Why It's Time to Change our Views on Management and the Job of Manager

Slightly distorted sign that reads, Be Prepared to Change
••• GettyImages/Steven Puetzer

The terms “manager” and “management” often get a bad rap in our culture. That’s unfortunate, because both the position and the practice hold the keys to solving many of the world’s problems, and both are relevant to you in your career.

Misconceptions Over Managers and Management

We often associate the role of manager with that evil, overbearing, almost Dickensian character known as the micromanager. If you have worked for one of these creatures and suffered through their constant, overwhelming oversight and second-guessing or criticism of your every action, it is understandable why you carry a less than flattering view of the role. I know individuals who exhibit a post-traumatic stress-like reaction to the thought of their former micromanaging boss.

The idea of the vocation of manager lost out in the academic and now public debate over the differences between managers and leaders. Leaders in this discourse are wrapped in all manner of goodness about creating the future, while the poor manager is relegated in these comparisons to the less lofty level of metaphorically ensuring floors are swept and toilets cleaned.

Meanwhile, the perception about the discipline of management has not fared much better. In my work as a graduate management educator, I hear from students (working professionals) regularly that management to them is much about control and very little about creation. They associate the practice of management with bureaucracy and inflexibility.

All of this is too bad. These are gross misnomers about the role, the discipline, and the potential that managers and management both have to make a difference in our world.

Dissenting Views-the Case for Management and Managers

Business guru, author, and London Business School professor, Gary Hamel, offers an alternative view suggesting in this fabulous video that: “management is the technology of human achievement.” Hamel’s writings and speeches carry a theme that celebrates the accomplishments of management in building the modern world and calls for the reinvention of this discipline to better fit the post-industrial revolution world of technology and exponential change we occupy.

Eric Ries, the author of one of the more impactful business books in recent history, "The Lean Startup," which promotes a culture of experimentation, adaptability and learning, suggests: “I want us to reclaim the word management and take it away from an association with bureaucracy, checklists, and rigid ways of thinking.” Ries goes on to say in this interview at strategy+business:

“We need management more than ever because we are confronting more and more uncertainty. We must cease to think of it as a way to organize people. Management must be a way to predict the future, keep things orderly and drive out variation. We’ve seen that in manufacturing, but it also needs to apply to the practice of innovation, even as we try to provoke variability and cause disruption.”

A Checklist Reminder of the Challenges in Front of Us

Much about the role of the manager and practice of management has its roots in industrial revolution era thinking. Yet somewhere on the way to this century, the world changed to create a perfect storm of new challenges for which the management approaches of the past are ill-suited to navigate. Just a few of the challenges in front of us include:  

  • Technology advancing at an exponential rate, precipitating change in the jobs we do and how/where we work.
  • The large forces of technology, globalization, urbanization, and demographics are rewriting the rules in our industries and businesses. Many of our businesses risk obsolescence in the face of entirely new industries, technologies, and alternatives emerging in this digital world.
  • Uncertainty and volatility define the environment in which we must cultivate our careers and guide our organizations.
  • The speed of change in our world demands rapid learning and adaptation and a relentless focus on identifying and executing on new opportunities before they are consumed or rendered obsolete.
  • Everything we do in our businesses must reflect a global mindset.
  • We are increasingly alone in navigating our careers, and must constantly find ways to renew our skills and create value for our employers of the moment.

Help Wanted-New Approaches to Management and a New Role of the Manager

Given the context of our changing world, the practice of management and the role of the manager have never been more important. In contrast to yesterday’s task and output focused bureaucrat, the new role of manager will emphasize the following behaviors:

  • Serving as a talent scout, constantly striving to identify and match the right resources with the emerging challenges.
  • Serving as a personal-professional coach, supporting the continuous development of team members.
  • Serving as a team coach, by fostering the environment and values necessary for teams to form, coalesce, execute in a high-performance fashion, and then disband in pursuit of new initiatives.
  • Challenging team members to look beyond the immediate industries and technologies to new developments that threaten current business models or offer opportunities to explore and potentially commercialize.
  • Serving as a connector between the firm’s higher level vision and strategy and the innovation and experimentation efforts of the teams.
  • Serving as a guide through the firm’s “Game of Thrones” like political environment.

The role is less about control and much more about enabling people to do their best work in an environment that fosters creativity, experimentation, and learning. This new manager functions as a connector, catalyst, and enabler of ideas and innovation. Looking over shoulders is no longer in the position description.

The Bottom Line

It is time to let go of our industrial revolution era thinking and practice of management. The challenges in our world require the best of us and the role of manager as creator and enabler is what is required. And for those preoccupied with the distinction between leader and manager, my favorite quote on this offers, “Do you really want a leader who cannot manager and a manager who cannot lead?” Forget about silly distinctions and focus on the pure raw potential inherent in the role and practice.

Indeed, as Eric Ries notes above, let’s reclaim this term and role.