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Management in Practice

Is management becoming a profession?

Charley Ellis suggests that, in order to become true professionals, managers will have to become "servant-leaders."

  • Charles D. Ellis
    Consultant in Investing; Director & Former Managing Partner, Greenwich Associates

Times change: 150 years ago, most doctors did not go to medical school; 100 years ago, few lawyers thought law school necessary; 75 years ago, most accountants were not CPAs; and 50 years ago, most business leaders had no MBA. Today, most corporate leaders would advise the best and brightest intent on careers in management to study in business school, future doctors to go to medical school, and lawyers to law school. In management, as in other professions, the accumulated knowledge and understanding requisite to great career success have become so extensive and complex—and so very worth understanding—that it is wise to carve out several years for serious study before practicing. While inexperienced people don't recognize that reality, experienced people understand and know it to be true. 

Is there enough evidence to say that management is becoming a profession? At least four levels of a profession can be considered: mastery of specific skills; knowledge and understanding of numerous concepts and analytical models; understanding of core and enduring principles of good practice; and establishment of core values or ethics that guide behavior when facing the new and unfamiliar. Skills can be taught and learned—and so can most forms of knowledge. But an understanding of core principles and of the overriding importance of ethics must be internalized by each individual, because ethics and values matter most when dealing with the new and unfamiliar—and when nobody's looking. 

Whether business management has become a profession depends, to put it candidly, on the individual professional, and the key factor is a commitment to serve others and to serve one's organization. Not all skillful and hard-working business managers are noble; some are despicable. But the very best-Alfred Sloan, Tom Watson, Herman Abs, Joe Wilson, Marvin Bower, Lou Gerstner, John Brown, Warren Buffett, Indra Nooyi, Jeff Immelt, Fred Smith, etc.-clearly serve others inside their organizations and in their communities and nations. (I've written a biography of Joe Wilson, because I think he's such an exemplary role model.)

Buffett, America's favorite business professional, has combined his knowledge and understanding as an investor to increase his effectiveness as a businessman and his knowledge and understanding as a businessman to increase his effectiveness as an investor. The third side of his professional triangle is a rigorous commitment to assertive business ethics because he sees principled behavior as a requirement for superb results. People want to do business—as employees, customers, and suppliers—with ethically strong business organizations. And the people who care the most are the employees, because we all want to be proud of our work organizations and we know ourselves by the companies we keep. 

Here at Yale, the obvious illustration of professionalism in business is chief investment officer David Swensen, who has foregone spectacular personal financial compensation to produce the world's best record of investment management with all the consequential benefits to the strength of a great university. He is of course rivaled by his president, Richard C. Levin. 

The profession of management is threatened by an absurd oversimplification: money. Sure, we all want to earn enough to provide well for our families, but equally surely, for the very talented in our society, that's not really a problem. Realistically, the "problem of money" is more accurately and usefully framed in two parts: (1) How will I protect my family from the harms of surplus income which may tempt us away from our real values? (2) If I achieve more than my family really wants to spend, how will I invest it in the best philanthropic purposes to advance scientific discovery, healthcare, education, and the arts, or to serve others who are less fortunate? 

All of us with careers in business management would do well to consider that some of our society's greatest managers are in fields without prospects of high pay or wealth accumulation—the military, the judiciary, civil service, education—including the leaders of complex, multi-billion-dollar universities and other institutions we treasure because they enrich our lives. 

Management in business is and will be recognized as a profession to the extent that those engaged see it as a service—and a calling. For those who are so fortunate to see their work in leadership and management as a service, the familiar guideline applies: "You get out of it at least what you put into it—and often much more." 

It is ironic that as management—usually thought of as business management—is shifting towards being a profession, some of the traditional learned professions are shifting toward "business" disciplines. As their organizations get larger and more concerned with economics and billable hours, lawyers express concerns about losing the treasured traditions of the legal profession, and medical doctors complain about insurance costs, fixed overheads, and pressures for "productivity." While most professions are only now learning how to work effectively in large groups, business management has long worked with large groups and is now learning how to develop greater depth and expertise in achieving intended results reliably and predictably.

Words migrate disruptively in meaning, so we must not be distracted by phrases like "she's a real pro" meaning self-disciplined, or "he acted very professionally," meaning calmly and unemotionally despite severe pressures, or "professional" as opposed to "amateur" in athletics. 

Ethics of leadership, like pornography, is easier to recognize than to define, but it's fair to say that in business you are doing ethical things when you do them because they're right—even though it's costing you money. In Profiles in Courage, JFK focused on describing politicians who took actions because they believed those actions were right even though they lost votes or advancement. Two dimensions of ethics are important to management professionals: the hygienic or non-negative ethics of not doing wrong and the affirmative ethics of deliberately doing what's really right and reaching to a higher standard. Rising to a higher standard of true professionalism is what George Marshall did when he was privately keen to lead the invasion of Europe—and everyone knew he was best qualified—but he insisted on giving FDR the choice, knowing he would be kept in Washington because his president and his nation needed him. Holding to a higher professional standard is what American Funds did when they decided not to offer a money-market fund or, later on, an emerging-markets fund when each "product" was in hot demand but investors would, over the long term, have made unwise decisions. 

Other aspects of a maturing profession include self-regulatory powers to certify the competence of practitioners and disciplinary powers to punish those who don't get it. As much as I believe management as a discipline is indeed a profession, I do not believe that SRO status will ever come to the management profession. As a part of holding managers accountable to and responsible for the real interests of laymen, I do hope to see individual and institutional commitments to continuous study and learning (as the military professionals so splendidly exemplify with their commitments to war colleges and civilian PhD programs) to keep up with the burgeoning knowledge and to develop cumulative mastery, with rigorous examinations to demonstrate requisite mastery. 

Michael Bloomberg is a professional's professional in leadership and management. As block trading and capital markets were developing in the 1970s, he led Salomon Brothers to the top of a very competitive league. Then, having had some experience with computers, he conceptualized and created a global high-tech information business of such dynamism that it outperformed all competitors. More recently, as mayor of New York City, he has been one of America's most successful political leaders. Among the panoply of challenges facing the mayor of our largest city, one of the easiest to ignore must be the appointment of judges for the city's Family Courts—traditionally a dumping ground for political hangers-on—but Mayor Bloomberg has insisted on selecting those judges with care because those courts impact kids' lives. As a very busy man, he spends two full days each year with a group of experienced lawyers and child psychologists interviewing candidates. He said, "We couldn't care less about their political parties. We just want to know how much they know and understand about kids. If they're really good on understanding kids in peril, they get appointed." 

Professions are simultaneously a cluster of intellectual disciplines, a community of shared ethical values, and a commitment to serve. In business, the appropriate term for the superior professional at work is "servant-leader"—a leader who is in service to the organization and its achievement of the highest satisfactions for customers, workers, and the community. If we are not achieving substantial results on all three dimensions, we should ask the obvious question: Why not?