for you to work with disagree with the very idea of your department’s existence. Have a care for them as well, for they have as great a stake in your success as those who receive your assistance.

  2. Thanks Martin: I appreciate that.

    Your reminder that not everybody agrees in the aims of development assistance is also well taken.  I hope to persuade you; but in the meantime, you are right that we must take seriously the views of those who pay for the work that we do and who are either somewhat or very sceptical of the value of what we do.

  3. Wouldn’t we all like a boss like you!

    Tut tut, you must have been reading The Guardian again. Your approach bears some strong similarities with the "G Quotient" (8 Sept 2006):

    …my studies found that employees of gay managers report 35% greater job engagement, satisfaction and workplace morale than other workers.

    Why should that be? The primary reason is an approach to leadership based on seven specific beliefs and behaviours, centred around the value placed on their employees. I have called this the "G Quotient" – a leadership style that I believe is in alignment with the needs and values of empowered employees. Today’s workforce is the most knowledgeable, diverse, and empowered in recorded history. Old leadership paradigms no longer apply, because the business world they originally served no longer exists.

    Things I would add to that list are:

    • Along with praise, always provide regular constructive criticism to your team members to help them improve (and encourage criticism in return). Nobody’s perfect. I find English managers are way too polite: in 7 years working here not one manager has told me areas I could improve in, and I know I’m not perfect. If you never hear about your faults, how can you improve?
    • Celebrate achievements on a regular basis. Cake goes a long way!
    • Get to know your team on a personal, social level (if that’s possible).
    • Don’t wear running tights in the office.
  4. Hi Owen,

    All the best for the future (and new challenges).

    PS I agree with the "no running tights" in the office — way too distracting!  😉




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  6. From your own staff


    This are refreshing and exciting goals. I like your fresh, straightforward and public approach to management. However, I wonder whether:

    Are your goals really S.M.A.R.T.? In particular I am not sure that can you Measure many of them. Can you also Achieve them in the civil service:? Therefore how Realistic are they and how much Time do you give yourself to reach your goals?

    I think that your goals can indeed be S.M.A.R.T. but that will be difficult: DFID does not yet have the tools of the private sector.

  7. Thanks.  I agree that the goals listed above are not very SMART.

    I am not wholly persuaded that they need to be. As I said in item 4, I don’t really believe in management by targets.  To a large extent, it will be plain to you, and to me, whether I have succeeded in my ambition to live up to this manifesto, or whether I have not.

    That said, you raise a good question,  which is how I am to be held accountable for my management.  To a large extent, I think that accountability must be to you, those whom I manage. I hope that you will, either directly, or anonymously through this site, give me feedback about how I am doing.

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  9. Owen

    These are very good and I think you’ll achieve a lot if you keep to them – especially if you keep to the first one.  But I have to say – as someone with a  number of years experience working in DFID (hence the

    pseudonym) – that I am not convinced that your goals are shared by others within DFID.  In particular, my feeling is that there are incentives within DFID (as in any organisation, especially a public sector

    organisation) to claim credit when things go well, but to avoid blame when things go wrong.  Indeed, doesn’t your opening statement (- that DFID is one of the most effective development organisations

    in the world -) demonstrate that DFID likes to claim credit for things?  I think DFID would be much more effective if it spent less time telling everyone how good it is, and more time focusing

    on improving its performance.  My sense is that this is what you’re trying to do, but you’re going to have to change the culture of the organisation.




  10. Hi ‘Freddie’

    Thanks for the comments.

    I agree that my goals are not shared by everyone – or at least not with the same priority.   Nor am I so arrogant as to believe that my approach is better than those of my fellow managers.  I will do the best I can; and I hope that will give a positive example from which I, and others, can learn.


  11. Owen

    Great list!  Some institutions are better able than others to accommodate this sort of approach to management, and in my (limited) experience it’s a rare bureaucracy that can "let go" quite as much as your list suggests.  I will hope that DFID is the sort of place this can work.

  12. I happened upon this blog, and enjoyed the refreshing nature of your goals. Since they were embarked upon over 9 years ago, I am very curious about a report card on progress. If you have, and continue, to achieve these goals I think it would be good to know. Of course any additional insights on if/why goal modifications occurred would be interesting to know as well..

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