When you talk to business leaders today, you hear more and more that they feel that the middle management of our organizations is in crisis. Senior management feels they are not always managing the organization as effectively with these team leaders.
In a world where some believe we should move towards horizontal structures, we find that many organizations still need team leaders, supervisors, mentors, and so on in the workplace. Not to maintain a world where we have what The Economist called “boss and minions”-structures, but to ensure there’s enough energy to focus on the desired outcome, remove what blocks our teams from achieving that, and stay connected with our coworkers in the organization. The need to handle management differently presents itself most acutely in those companies where knowledge workers are predominantly employed.
What’s going on?
If we look deeper into this sense of crisis caused, a number of things come up:
The move to hybrid and remote work came faster than most people had anticipated.
The new way of working is here – and it arrived in a heartbeat. In our knowledge organizations, we collaborate fundamentally differently than three years ago. While the evolution from fixed offices to flex desks spanned almost 20 years, working beyond location and time constraints arrived in that week of March 2020.
In those 20 years of evolution to the more flexible workplace, our change management ensured that not only the workplace but also the management of our teams, the agreements we made with each other, and the practical organization gradually found its way. In the transition to the hybrid, location-independent, and time-independent, however, we have not taken the time (or at least not enough) to dwell on the abrupt new change under the pressure of the reality we suddenly lived in, what it means for our teams, or still how we best organize ourselves to start maximizing the benefits of this new working method now.
The manager is dead, long live the manager
The role of the manager changed profoundly in that transition, and we paid little attention to it – because of the speed at which it happened. We expected that the transition from the old office setup to the location-independent workplace would basically be business as usual, and that videoconferences would be the universal stop-gap for the potential flaws in the management style.
Successfully managing a team in this context requires more than just the ability to delegate tasks and keep projects on track. The best managers in modern knowledge companies are effective communicators, motivators, and problem solvers. They understand how to support and challenge their team members and how they can create an environment where everyone can deliver their best work. In itself, this is nothing new, but now that we don’t sit with our team every day and can feed ourselves the illusion that presence also means productivity, the other necessary skills – or lack thereof – surface in our team leaders.
Moreover, younger employees in information jobs are more likely to expect a mentor-mentee relationship rather than a pure hierarchy. De need for mentoring is bigger than ever. Older management styles are not focused on developing that mentor-mentee relationship, let alone expanding it with reversed mentoring: When we talk about mentoring, we usually think of a senior executive helping a junior employee. And that model works, but when we combine mentoring with reverse mentoring, it creates a dialogue where both parties gain insights they didn’t have before.
The war on talent
The war on talent is not making finding the right employees – and therefore good managers – any easier. Many organizations are caught on speed. There was a lot of focus in the years leading up to 2020 on handling the influx of all those candidates who came to our jobs, whereas now we are increasingly finding that sometimes a job posting does not produce a single good candidate.
Anyone who has not been engaged in employee engagement, internal mobility, and genuine mentoring of the talent who chose to work with us in the past, is putting a bandage on a wooden leg in their war on talent. Teams and thus team leaders play a crucial role in keeping good talent on board, by making sure before scouting new talent that the valuable people remain committed to their team and the organization.
Career management and job crafting
If we want to keep talent on board, we not only want to encourage an empathetic, evolving leadership style, but we also want to start looking at how we will give our employees’ ambition a place. By giving our teammates a perspective and setting realistic timelines and expectations in return, we help them develop a future in our company beyond the job they are doing today.
We often talk about “promote from within”: however, it is often a justification for giving someone a promotion despite that person’s lack of qualifications. This is often related to unilateral thinking about the career: a step up would by definition be a managerial job. But what if promoting an engineer creates a lousy manager, and we lose an engineer as a result? What if we thought of promotion from within as offering a path to specialization or broadening in the existing field of study, and valued it as highly as a move to manager?
The confused and erased memory of our management style
Many good managers in the organization have advanced to their management positions after working with good managers. Monkey see monkey do, one could say. People who saw how a team could be successfully managed built a management style by watching how their leaders did it.
