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Management Skills – Then and Now

Thirty-five years of work in executive search gives a person perspective. It is fascinating to me how different business functions have changed over the years. That change is often gradual and can occur slowly over decades. New methods and technologies enter the work force or new generations bring different needs and expectations of their employers. Quality Control morphed into TQM which morphed into Lean. Personnel became Human Resources which became Talent Management. Those are just two examples.


But, I believe there has been a type of change over the last 10 years that is different than the two I mentioned above. Those are both discipline specific changes. The one that I am going to discuss now is more universal. It is a fundamental change to management itself and it crosses all discipline areas. I believe that over the last 30 years, the definition of being a good manager has changed a few times and is now fundamentally a different role than 10 years ago and 30 years ago. Let’s get into our Wayback Machine (generational reference included for free) and see what managers did in 1980 and in 2000 compared to now.


1980 Management


In 1980, you became a manager because you were the best engineer, accountant, sales person, etc. Domain and discipline excellence got someone promoted. It was as simple as that. The best accountant became controller. The best engineer became manager. Interviews for those positions often focused on technical skills and management skills that were taken for granted. Ahh, life was much simpler then. A professional workforce expected to be led by someone who was better at their job than they were. That discipline excellence gave the manager the authority to manage.


2000 Management


Between 1980 and 2000, something happened to change that. Computers. Suddenly, everyone had a computer on their desk and that changed things. Managers managed numbers, not people. The best engineer in a department might not understand or be interested in budgeting, for example. The best accountant might not understand or want to do the suddenly ubiquitous employee reviews, as another example. Administrative and financial tasks that used to be done by support staff were now automated and done by the manager.


Managerial interviews focused on managing department costs and timelines with little emphasis on discipline specific skills beyond general competence. The department was a machine and the manager made sure it operated efficiently through metrics.  The best example of this is the omnipresent MBA who was trained to manage any function in any industry because their management training was not discipline specific. A manager’s ability to manage department costs and deadlines gave them authority to manage.


Management Now


Something profound has happened in the last 5-10 years. The employment equation changed. In the past, except for brief equilibrium changes in employment like the IT/Internet boom of the late 90’s, the employer always had the upper hand in the relationship. The employee needed the job more than the employer needed the person. That has changed dramatically since the last recession driven by four things:


  • Baby boomer retirements
  • The professionalization of many functions that were more routine in the past
  • Our educational systems inability to match society’s educated workforce needs from a supply standpoint
  • Companies know how to keep their people now. There are fewer people who hate their jobs.


Suddenly employers had to replace retiring workers and simultaneously upgrade a lot of positions that had become more complex. When you add these factors together you come to the conclusion that anyone with solid generic skills and a good attitude can get a job almost at will. If you concede that point, that creates an obvious issue for management. If you disagree with that premise, that is a discussion for another time.


If good professional employees are hard to find, the definition of being a good manager changes in two ways. There are two things a manager must bring to the table now to succeed.


  • The manager must be someone who a candidate wants to work for. After all, why quit a good job to work for someone who doesn’t inspire you? In 1980 and 2000, using the word inspirational to describe a manager would sound odd. It doesn’t sound odd now.
  • A manager must be able to turn C employees into B employees and B employees into A employees. They make their department better by making their staff better and not by managing numbers, as they did two decades ago. Now, anyone can manage numbers.


Let me explain this by giving two examples of bad management, from an employment perspective today.


The Tough Guy


In the past, the manager would want to test the candidate’s mettle in the interview. That was usually done crudely and with an attitude of “show me that you are good enough to work for me!” This was sometimes done bluntly and with little regard for the other side of the equation which is the question by the candidate “show me that you will be a better boss/mentor than my current manager.”


In 2017, any manager who started an interview with that premise and attitude would likely soon be talking to an empty chair as the candidate said to him or herself, “there is no way I am working for this jerk,” and walked out. The employer/employee relationship now is more one of equals.  A trade, not a purchase.


The Lazy Manager


This is easy. Imagine a sales manager who want to staff their department with top salespeople. That’s a good goal. It’s the road to get there that gets tricky.


In a managerial mindset from 2000, the manager barks at HR and says that he or she only wants to hire the best. There is no consideration about the availability of the best and their interest in that particular opportunity. Because of a looser employment market, it is possible that eventually someone exceptional may appear, given time.


That possibility is remote now. And, if someone exceptional appears, it is more than likely that they are considering other opportunities, not just one. A manager who only wants to hire the best is just trying to make their job easier. That is not effective management.


Today’s manager can accept competence in a candidate, and also has the ability to turn that competence into excellence. Today’s manager can take raw material and turn it into a final product as opposed to yesterday’s manager, who wants to buy, or hire, a final product produced by someone else.


Today’s manager has 3 criteria in their hiring evaluation:


  • General intelligence and skills as they relate to the job
  • Attitude – are they trainable?
  • Desire – do they have a strong desire to be trained?


The right combination of those three traits can lead to an excellent employee in a short period of time for a good manager.


So, if you are a manager today, do a little honest self-analysis. Do your people work for you because they want to or because they have to? If the latter, please recognize that the times are changing and you need to upgrade your skills.

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