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The Changing Definition of Management Skills

In the early 90s when I had been hired on by TeleCheck Inc. as their National Training Manager (with responsibilities to design, deliver and manage training for the entire franchise), at one point the company hired a new boss.

He came from a manufacturing background. His reference for what work looked like was someone who sat at a desk all day. I’m a field person. His measurement for output had a great deal more to do with techniques and methods which not only didn’t fit the culture and environment of a far-flung sales and management force (most definitely not an assembly line) but also worked to undermine the confidence of those of us on his team. It was bad enough that our McDonnell-Douglas owned corporation didn’t bother to provide our design team with computers, which meant that I had to hand write all the training materials (yes, that Neanderthal). This boss was a stickler for ensuring that instead of being in the field interviewing, talking to and working with those I was supposed to be training, I sat on my butt all day isolated from the very populations I was hired to develop.

I didn’t last long after he came on board. Bill was the quintessential assembly line manager, and he had no clue what the new world around him needed. He was authoritarian, in a company which succeeded with empowered and independent managers.

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That was years before devices, cell phones and a vast array of challenges that we now face as managers and leaders.

The Swiftly Shifting World of Work

In an August 2017 article by Fast Company on what the future holds for managers and those Millennials who will be taking on those jobs, Rita Santelli, CEO of the consulting firm Savvy and an adjunct Georgetown University professor offered the following:

As we shift to a workforce that is 100% autonomous and 100% accountable, performance is based on the results they create, not the hours they work. As we see more workplaces like this and more flexibility in the workplace, managers are really going to have to focus more on the communication aspects and relationship management,” she says.

As someone who has trained communications and leadership skills my entire career, I concur. I also see a huge gap in where we are and where we need to be. Those skills may be necessary, even critical to success, but they are sorely lacking in many who are entering the workforce today.

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Too many managers, like Bill, are stuck in old, top-down managerial models which don’t take into account vast cultural variety as well as the unique demands of hiring contractors, many of whom are in high demand and can make their own choices around where to work. They have options, especially in a time of high employment. Those companies which succeed in hiring and retaining the best people are also going to need to groom and develop managerial communication and leadership skills. Those take into account the vastly more complex and varying demands of an increasingly remote workforce as well as the speed of automation.

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A good friend of mine works as a contractor at the huge corporation company which has just experienced layoffs as a result of trade moves by the Trump Administration. Among the challenges he sees is a culture that is more in love with meetings for the sake of meetings rather than one that focuses on measured outputs and performance. People meet for endless hours and talk about endless topics without much attention given to whether people actually need to be there. While he gets paid for his time, he prefers to produce. Others are perfectly happy to get paid to sit and listen to people pontificate, for no other reason than loving the sound of their own voices. That’s a criminal waste of time. It’s also an insult to those who have a strong work ethic. Part of their challenge is a remote off-shore team whose work grinds to a halt because someone forgot to renew a license. The lack of a shared language can lead to irritation, and cultural differences can impede communication.

My friend can get bombarded by instant messages which not only invade his concentration (he’s a code jockey) but also cause considerable annoyance when their insistence on a response gets rude. Part of this is cultural differences, part is English as a second language. But that is the way of the world now, as more and more companies hire creatively, and more and more companies see greater diversity, not less. Intolerance of differences is a business killer. And that means that managers and leaders must demonstrate and coach far broader competencies to handle variations in working styles, international cultural differences, and have patience with the challenges of their teams.

As teams become more disparate with contractors, consultants, remote employees, and office-based employees working together, managers are going to need to learn how to build culture in nontraditional environments, Santelli says.

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Yet here’s the problem. In a device-addicted society those coming up into managerial positions are all too often woefully unprepared for the interpersonal demands. It’s not just that upcoming managers need to be able to juggle vast differences as well as the inevitable tensions that happen in deeply diverse and widely-scattered workforces, they are, in too many cases, not schooled in the absolute basics of everyday communications. When you grow up with your face glued to a screen, that doesn’t adequately prepare you for the subtleties of facial expressions, body language and the millions of cues and clues that we give off- which often differ vastly from one culture to another.

The other significant challenge that the future (and I would posit today’s) workforce will demand of leaders and managers is emotional maturity. Self-awareness, humility, patience, willingness to collaborate, knowing when to bend and when to stand tall, sensitivity to one’s own limitations and a highly- developed level of empathy are just some aspects of this piece that can make the difference between high-performing teams and a hemorrhaging department that suffers constant high turnover and untold millions in overhead.

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Managers who are more accustomed to a “my way or the highway” style of managing, like my old boss Bill, will fail. It’s just that simple. While some large corporations still use a top-down, militaristic model, it’s a modern dinosaur. Those organizations are woefully unprepared for Millennials, who don’t tolerate that kind of ham-handed method of obtaining results. Those who don’t shift will suffer.

We will always have at least three generations in the workforce at any given time. With so many Baby Boomers working out of necessity or because the workforce desperately needs their knowledge and skill sets, those who are grey around the temples and perhaps a bit set in their ways will need to learn to flex both their skills and attitudes to adapt to the increasing variety around them. The best will take this in stride and morph along with the evolving workforce. That group will be able to add the greatest value by mentoring those whose interpersonal skills could use a little polishing.

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Above all, after surviving lean times and the inevitable cuts to training and development that happen (I’ve been through six of those myself) when corporations slice off parts of themselves to save money, a deep investment in people development is critical to success. While there is no question that the upcoming crop of managers is uniquely tech savvy and in many ways far better-prepared for the automated, complex, and integrated workforce of the future, there is a crying need for communications skills training. No matter the corporation, as managers are promoted, the higher you go, the more essential the ability to communicate to anyone about anything. The lack of those fundamental skills not only undermines job satisfaction and performance, but adds significantly to turnover.

To give you an idea of what that costs to a company, HuffPost provides a model:

Bottom line? Everyone suffers. Not only that, those of us who do business with a company see high turnover as a symptom of something rotten at the top. While most of us acknowledge that employee movement every few years is now an accepted norm, it’s hard to overstate the value of a well-trained, well-oiled team that has been collaborating for years, and knows how to maximize each other’s strengths. That kind of team enjoys a lot of shared success, and as a result, often lower turnover. Good training programs add a lot to that kind of success.

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Stumbling Along and Losing Money

That kind of team doesn’t happen overnight. For a prime example of what that looks like in sports, witness the attempts by the then-rookie NFL team owner Dan Snyder recruited aging Hall of Famers like Buffalo Bills’ Bruce Smith and then- Dallas Cowboy Deion Sanders in an awkward and failed attempt to win a Super Bowl without doing the hard slogging work of developing a cohesive team over time and training. He’s also gone through eight head coaches in 17 seasons. Not surprisingly, the Redskins are incoherent, the fans are angry and nobody is happy. As a one-time big Redskins fan (my father was their first television announcer), to my mind Snyder is the picture-perfect example of impatience, ineptitude and bullish incoherence in his chaotic managerial style.

Lots of businesses are run just like that. They won’t last for long. The ability to read people, develop empathy, lead with grace and gravitas, and develop your team will do more than any specific technical ability ever will, unless you just prefer not to manage. If you wish to rise, though, it’s time to invest in training: both for yourself and for your team.

The offices of the future- however they may look- will depend on those skills. Business is all about communication. Without those highly-developed competencies, no business will last long in an increasingly demanding, complex world.

Horizon Huntress, prize-winning author, adventure traveler, boundary-pusher, wilder, veteran, aging vibrantly. I own my sh*t. Let’s play!

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