Harry Starren

Books for bosses

What do six management books teach us about the current trends and fashions in management? A conversation with Harry Starren, Managing Director of De Baak, school for managers and monkeys.

Text: Gijsbert van Es; Illustrations: Rhonald Blommestijn

An amusing pastime: predicting the winner. Who will win the World Cup? (The Netherlands misses out yet again…) Who will win the Nobel Prize for Literature? (won’t be Harry Mulisch…) Who will win the AKO Literature Award, or the Libris Award? (Arnon Grunberg again…?)

On the 17th of March the management book of the year 2011 will be announced. Exciting? Not really. The vote, organized by the webstore managementboek.nl, will not be broadcast live on TV, and the authors are not Dutch celebrities.

Nevertheless, the nominated best books for managers deserve a moment of fame. Together they reveal a little about the current fashions and trends in management. We already know that this particular species has contributed quite a few words to our language – terms such as ‘manage’, ‘pathway’, ‘target’ and ‘a trace of commitment’. They have tied up their staff in the straitjacket of ‘project management’ so that their days are now spent in steering committees, brainstorming groups and kick-off meetings. They once talked of nothing but ‘self-managing teams’, which became such a shambles that they flip-flopped to the other extreme with the ‘synergistic gains’ of tightly managed support services and schedules. In the meantime, their employees tried to carry on working as normally as possible.

Now, in the early days of the 21st century, we are struggling to deal with the aftershocks of mismanagement in the financial sector. The free market has failed, forcing governments the world over to make far-reaching cutbacks. Meanwhile, the revolution in digital technology has not only given us Web 2.0 – but also Enterprise 2.0, Employee 2.0 and Civil Servant 2.0…

Read the titles of the six nominated management books and you will see a common thread. The nominees are: ‘Brein@work. Breinkennis voor organisaties’ [‘Brain@work’. Knowledge of the Brain for Organizations’]), ‘Connect!’ De impact van sociale netwerken op organisaties en leiderschap’[Connect! The Impact of Social Networks on Organizations and Leadership’], ‘Het nieuwe werken ontrafeld. Over Bricks, Bytes en Behavior’ [‘The New Way of Working Unraveled. Bricks, Bytes and Behavior’], ‘Veranderen in dialoog’ [‘Change in Dialogue’], ‘Hoe krijg ik ze zover? Draagvlak zonder dwang’ [‘How do I motivate them? Support Without Coercion’] and ‘De 9+ organisatie. Van marketshare naar mindshare’ [‘The 9+ Organization. From Market Share to Mindshare’]. The greatest common denominator is this: the modern manager is a networker – a master in social skills, a wizard with computers, websites and software.

Is the boss at the top no longer the boss?

Harry Starren is Managing Director of De Baak, a training center for middle and upper management. He is aware the pressing questions facing managers from his study program and training practice. He has read the six nominated books, chosen from a long list of 250 candidates (in turn chosen from the approximately one thousand management books that flood the Dutch market each year). He says: “The time when the manager’s task was simply to be a leader is over. The pure manager is developing into an endangered species.”

6. Why does he say this? Two of the nominated books he rejects straight away. The book ‘Hoe krijg ik ze zover? Draagvlak zonder dwang’, written by coach and ‘entertainer’ Jan van Setten, languishes at the bottom of his list in order of personal preference. “It’s the perspective of this book that I don’t like. We see the author as the hero in his own book here, with a whole arsenal of tricks for getting people where he wants them to be. One of those books with lists, abbreviations and charts that have been cut and pasted from the international literature and recycled many times before. It contains Daniel Ofman’s well-flogged Quadrant, for example – with core qualities, pitfalls, challenges and allergies. Useful all right, but he attributes it to the wrong source and fails to cite many other sources altogether. I wouldn’t be so quick to give an award to someone who writes a book like that.”

A manager must show genuine love of the trade and

5. As far as Harry Starren is concerned, Kees Schilder and Hans van Teijlingen, authors of the book ‘Veranderen in dialoog’, shouldn’t hold their breath when it comes to winning an award either. “They describe management purely as a talking profession. Dutifully consulting with everyone all the time, sitting down together and finding support and explaining everything. What does daddy do? Daddy is good at holding meetings, every day, and getting people to work for him. And what else does he do? Daddy can’t do anything else.”

