By Emily Hamann
Businesses have been training managers all wrong. That’s the idea Mike Cook puts forward in his new book, “Thriving in the Middle: How the best managers create mutual success.” Cook, a longtime BBJ columnist, advocates that instead of sending middle managers off to specialized training, they should meet in small groups with each other to develop on an ongoing basis. Cook, who lives in Anacortes, has 30 years of experience as a business consultant and coach. He also teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University. Recently Cook sat down with the BBJ to answer some questions about his new book, his philosophies about management and more.
Content has been edited for length and clarity.
How is the approach you advocate for in your new book different than what most businesses do now to train their managers?
What mostly is done in management development is that somebody who is some kind of a training professional or subject matter expert provides an opportunity for you, who are not a subject matter expert, to learn what I know in a classroom format.
The other thing that’s in the message, is the way we have done management development is kind of like in a vacuum. So what I do is I take you out of your work environment and I put you in my classroom. I tell you a lot of important things that you need to know, and I send you back to work by yourself.
So my thought and where I developed the concept from, is you and I work side by side as managers. My department is related to your department. We each have a stake in each other’s success. Why don’t we leverage off of that mutual interest and get actively involved in making each other successful?
Training even gets talked about in a formal education format.
In a university, there’s a beginning, middle and an end. And that’s the way corporate development is done.
And that’s sort of like saying, staying in shape is an event, like you go for four months then you’re done and then for the rest of your life you don’t have to do it, because you graduated from physical fitness. Except it doesn’t work like that. And it’s the same with management. So my approach to management development is to do development as a practice.
How did you develop these ideas?
Working with mid-level managers for 30 years. I think what’s also revolutionary in the book is the acknowledgment that middle management is a legitimate career destination. I think the term middle management has over time been loaded with a negative connotation that says you’re a middle manager because you didn’t make it to the top, when in fact, you’re a middle manager because that’s where you fit best. That’s where your talents are.
Inside a large corporation, or at least where I was, senior managers are always on the top floor, and they had squishy carpet and the nice wooden desks. And downstairs we had asphalt tile and metal desks. There was all kinds of status symbols associated with being a senior manager that said being a senior manager is better than being a middle manager.
My contention is no, senior management is just different than middle management.
When did you shift from working in a business to consulting for businesses?
In 1980, I was working for one of the larger petroleum companies, and they made a lot of money, but they could have made a lot more money, but they weren’t interested in making more money because to make more money they would have had to work harder and they didn’t want to. And that was troubling to me because I thought, “Well why go to work if you don’t want to be as good as you can be?” I needed to go outside, I need to leave, and find people that are interested in getting better.
Why did that bother you so much?
It doesn’t bother me so much as — when I was in middle, and a freshman in high school, I liked playing sports, but I wasn’t what you would call a gifted athlete. But I wanted to be part of the team, and I was willing to do whatever it took. And if that meant sitting on the bench, I would sit on the bench and be part of the team. I was actually a really good baseball player. I was an OK basketball player, and I was a mediocre football player, but I was on all those teams, and all those teams won championships. And to me that was the most exciting thing ever, was not my own individual accomplishment but what we did together. So it doesn’t really bother me so much as I can see the opportunity in what we can do as opposed to what I can do.
What are some of the major ways that business and management has changed since you’ve been doing this?
I wish there were major ways that it had changed, in most ways it hasn’t. Management is very slow to adjust to the importance of the employee. When I worked on an automobile assembly line, there wasn’t any question about whether I could do the job. Because basically anybody could do the job. The only skill that was required was that I check my brain at the door, and be willing to do the same thing over and over again 70 times an hour for 8 hours of the day. It turns out I wasn’t willing to do that. It took them about 15 minutes to replace me.
Do you think there has been a fundamental change in the way people think about their work?
I think there’s a lot right now, where people are in the process of rethinking their relationship to work. The thing that makes my philosophy different, I believe, is that I believe in abundance not scarcity.
Could you elaborate on that?
I think you don’t have to be so focused on yourself. I believe in abundance, which is that there’s lots of opportunity around.
And I believe there’s poverty in the world, but I don’t believe it’s because there’s not enough food. Because there is.
Poverty exists because of our belief systems. Because we have an attitude toward people who fail, like there’s something wrong with them. Like it’s a moral, character issue, when nope, they just fail.
I think it would be a good thing for just about everybody to be broke one time. To know that you can just start over. I did that.
In 1980, when I left the corporation. It took me a while to land on my feet. I got down to the point where I had $85 to my name, and I had to make a choice, like do I go take a job or do I keep going? And I thought, “Well, somehow or another I’ll make this work.”
Were you scared of starving to death?
Scared? I was terrified. Sleeping on somebody else’s couch. Four months behind on my child support. Had my car repossessed.
But I never stopped believing in myself. It was more a no, not yet. I just haven’t been successful yet. Now, could that have gone the other way? Absolutely. But I also think that if you know yourself well enough, if you understand your skills and you know what you have to offer, that you’ll always be able to find something to do, and you’ll always be able to pay your bills.