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The term ‘manager’ has been around for several hundred years and has been something of a traditional target for those with a career aspiration. In fact it has been an almost unquestioned goal for many people. However, I for one, will not be encouraging my children down that path. The reason is that the role of manager, as we have come to know it, is on its way out.
It is not just about delayering
Since the dawn of the industrial era, the favoured organisation structure has been the pyramid. This consisted of alternating levels of workers and managers. If possible, the worker would aspire to join the ranks of management who in turn would aspire to higher levels of management on the journey towards the pinnacle. In this structure, who would not want to be a manager, especially as it plays to our human animal instincts to want to be part of a tribe and an ever more important member at that tribe.
Some years ago people started to realise that maybe this multi-layering had grown to excess and this produced a movement of delayering resulting in an assault upon the number of managerial roles. That is all well and good but it is not the point. This delayering focused upon reducing the worst excesses of the pyramid structure but still operated within the pyramid confines. Rather the reason to be very hesitant about chasing a career as a manager is much more fundamental than that.
Networks not pyramids
What if you change your perspective and look at the network as the more favoured organisational structure, both now and in the future?
At a simplistic level, in a network, there are nodes and connectors.
Nodes – they were often referred to as geeks in the past, a term used with derision. However today the term is more likely to be a compliment as geeks are recognised for the significant value they can bring to the organization. This is due to their expertise in and passion for specific specialised topics which have current relevance to society. The nodes need to both maintain their mastery of these specialized topics plus recognize when society has moved onto the ‘new new thing’. In a fast moving world today’s specialism is not necessarily the one of tomorrow.
Connectors – they bring the right nodes into contact with each other at the right time and hence bring the network to life. Without them the nodes could be lone islands of specialism. These connectors are able to combine a knowledge and understanding of the nodes whilst recognising how to ‘mash’ them up to create value. To do this they need the personal ability and experience to bring them together in a trustful and harmonious way often using soft power rather than the traditional pyramid-type hard power. They also need to be able to judge which nodes are coming into and going out of value for society.
Both roles should be seen as experts. However, the reality is that today the nodes are more likely to have this recognition but do not be fooled. Within a more networked world, recruiting and developing great connectors will be equally important.
Take this theory and think about a boutique restaurant where there are four main actors: farmers, chef, restaurant owner, customers. The farmers are nodes and produce great ingredients, however they are not necessarily the best at mixing those ingredients into a sumptuous meal. This is where the chef steps in and acting as a connector uses the produce from the various ‘farmer nodes’ to cook a meal that people want. Then you have the restaurant owner. Where do they play in this game? It is all well and good producing a great meal from wonderful ingredients but someone has to eat it. This is where the restaurant owner adds their value since they are able to take this restaurant network and connect it to another network, namely the network of customers resulting in the reciprocal exchange of value.
In this simplified restaurant analogy, and in networks in general, even though some managerial type tasks are necessary, you will notice that management is rarely identified a distinct key value adding role.
What is to be done about this?
Like restaurants, the more creative sectors of commerce have generally placed less importance upon management. In addition over the last decade or two – the information technology and globalisation years – society attitudes and tools have changed with many historical barriers coming down and new generations of workers less willing to accept the confines of the hierarchical company. Therefore it is quite possible that for many youngsters they are already less excited about becoming a manager.
But what about the rest of us who are still operating with the traditional mindset? It is the usual story: adapt or become irrelevant. There are many individual jobs that existed in the past and which are no longer around today. What is different here is that a whole cross-industry, cross-functional class of role is under threat of extinction. Each of us needs to reflect on how best we can bring value to an organisation, whether that is as a node or a connector. Maybe for some people they can fully play both roles, though this challenge should not be underestimated. In an ever more specialised environment it is hard for mere mortals to be great at both.
Management versus leadership
Having given management a very bleak outlook, it would be remiss not to accept that today there remain many such jobs out there, along with plenty of pyramid organisations. Therefore the manager will not die out overnight. Furthermore some of the traditional management tasks such as coordinating, budgeting, planning and monitoring will remain valuable. However, these activities are more likely to be embedded in the network rather than being a distinct role. At most, maybe we will end up with some form of ‘management lite’ emerging in the future.
What should not be doubted though is that even with the demise of management, the need for leadership, by both nodes and connectors, remains very much in demand. This could help address the often quoted complaint of ‘over managed and under led’, since as managerial roles evaporate, it will put even greater focus upon the need for leadership. Within a network, this leadership needs to take various progressive forms with the pyramid orientated command-and-control approach relegated to only limited use.
Networks and pyramids
In recent years the world has already been embracing the network organisational structure. Whilst this trend will continue, the pyramid structures will be with us for some time and as such traditional pyramid navigation skills will remain valuable.
What our generation must do though is to help our children compliment these skills with truly understanding network dynamics and getting them to critically assess whether in the new world they are best suited, and can add value, as nodes, connectors or some expression of both. This way we can equip them for the future and ensure they do not sleep walk down the outdated management path.
About the author
Martyn Cuff is Chief Operating Officer of Allianz Infrastructure Transformation. His thirty year career has focused around the Investment Management and Wealth Management industries and more recently this has expanded into the Reinsurance and Insurance sector. He has a MBA from London Business School, is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Securities and Investment and an Associate of the Chartered Institute of Banks. He is also active in the charitable and educational sectors.