It is a management method that can be traced back to the old industrial age. The production chain was chopped into pieces, with marginal bosses all over the place trying to keep everything together. In jargon: it was the age of differentiation, but we are now living in the age of integration. Specifically? Starren: “A manager who lacks practical skills and who doesn’t produce anything on the shop floor
may know all the tricks from the management books you can think of, but he will still fall short as a manager.”

An easy claim to make. But the CEO of KLM doesn’t have to know how to heat up airline meals does he? “Real leaders get involved in everything – not to interfere, but because of their passion for the trade. Joop van den Ende is at the top of his game but he can still get annoyed about the lighting being too bright in the restrooms in his new theater. Tex Gunning of AKZO rolls up his sleeves and gets involved in his company and in the wider world, instead of just sitting at conference tables in a grey suit. Dick Boer of Ahold is and will always be the son of a grocer who can often be found in his stores.”

Passion! And not that of the sly, preaching fox – a manager must show genuine love of the trade and workmanship. And, above all, he must show passion, in his words and deeds, in order to spread that to his employees. From that perspective, most management books – including some of the nominees – are a great disappointment to him. “Chronic language deficiency” is what he says he encounters. “Those books should inspire you, but what you read is often formulated in such a lackluster way and displays hardly any originality at all.”

An example from ‘Veranderen in dialoog’, page 43:

“(…) Why are organizations so often frustrating instead of motivating? Based on the bottlenecks referred to above, the following are worthy of our attention:
• Vision, passion and ambition are essential. There must be a shared ambition to do better.
• The link between ‘professional’ and ‘management’ must remain intact.
• There should be a realization that dedicated employees can also make a difference during times of crisis.
• We must rid ourselves of our one-sided view of the employee.”

Exegesis after reading the text – what’s wrong with that? “What it says does make sense, but it’s the language of a schoolteacher reciting a lesson. Such books are usually written by coaches and
consultants, from the viewpoint of the omniscient narrator. The tone is always: hire me; I know how you should run your business. They’re pitch books.”

4. If inspiring use of language is so important, why then does Harry Starren put the book ‘De 9+ organisatie. Van marketshare naar mindshare’ in fourth place? Two random sentences, taken from Chapter 8, concerning customer service: “A Customer Journey is a relationship analysis and improvement approach. The existing organizational processes are identified as stages in a (subconscious) emotional journey by the customer doing business with the organization.” It doesn’t exactly make for easy reading, acknowledges Starren. “But apart from that, this book is more enjoyable for me than the previous two, because the perspective here is truly different. The book is not about managers who see their organization as a circus with wild beasts they can tame. The book says: all employees in an organization, ranging from high to low, must agree on a single common goal. And that is not: achieving the highest possible turnover at the lowest possible cost; that is: scoring a 9+ in customer satisfaction surveys. A 7 or 8 is not enough. No, it has to be a 9+, and the high turnover will follow automatically.”

Ah, there it is again, the paradigm shift – a proliferating mixed metaphor from management literature. In other words: a plea to ‘shift the way of thinking’? Or to put it a little nicer: ‘Get everyone moving in
the same direction!’

Starren: “Certainly – but, apart from those awful words, it isn’t a worn-out message; it’s pure necessity.” According to Starren, the core of the problem that exists in many organizations is not to be
found in the performance of employees but in the pretentions of managers.

The top is ruled by Parkinson’s Law (1958), which exposes the timid reflexes of managers. Simply put: managers shift the responsibility for major challenges and real problems onto as many subordinates as possible as often as possible, so that they can focus all their energy on themselves at the highest level. This is: the oligarchization among elites in general and among upper management in particular.

Starren formulates it differently: “Older monkeys are quick to find young monkeys too wild and rowdy. So they turn their backs on the young monkeys and appoint mediator monkeys to keep the young ones quiet. That’s where it often goes wrong. You then get an organization in which office politics run rampant and the focus shifts away from the common goal of delivering production and achieving results.”

Can Starren support this metaphor with an example? A suggestion: something from public broadcasting practice perhaps? “Yes, you see that a lot there. VARA is doing well, with its profile as a cabaret broadcaster, and the KRO with its crime series. But truly innovative television is being made by BNN. And the BNN chairman, Patrick Lodiers, continues to make programs himself too; he doesn’t lock himself away behind closed doors.”

