The Perils Of Ignoring The Softer Side Of Management

An overemphasis on the "hard" side of management, a carryover from the industrial age, can at best achieve a linear increase in performance. But a focus on the soft, non-linear side can lead to exponential growth.

There is a continuum in management between "hard" and "soft." The "hard" is the management that makes plans, sets up structures, and monitors performance. The "soft" is the people-friendly management based on emotions. The classic, modern dichotomy was shown by the switch of John Sculley in 1983 from the "hard," corporate world of Pepsi to Apple, which was based on "soft" management, and then, as Apple developed and investment bankers became involved and the company grew bigger, friendship went out of the window, management became tough and aggressive, and everything was about the bottom line.

The "hard" side is based on consistency, and in human resources this often works through demographics, by assessing credentials. Appointing senior managers is the most important aspect of being a CEO, and I have made many appointments that were considered unusual. I would say these "instinctive" appointments worked six or seven times out of 10. When they didn’t work, I admitted it and removed the people. The net outcome, though, was leaders who would not otherwise have been brought on board.

In practice today, the majority of managers, perhaps 90 percent, still focus too much on the task side, a hangover from the industrial age.

My own approach has been based on curiosity. My aim was never to reduce differences, but, rather, to celebrate them. In managing human beings, you manage emotions and passions. Indeed, optimize their passionate state in order that they deliver their best. That is totally non-linear: The mistake that 90 percent of managers and business leaders make is that they try and linearize the behavioral side by proceduralizing it.

In purely percentage terms, management in recent years has shifted from being overwhelmingly oriented towards task structure to being divided perhaps 50:50 between task structure and consideration. For me, task structure is 20 percent or less. The consideration part is 80–85 percent, and as CEO of Zain—the ex-state-owned telecoms operator with a base of 500,000 customers that we grew into an international giant with 72 million—I spent far more of my energy on the consideration side, which often surprised people.

When I first arrived at MTC, many joked that I was running a social club. Something similar happened even as Zain took off, because people often thought I was wasting my time: "Why does al Barrak spend 80 percent of his day talking to people about general issues and 20 percent on planning and strategy and so on?" The answer is that the best of plans and strategies are the ones extracted from the hearts and minds of your people, or inculcated in the hearts and minds of your people.

An overemphasis on the "hard" side, the linear part, can at best achieve a linear increase in performance. But a focus on the soft, non-linear side can lead to an exponential improvement in performance. Zain’s rise through seven years, from 2003 until 2010, was non-linear, and this could never have been achieved by following the precepts of conventional, linear, task-oriented management.

No company can work without a "hard" side, without structures and plans. When we acquired several mobiles licenses in our early growth years, or were deciding to outsource our supply-chain, there were many plans and structure.

There is always a tension in business between being transactional and being transformational. Transactional leaders make the organization more successful in getting things done, whereas transformational leaders take the organization from one stage to a completely new one. Some leaders are very transformational, revolutionary, and creative. Other leaders are transactional: They are good at putting processes, systems, and mind-sets in place. But the real challenge is being able to do both at the same time. The constant is the vision, as delineated in a strategy. Once you change your vision, you change your identity and become a new creature. Strategy is the execution of the vision, so even the strategy is temporary.

My philosophy is not based just on tolerating ambiguity and paradox, but sometimes on proactively creating them. Of course I took many decisions on instinct. But the management systems within Zain went all the way from the budget to setting specific objectives down to teams of three or four. The balance was unusual—perhaps 60 percent on culture and 40 percent on quantified "business" targets.

Optimal control is no control. If staff align their mission in life with the mission of the organization, and go about their life appreciating the complexities around this mission, that’s the highest level of discipline. They wake up and think: "How am I going to conquer the world today?"

What’s more, the continuums themselves shift. When we bought Fastlink, acquired the licenses in Bahrain and Iraq and won a management agreement in Lebanon, in a matter of two years we quickly became five companies rather than one.

Another continuum, that of external/internal, also changed as we expanded. The external coalition involves anyone external to the executives of the company, so it includes the board and shareholders. The leader should be able to align the external coalition with the internal coalition behind the mission, and so make sure the external coalition does not negatively pressure the internal coalition and hinder its progression to its objectives.