However, in the last few years, expectations toward the role of the middle manager have changed so much that falling back on how we managed a team before COVID does not have the same value today. More so, during the corona crisis, many managers have been looking for a working model, through trial and error. Not at all, therefore, a consistent style that the next generation can relate to.
They briefly saw what the “old” working looked like and then had to live in an often directionless period in a company that was discovering its hybrid working. Today they are working with senior leaders who spend more time thinking about the number of days coming back to the office rather than seeking the most agile working style for each of their teams.
So we must consider that today more than ever, young team leaders are looking for handles, capstans, and guidance on how we want to see a team managed in 2023 and the years that follow.
Business leaders are asking themselves how to maintain their theoretical corporate culture when not everyone is in the office every day, not realizing that a new culture has arrived on the shop floor and that they can particularly benefit if they focus on its strengths rather than its weaknesses. Culture is a reflection of what happens, rather than a dry statement of how it might be: hope is not a strategy.
Le nouveau manager est arrivé
The new workplace, which accelerated a lot through the whole Corona crisis, is quietly becoming not the new way of work, but the next way of work. An adaptation of our organization to reality. The war on talent is over: talent won. In this new context, we need to start guiding and managing that talent appropriately. Knowledge workers do not need an extra system that hopes, based on input, that the outcome of the work will come. We need a management structure that understands the outcome and how it contributes to the set of services and products we want to deliver as a company. And so we need a different environment.
Managers are no longer controllers who watch that everyone does pretend to work hard from 9 to 5, but a company in which each of our employees is empowered to give their best. Increasingly regardless of when or where these activities happen.
The key to our new workplace is an asynchronous-first approach to work: the expectations we can give clarity to our employees about what finished, high-quality outputs we expect from them and how those are going to fit into the outcomes of their colleagues’ work in our and other departments. Teams are thus given the freedom to design work optimally.
Today’s manager is a film director who makes sure that all the pieces of the film find each other in a whole that will appeal to the viewer. It’s the actual outcome that counts. Not the industrial concepts like 9-5, cubicles, and so on. We look for how all that individual talent and each team can give their best.
Companies increasingly recognize that the asynchronous work style is going to make a difference in the future. Their managers need proper framing, support, and mentoring to properly guide the (proven) benefits of the model in their teams and departments without falling into the inhibitive industrial management forms.
By engaging in guided job crafting, we allow for a focus on the employee’s strengths on the one hand, and an open dialogue to see what direction they want to go. And then we can look for those employees’ missing knowledge areas to have them ready in the new job for the challenges associated with that new position. Team leaders who use job crafting to allow each of their team members not only to give their best in the current job but also to prepare themselves for the next step systematically, bring out the best in each colleague, and give them insight into the knowledge areas in which they need to master further to grow.
Organizations that facilitate promotions, and thus want to offer their talent a perspective, should pay as much attention to employees who want to specialize or broaden in their field as to those who wish to advance to a leadership position.
Mentoring combined with reverse mentoring should be part of the arsenal of tools available to managers: This can be mutually beneficial, as it gives the junior employee a chance to learn from someone with more experience while giving the senior manager a chance to gain insights from a new perspective. On top of that, reverse mentoring can help bridge the generation gap and improve communication between employees of different levels.
Hire for attitude, train for skill is not a slogan at that applies only to hiring, but a policy value that we should permanently monitor and measure. Empathic, coaching leaders are going to make a difference and get the best of their team done. After all, all those brilliant individuals need to find their place in well-run teams.
The crisis many feel is often the organization calling to do more with the talent we have, and supporting the framing of it itself correctly.
Koen Blanquart is an author, keynote speaker, and strategy consultant. Being a digital nomad, Koen operates worldwide, while he considers New York his home base. In his most recent book, Koen gathered tips and methods of digital nomads to manage a remote workforce and hybrid work. Koen explains how asynchronous and remote work is critical in creating a high-performance workforce in his most recent book. Whenever Koen finds a chance, he’s out and about with his camera.