The Evolution of “Manager”
Managers have been around at least as long as there have been organizations that need managing. Even ancient Sumerian traders used management-like concepts to do business more efficiently. But in an age of global companies, digital work platforms and widespread disruption across many industries, I’ve found myself wondering whether there have been significant changes to what it truly means to be a manager in today’s work environment. From my own experience, I can say that team communication is changing quickly as so much of our work now happens in virtual workspaces such as email, SMS, Slack, Salesforce, GoToMeeting, Google Drive and others. For a broader perspective, I reached out to HR thought leader and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, Josh Bersin, and to long-time finance executive and CFO at Sandow, Paul Suh.
Both men agreed that much of what worked for managers a few decades (or even just five years) ago, is no longer effective in today’s workforce. While the underlying tenants remain the same, e.g. managers still help align projects, decide who works on what, set priorities and assess performance, there has been a sea change in hierarchical dynamics.
As Josh puts it, “what has changed dramatically is the ‘power’ and ‘authority’ of managers. In the 1950s and 1960s, companies were set up with managers as the ‘Kings’ who decided everything - what people did, who was hired, and frankly how people were paid. Today, the top-down model of decision making simply doesn’t work, so managers have to be much more empowering. They have to put in place teams that can manage themselves and focus more on development and coaching. In many cases, the manager has far less expertise than the team, so the manager has to learn how to help the team make good decisions, align and coach people, and connect the team to bigger initiatives.”
Today, many managers find themselves leading direct reports they rarely see face-to-face, communicating via technologies that didn’t exist a few years ago. Case in point: Paul’s entire team of direct reports works from a different satellite office—something that not long ago would have been truly challenging. “We’ve embraced technology and frequently use video conferencing, screen sharing tools and file sharing to be able to manage through it all,” he says.
Paul also points to the increasing adoption of the “start-up” management model—replacing antiquated formal employee review processes with shorter, much more frequent, feedback mechanisms. “We’ve learned that our younger employees want this sort of feedback and direction far more frequently.”
While I’m no psychic, it’s clear that the next decade is going to hold some big changes for managers. HR leaders can help by staying abreast of the latest technologies and studies, talking to managers about how best to lead the next generation of workers and setting up trainings to ensure managers aren’t left in the dust, if, say, Oculus Rift for office becomes a thing (kidding… I hope).