From the press to consultants, Zain developed an extensive communications operation, at the corporate level and in individual countries. When we made the big move to outsource in Saudi Arabia you could hear the sound of plans being torn up—music to my ears—for in a fast-changing world there continuums are always moving.

Companies which mistakenly try to make themselves more professional by taking everything linear, simply decide they want best practice. They look for best practice in the world and they try to copy it.

I say that best practice equals beast practice, because that’s what beasts do: They just copy each other. So that’s best practice in the corporate world? What makes you win is uniqueness, not standardization. For me this establishes a dynamic relationship between business transformation and turbulence. It is turbulence, and not stability, that is the steady state in business. Maturity is a journey, not a destination. A mature business is a stagnant, dying business.

Reality, especially in today’s world, is dynamic: Even if the structure suits the time it is created, by the time it has been put into practice that reality has already shifted.

This reflected the approach we adopted at Zain. We changed our architecture all the time, made decisions on the fly, and from the outset wanted to be super-flexible—"chaos by design." I wanted a company that could make sudden left or right turns without breaking its back.

Saad Al Barrak the former CEO of Zain, a leading mobile telecommunications provider in the Middle East and North Africa.
He is the author of A Passion for Adventure: Turning Zain into a Telecom Giant.

[Image: Flickr user Yuri Barichivich]

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  • Angela Fresne

    Thank you for such an inspiring article and point of view.  My view of management is to provide direction as well as coaching to help team members think through themselves the right direction, and to continually encourage my team to explore new avenues and to THINK not just react to the never ending flow of tasks that can tend to overwhelm us.  Decision making is not something that can always be collaborative, but if you do spend time on a regular basis to really understand how others are experiencing the business environment, the strategy, the process and transformation, you can make a decision based on much more than personal opinion and unique experience. I do drive process, operations, as well as marketing strategies, and transformation has been my passion for many years.  But what keeps me going, my biggest objective is so perfectly stated by your comment "They wake up and think: "How am I going to conquer the world today?" ". When I know my team members are excited and inspired, I know I'm adding value to both the company and to their lives.

  • Mohammed Al Anizi

    Dr.Saad this
    is absolutely right. On 2009 I selected some of our  valued
    employees from  corporate supervisory levels and send them an
    Email asking 2 questions  (Q 1.What would you do if you get a
    business  increase of 50% in terms of operations in your department?
    Q 2. what would you do if you get a promotion and an increase of
    your monthly paid salary of  50% ?).  I go normal
    replies for these questions. Now what was my objective from  this
    question and did I achieve it and why?

    -My objective was to create
    an anticipation between employees personal plans and our ORG 5 years strategic

    -Yes, I achieved it. The
    prove was that there was a demand from those colleagues to study and
    share ideas to improve the selection of  tactics for the
     planned strategy, which were added values.  


    -Why? I have
    strong believe that most failure of any strategic plan was
    due to miscommunication of planned strategies 
    to employees in very innovative way that create an
    effective anticipation. Now the plan is being achieved faster than


    It is absolutely right that An overemphasis on the
    "hard" side, the linear part, can at best achieve a linear increase
    in performance. But a focus on the soft, non-linear side can lead to an
    exponential improvement in performance.

    Thank you Dr. Saad

    Mohammed Al Anizi
    Manager, Corporate Marketing & Business Development
    Business Center, National Guard Health Affairs
    Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

  • Joe Passkiewicz

    Excellent post!  I see the "task side" often consume one dimensional managers.  They are fearful to take their hands off the wheel and empower others to allow emotion and passion to drive their team.  I believe that we all want to be transformational.  The transactional focus will always lead to boredom.  We want to be part of something bigger- your "conquer the world".  Structure is necessary, but only in developing a minimum standard and as a tool to measure and benchmark.  Today we are all trying to hit a moving target.  I believe you must deal with the fear in order to encourage an environment that celebrates our common charateristics of passion and heart so that you can remain nimble and relevant in today's dynamic business environment.  Thanks for your work!

    Joe Passkiewicz

  • Cole Rice

    Coming from my first management season of my life I believe this article speaks volumes about how to keep employees engaged in the ultimate goal of the company. For me it was almost a 50-50 split of strategy and planning, and the other was investing my employees, and getting to know them. By doing this I was able to put each one in a better role that fit their personalities. I also see a growing retention of my employees over the departments I manage going into the next season.