As children, many of us grew up with a vision of the manager as “the boss” – a key source of authority in the business who knew the answers, told others what to do and led with a firm hand. As adults, many of us move into management and try to live that childhood vision – with disastrous consequences. Why hasn’t the “boss as manager” model work for us today? What’s changed? Surprisingly, the answer is beneath you.
To understand what this means, consider, first, the era when management as profession came into vogue – the industrial age. The emphasis had shifted away from the craftsman-apprentice model before mass production, where individuals passed on knowledge one-on-one. Instead, the secret to success in the industrial age was mass production, which required the standardization of business processes and simplification of tasks so that unskilled workers could more easily complete the work.
A manager’s primary responsibilities were to coordinate the efforts of large groups of people, so a highly regimented top-down management style fit best. The 24-hour day was broken down in to two or three shifts, people were assigned to shifts and they generally completed their assigned work. During this age, a manager’s biggest challenges were employees who didn’t show up on time, who left early or who didn’t complete their fair share of work. A firm hand was required to prevent abuse and keep productivity up; the “manager as boss” excelled in this world and this management approach flourished.
On to the knowledge age, where knowledge is the key tool used to create products as well as the product itself. For the first time, many products — semi-conductors, computer hardware, software, even modern phones — rely heavily on knowledge as the key inputs to their creation. In the knowledge economy, the highest single cost in creating the product is the labor of experts – not manufacturing labor or raw materials. In turn, making the most of the knowledge of these experts is the key to success – not necessarily making the most of their time.
With the shift from industrial economy to the knowledge economy, the storehouse of knowledge and authority are no longer in the same hands. In the industrial age, the boss knew best; in the knowledge age, you, as a manager, still have the authority, but the knowledge is beneath you, in the hands of the experts. To adjust for this, a change in management style is needed.
Based on my conversations with respected managers in the age of knowledge and my own experience, here’s how to succeed as a manager in the knowledge economy:
- Ask the experts. This sounds simple and straightforward, but it’s rarely followed. Because many of us are former experts who moved in to management, we consider ourselves experts still. Yet, how long does it take before our expertise becomes out-dated when we don’t use it? As little as six months? As much as a couple of years? Consider this: If your subordinate knows all of the features of the latest version of your software, but you know all the features of the last one, whose knowledge is more valuable?
- Facilitate – don’t order. As managers, we all know that the experts around us are extremely bright – in many cases brighter than we are. How condescending it must seem, then, when we managers order our team members to execute our instructions. Instead, help them to identify the problems together, then assist in developing a methodical approach for solving it. In the process, it will become clear which team members should tackle each step in solving the problem. No orders necessary.
- Coordinate – don’t control. As former experts, we’re acutely aware of the challenge of being “stuck in the weeds” – that desire to keep your head down and focused on solving the problem in front of you. As much as that tendency toward isolation grips our fellow experts, we should coordinate their efforts and encourage them to work together as a team. Coordinating the team means bringing them together, discussing key challenges and asking one expert to help another to achieve breakthroughs when addressing a challenging problem.
- Serve as a knowledge bridge. In many cases, the specialized knowledge of one expert on your team is very different from the specialized knowledge of another. For example, one person may specialize in database design, while another specialized in user interface (screen) development. Because of this, they are often working on very different tasks, even though one person’s knowledge may be needed to solve another person’s problems. As the manager of this team, we know what each team member is tackling and we should know whether they have solved past problems. It’s our job to connect the dots across the work of our teams, to point out patterns in problems that we see, and to bring together the experts to share their relevant knowledge, solving each other’s problems more quickly and efficiently.
- Set challenging (but realistic) goals. Knowledge experts like challenges, so work with them to set short term and long term goals that are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-specific. As part of the process, be certain to set goals to be a little more challenging than the person believes is possible – but not so difficult that the person ignores the goal because he or she thinks it’s impossible.
- Value the individual. In the industrial age, the loss of an individual team member was disappointing, but it wasn’t likely to cripple your business, your division or your projects. In the knowledge age, there are people who are so essential that their departure could force the business to crumble. While I would argue that it has always been important to treat people well, in the knowledge age, it’s even more important to treat each individual with respect and consideration.
In many respects, the knowledge economy has made managing more challenging. In many management positions, “people” skills are more important than analytical abilities. Even more challenging, your position as manager often makes you more expendable than your subordinates. Combined, it’s critical to your success as a manager to look beneath you for the knowledge and expertise for you and your organization succeed.