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Book Review: The Self Determined Manager


“Managing others is not for the faint-hearted or the inattentive.” (P. 147)


The Self Determined Manager: A Manifesto for Exceptional People Managers by David Deacon is exactly the kind of book busy fellow professionals tell me they like to read. It is straightforward, actionable, clear on a key central philosophy, and it is not so long that it can double as a door stop.

I come from a family of teachers, a profession that I would be very poorly suited for, and there was a connection between teachers and managers that came to mind as I read this book. Both roles are much harder than they look, require a certain kind of personality or demeanor in addition to training and experience, and there are far too many people in both roles that are lousy at them. I believe it is safe to say that anyone who has been in the workplace for more than a couple of years has had a bad manager, but very few of us can say we’ve had exceptional ones.

Part of this is because the reasons people are promoted to management roles doesn’t always correspond to what makes a good manager. And then, to make matters worse, there is no real instruction. If we don’t invest enough in staff capabilities (which we don’t), then we sure as heck don’t invest enough in management skills. Being managed simply doesn’t prepare you to manage – at least not well.

The biggest idea that comes out of this book is Deacon’s perspective that a manager’s real job is to create an environment in which his or her people can be successful, individually and as a team. “The best managers know that the informal rules around how people should work make a substantial difference to what people do an what people pay attention to, and they seek to shape that in a way that maximizes success.” (p. 12) You know what he means by informal rules… that is the essence of the corporate or team culture that you work in. The rules book might say to do one thing, but somehow everyone just knows that the right thing to do is something else. These can be dangerous variances, especially in intense or highly competitive industries.

Being a manager isn’t a high-glory role. You have to hold yourself to ridiculously high standards, work in the present while respecting the past, and emphasize positivity without confusing it for popularity. “A self-determined manager knows they cannot choose everyone they work with on the basis of whether they like them, and they know destructive or defensive relationships waste their time.” (p. 62) Being able to separate personal issues or preferences from professional ones is absolutely critical if a team is to be diverse and accomplished.

In fact, one of the greatest challenges a good manager must overcome is building and running and effective team under negative circumstances. They certainly can’t rely upon upper management. The primary drive to be a good manager comes from within, and that strength and vision needs to be enough to overcome all kinds of roadblocks and setbacks. “If you do not have a source of drive and ambition, of purpose and commitment you can tap into and is just from you, you should not be trying to manage others.” (p. 55) This it a bit like the old adage that those who can’t “do” often “teach” and it creates a defeatist paradigm in the places where leadership is most needed.

It is important to note that Deacon’s own roles have focused on talent. The priorities and perspectives coming out of HR are very different that those most of us in procurement are likely to encounter. That said, some of the difficulties we’ve had with transformation have to be connected to how we address talent and capability development.

I’d recommend readers jump from the Introduction to Chapter 2, where Self-Determined management is defined and explained. (I read Chapter 1 with the distinct sense that I had missed something.) There is also a fantastic explanation of Self-Determined management in the Conclusion (p. 143) that should probably be in the very first page of the book.

From a reader profiling perspective, I believe Deacon is writing to aspiring (or self-diagnosed) Self-Determined managers, but typical managers and those who are closely managed will also benefit from reading this book. If nothing else, you will get a better understanding of just how difficult your manager’s position is, and maybe even get some clues as to why they are doing things that seem unexplainable.

I’ll give the last word to Deacon with one small addition – please… be kind to your manager.

“Managers who make a positive difference, who genuinely lead their people and who achieve great outcomes, insist on decisions being made for the right reasons, and demonstrate in their own behavior how imperative this is. This is how the best managers come to have teams that consistently do the right thing, team that are proud of their standards and integrity and team that, over time, achieve great, sustainable results which are in everyone’s best interests.” (p. 28)

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