Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796, was a great believer in ‘maxims’ – short, pithy instructions aimed at improving both herself and her subjects. She was also, at least until her last years, a very good manager of people. So what could she teach today’s managers and HR professionals? Here is a series of ‘maxims for managers’, adapted from Catherine’s own writings:
- Whenever you want to introduce a new rule or law, stimulate discussion beforehand and find out exactly what people are saying. Springing something unexpected on people may not bring about the results you desire.
- If in doubt, it’s better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing.
- Flatter your subordinates to ensure that they are not afraid to tell you the truth.
- Only dispense favours (bonuses, perhaps?) if you are directly asked for them, or if you have already made up your mind to do so without the intervention of a third party, for it is important that the obligation be owed to you and not to anyone else.
- One of your most important tasks is to select the right people to work for you; unless you know how to seek out the best, and do so, you are not worthy of being in charge.
- Begin your day with the most difficult, most awkward and most tedious matters; with those out of the way, the rest will seem easy and agreeable.
- Be prepared to do yourself what you want your subordinates to do (Catherine’s prime example of this was having herself and her son inoculated against smallpox in 1768). ‘My object was by my own example to save from death countless of my loyal subjects, who, not knowing the benefit of this method, and fearing it, were remaining in danger.’
- Know how to put people at their ease, while maintaining your own dignity.
- Give praise in public; if you have to give criticism or blame, do so in private.
- Have courage, keep on moving forward – ‘words which have seen me through good and bad years alike’.
It is a measure of Catherine’s success as a manager that, though belonging to a dynasty and regime famously characterised as ‘absolutism tempered by assassination‘, she died of natural causes at the end of a 34-year reign.