The 21st Century Manager

February 12, 2010

There are some distinct changes managers need to make if they plan to be successful in the 21st century. To put it simply and directly: Techniques that worked well in the 20th century will not continue to work well in the 21st century.

The roots of 20th century management lie in manufacturing where the work was more manual and the output well-defined. In today’s business world, we’re dealing with much more difficult problems where a problem statement exists and someone must come up with a solution. The output is not well-defined at the outset, it is shaped as a function of the work. In addition, knowledge workers typically have a greater understanding of their work than their manager does.

This places very different demands and expectations on a manager. Some people even feel that this makes managers are obsolete, but I beg to differ. Good managers have the knowledge, abilities, and experiences that can help individuals and teams achieve the high-performance state that we all want them to reach. The focus of management needs to change to meet today’s needs.

“Getting things done through others” needs to change to “developing people and teams.”

“Getting things done through others” is a traditional definition of management, and one that I’ve used myself. However, it implies a command-and-control scenario whereby a manager assigns tasks directly, and where the manager is ultimately responsible for the achievements (or lack thereof) of the team. Empowered, self-directed teams do not need a manager explicitly assigning tasks; the team can collaborate to accomplish the work, and they can be responsible for the results.

The raises the ante on team members as the teams take on what has been the traditional purview of management, such as planning, problem solving, and decision-making. There is also a need for improving communication skills – something else that good managers are very skilled at. A 21st century manager should assess and coach teams (and individuals) in these areas so that the teams are executing well to maximize effectiveness.

The 21st century manager should also help identify training and career opportunities for individuals on teams. Facilitating the learning and growing of employees is an essential role; keeping an employee challenged and growing in his or her career will provide a great deal of satisfaction, engagement, and loyalty – essential to retention.

“People under your thumb” needs to change to “finger on the pulse.”

Since individuals and teams will no longer be doing a manager’s bidding, a manager’s role will shift to that of someone who is in touch with what is going on, allowing autonomy and being supportive through working with individuals and teams to understand what is working well and what the impediments are.

Skilled managers understand the strengths, weaknesses, and preferences of those who report to them, and can even assess the dynamics and flow of a team – good or bad – to judge whether changes are necessary, and what changes need to be made. A good 21st century manager should be able to intervene (when required) and remove a poorly performing team member or assist in activities like lining up a specialist that can help the team overcome a specific problem that is outside of the expertise of anyone on the team.

Ensuring compliance needs to change to  facilitating engagement.

Traditional management has been about being specific about the work, and setting down rules and procedures to ensure that the work happened as planned, using the typical “carrot and stick” approach to reward favorable results and punish poor results.

Empowered individuals and teams need information and understanding to work with – such as the business context about why something is important to do in the first place. A manager will not issue orders as much as he or she will answer questions or provide guidance. It is a more collaborative approach where a manager provides a vision, clarity of purpose and direction. A 21st century manager shares his or her expertise and knowledge with the team to help the team improve as well as helping the team to overcome obstacles.