20th Century managers inhibit 21st Century work

Mar 05 2009 by John Blackwell Print This Article

The current economic turmoil will have far-reaching impacts – not the least of which will be irrevocable and fundamental changes to our workforces and the way we work.

As organisations bend and reshape their direction to reflect the prevailing economic winds, an all-too common reaction is to shed talented staff. This leaves the remaining employees in those organisations trying to achieve better, faster with less. They will be expected and required to balance a greater portfolio of projects, many of which will stretch their skills and experience beyond previous norms. In addition, there is also an increasing trend for outsourcing services seen as peripheral to core business operation.

The combined result of these changes is a huge increase in management pressure. Managers will no longer be able to coast, masquerading with a modicum of bone fide management skills and negligible experience. They must master consummate management skills and display genuine abilities to enthuse and inspire a disparate workforce that they rarely, if ever see.

In the past, management skills were typically acquired through exposure and guidance from experienced senior mentors. Managers learnt their skills from peers who, in turn, were schooled in old concepts of staff management and motivation – frequently those proffered by Frederick Taylor a Century earlier. Customarily, this 'knowledge' was a rite of passage, passed down through the organisation, and only when someone had acquired this 'knowledge' were they deemed ready for a management role.

Despite pivotal changes to the way we work over the past 100 years, it's disappointing to witness countless organisations where management remains defined as a line-of-sight skill. I'm sure if you cast an eye around your own company, it's easy to spot managers who've come up though this age-old route – and how well do we recognise their strengths and their weaknesses!

Today's reality is there is no escape for managers – they MUST adapt in order to survive in this new world order. As Gary Hamelsuccinctly puts it, "it's impossible to reinvent management without first escaping the dead weight of our management orthodoxies. We must consciously challenge the assumptions, habits, and patterns of thought that prevent us from imaging new ways of leading, organising, and managing".

Ignoring the expectations of today's new workforce is a sure-fire way of inhibiting productivity and finding staff voting with their feet. Managers must learn to shed the old command and control status symbols, and instead operate in a virtual world of guidance and encouragement.

Central to this change is a rewriting of the old conventions to reflect new bonds of mutual trust and outcome-based performance measures – however, this is often easier said than done. Shifting to forward-looking "smartworking" principles is creating a major headache for many managers – particularly middle managers aspiring to climb the corporate ladder.

The power suit and vast office does not make any difference when your team is increasingly remote. The traditional trappings of status previously associated with 'moving up the ladder' count for nothing in a virtual world.

So without these 'clues', how do you motivate a team you don't see? The emphasis has to shift to engaging, consulting, fostering relationships and connections, championing success, continual coaching, mentoring and motivation, and importantly, transparency and clarity of goals. Considerable care and nurturing must be given to team career development and promotion opportunities – the absence of a clear development path can potentially to leave remote staff feeling isolated and disenfranchised.

It's equally important to recall that disparate team members will have different loyalties and goals, and may well come from diverse cultural backgrounds. Consequently, an effective 21st Century manager must offer uniform support and motivation with equal measures and enthusiasm to all – irrespective of whether they are internal or external to the team. Gone are the days where a 'you can't manage what you can't see' attitude prevailed.

The extent that managers are struggling to reinvent working practices was highlighted in our "Workplace of the Future" report. Drawn from interviews with more than 1,100 business leaders, 77% reported they are not getting the best from their remote workers, 78% stated visibility and presenteeism was still used to judge performance, and 75% stated their approach to change was ad- hoc or improvised.

This is a truly alarming state of affairs given that the ability for managers to change quickly and successfully is a crucial skill – especially as change itself is fast becoming a permanent state. In an environment where products, markets, operations, and business models are in permanent flux, clear values and goals provide alignment and cohesion, and create a culture where the team are comfortable with change and unpredictability.

What's required is for managers to become visionary challengers – people who question assumptions and suggest radical alternatives (even being brave enough to suggest alternatives that others might consider impractical). These will be charismatic change leaders who set direction, inspire, deliver against defined business outcomes, and move the organisation forward. In this environment, strong management (and especially change management) is a core competence at all levels and nurtured as a professional discipline, not an "art".

Mangers must provide staff the support and freedom that allows them to fulfil their potential, and to deliver the optimal creativity and innovation that elevates performance to world-class. To deal successfully with the cultural changes demanded by today's smarter working practices, a manager must demonstrate integrity, honesty, sensitivity, and humility. In equal measure, they must also inspire, motivate, and be willing to challenge habits and conventions. When distilled against this new work backdrop, the work of management is focused on two essential tasks;-

Amplifying human capability (creating an environment that inspires, enables and empowers people to give the very best of themselves) and:
Aggregating human effort (co-ordinating the activities of individuals in ways that allow them to achieve together what they could not otherwise achieve alone).

The case is clear – managers must adapt to survive and thrive – and so are the tough questions that must be asked.

Are managers the visionary challengers required to create the freedom to effect meaningful change? Does your organisation manage change as a structured program and precisely measure the effectiveness of change?

Does your organisation have robust processes in place to incubate new product, service and business model concepts – and redirect investment when required?

Does your organisation have a healthy appetite for change? And how quickly can managers adapt?

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About The Author

John Blackwell
John Blackwell

John Blackwell is a sought after global thought-leader on effective business operation. His is author of over 30 management books and a visiting fellow at three leading universities.