What does daddy do? Daddy is good at holding meetings. And what else does he do? Daddy can’t do anything else.

3. So what should the old monkeys in Hilversum and in all the other ivory towers do? “Stay in touch with the younger generation.” That is: the internet generation, the network generation. That’s why Starren has included two books on this in the top half of his list. In third place: ‘Connect! De impact van sociale netwerken op organisaties en leiderschap’, by lecturer, entrepreneur and consultant Menno Lanting. Harry Starren immediately informs me: “I know him personally; he works for De Baak too, so I won’t go into this book too deeply.”

Employees do not take on the role of puppies in obedience class

‘Connect!’ describes how new social structures are emerging through websites like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Hyves. For businesses this means one thing: new markets. For governments: new ways of reaching citizens, outside the traditional media. Always including: the pros and cons of interaction. Consumers may be easy to reach, but they can just as easily find their way to producers and expect efficient and decent service. They don’t want to hear “please hold while I transfer your call” or “my colleague will be with you in a moment.” Deliver! Now! Quickly!

“The nice thing about ‘Connect!’,” says Harry Starren, “is that it is a narrative, journalistic book. It reads like a quest, is rich in sources, and gives numerous specific examples.”

2. Why is the other ‘network book’ higher on the list than ‘Connect!’? Title: ‘Het nieuwe werken ontrafeld. Over Bricks, Bytes en Behavior’ (‘The New Working Unraveled. Bricks, Bytes and Behavior’, by Ruurd Baane, Patrick Houtkampen and Marcel Knotter, three specialists in human resources).

Starren: “Because visually it is far more interesting than the previous book. That may seem irrelevant, but we are talking about management books here. For me this means that such a book should inspire, and be attractive both literally and figuratively. This book contains intriguing photography and a clear structure in which theoretical passages and cases are alternated.”

What has Starren learned from it? “It describes how a new generation of professionals has emerged that can do so much more and is far more interesting than the older generation. These people are not
pigeonholed. I also see that with young people in my own practice. They switch effortlessly from one role to another. Gathering information, giving a presentation, managing a project, making a film – they
can do it all, and with an incredible amount of energy and creativity!”

1. That leaves one more book, which makes it the number 1. It is the product of forty authors: ‘Brein@work’. Breinkennis voor organisaties’, edited by Nina Lazeron and Ria van Dinteren. It is an empathetic book in every respect. Employees do not take on the role of puppies in obedience class here. It analyses the learning capacity of the brain, the influence stress and emotion have on it, the functioning of sensory perception, methods for reinforcing creative thinking – to mention just a few of the dozens of chapters and paragraphs.

Starren: “This book is a constant source of surprise, because it teaches you to look at people from different angles. It is about behavioral patterns, mindsets and lifestyle.”

That’s quite a lot all in all. Will it help the managing director of a sausage factory? Will he need to delve deep into the minds of his staff in order to be a successful businessman?

“Yes,” says Harry Starren. “A real leader needs to be a good judge of character, he has to be able to reach out to his staff at an emotional level. He must be able to sense what moves people, what motivates them and what impresses them. Most management books are seriously lacking in that area, which is why you’re better off reading novels and poetry, watching movies and going to the theater. In order to really read people and genuinely get through to them, you need to have a strongly developed metaphorical ability. You need to be able to think and talk in images, be a visionary. The romantic idea is back: to give purpose and meaning, to generate love – that is what leadership is all about.”


Brein@work. Breinkennis voor organisaties
Nina Lazeron and Ria van Dinteren (ed.), Bohn Stafleu van Loghum, 406 pages, €47.95

Het nieuwe werken ontrafeld. Over bricks, bytes en behavior
Ruurd Baane, Patrick Houtkamp and Marcel Knotter, Van Gorcum, 168 pages, €24.95

Connect! De impact van sociale netwerken Op organisaties en leiderschap
Menno Lanting, Business Contact, 224 pages, €22.50

De 9+ organisatie. Van marketshare naar mindshare
Barry Veldhoen and Stephan van Slooten, Van Duuren Management, 180 pages, €24.90

Veranderen in dialoog
Kees Schilder and Hans van Teijlingen, Scriptum, 146 pages, €19.95

Hoe krijg ik ze zover? Draagvlak zonder dwang
Jan van Setten, Business Contact, 160 pages, €19.90

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