Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Does someone need to be a good manager to give good management advice?

In a management Slack I’m in, someone responded to a list of commonly-recommended management books by asking, “are these people good managers though?” It’s a fair question! If you found out that the person giving management advice was in fact a terrible boss, you’d probably question that advice, right? It seems reasonable to want to listen to advice from people who’ve been able to use that advice to do a good job.

The difficulty is “good manager” or “bad manager” isn’t a universal, static, fixed thing. If you spoke to everyone who’s ever worked for me and asked them about my skills as a manager, I suspect you’d get a wide range of answers. I think most would say I’m average-to-good. A few would tell you I’m the best boss they’ve ever had. A few would tell you I was a terrible failure and they wouldn’t let their enemies report to me.

The key point is that they’d all be right. Management is a relationship, and humans don’t have a consistent API. The techniques that make me a good manager in one scenario might fail miserably in another. It’s not surprising that I might have knocked it out of the park with one person while deeply failing another. At the same time, even!

There’s a way in which management advice is a sort of variant of the “all models are wrong, but some are useful” idea. If the advice is helpful, if it gives you some additional tools you can apply at your job, it’s worth considering. (I even find some use in bad management advice: it helps me see some things not to do!)

But that said, I still think it’s fair to ask about the bonafides of the person giving you advice. Not because you’ll necessarily discard it out of hand if you hear they suck, but because it’s important context about where the advice is coming from. There’s one well-known management advice author whose work I won’t recommend because I’ve consistently heard much worse stories about his management skill from Black people than I have from white people. This tells me that he’s likely to have some serious gaps in his perspective. I do still read his work, but I do it with a critical eye.

So what about me? Have I done good enough work that you should trust my advice? I think so; I think if you conducted that poll of people who reported to me you’d conclude I was on balance pretty good. But I wouldn’t be offended if you asked around, found out things that concerned you, and decided to never read my work again.

I hope you’ll decide to stick around, though!