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Reexamining management and careers




We recently started a project for a long-held client that really emphasized how management has changed over the years. Some prospective candidate responses to the opening highlighted this shift in the nature of management and how, unfortunately, some people have not kept up with that change. Perhaps a discussion of this will help you re-examine whether your career is being based on a value system that has become outdated over the last few years.


Here is the scenario:


Our client is a manufacturing firm with facilities throughout the U.S. Our assignment is to identify a Program Manager for them. This function is a critical role in their organization and we were involved in the definition of the function when they first created the job about 6 years ago.


Their Program Managers are engineers with a strategic responsibility for a product portfolio of around $30,000,000. They work with marketing and design process, and make strategic supply chain decisions as well as production decisions revolving around where to make or buy the components. Essentially they are the top person making all decisions to get the product to the market. Put simply, they run a business.


Our client will consider engineers with either a design or operations background who want a strategic role and who have shown the ability to manage complex projects. The person MUST want a business oriented career. It is a great job for an engineer with an MBA who is at the 8-15 year level and who wants to break out of a purely technical career track. A Program Manager is exposed to every part of the business. All of their relationships are matrixed but they touch upon every part of the firm. More importantly, they are not just a cog in a chain of command. They make decisions, not just execute policy.




We had three types of responses from people. The first was: “Thanks but I want to remain technical.” The second was: “That sounds great. I have been looking for a job like that.” It was the third that showed a remarkable lack of understanding of the modern corporate model.


The third response was: “Thanks but I don’t want to give up direct reports. It sounds like a step back because no one will report to me.” Inevitably, those responses came from people in heavily unionized, capital intensive industries steeped in an organizational structure created in the 1950’s or early.  As an example, think of General Motors.




In a vertical corporate organizational structure, counting the number of people reporting to you might be a proxy for your actual importance to an organization. In that type of structure, a career is simply a matter of climbing a pyramid or a vertical ladder. Each step increases the base below you. You rise above the crowd.


Well, there are a few things wrong about that perspective on your career now.


  1. Honestly, can you think of one successful growing company modelled like that now- emphasis on growing? The vertical model is now more appropriately called a silo model. That is so 1955. Managing your career based upon finding an organization that duplicates that model condemns you to eventually waiting for your boss to die in order to fight with 10 peers for your next promotion.
  2. Jobs in the middle of that pyramid are more focused on policy execution than policy creation. You may have 100 people under you but HR hires and fires for you, your boss tells you what to do and your actual ability to exercise judgment is limited by internal policies. You are the classical bureaucrat. The truth is that, if you left, you would be replaced in a week. More on that statement later.
  3. Most of your communication is internal and often exclusively within your discipline. Operations people talk to operations people. Engineers speak with engineers. The same for finance and marketing. There is little intra-department interaction in a silo driven organizational chart and information usually flows up and down exclusively. Frankly, you may have 500 people under you but might not be able to name one person in a department adjacent to yours.
  4. Do I need to point out turf battles?


As an alternative, rather than judge your value on the number of personnel reporting to you, consider judging your value on true budget authority. How much capital does your company allow you to spend and how broad is your authority? Two examples below, one from a Program Manager perspective and the other from a Silo Manager perspective.


The Program Manager Scenario


You manage a $30,000,000/yr. group of products. You have a budget of $3,000,000 to increase your product group’s revenues and profits. Your strategy choices include:

  1. Modifying existing products
  2. Creating new products
  3. Increased advertising budgets
  4. Developing a new sales channel
  5. Seeing no new market growth potential and investing in cost saving opportunities instead


Lots of variables + no formal rules = exercise in personal judgment.


There is also not a day that you don’t think about your competitors and clients and what they are up to. You live in an unbounded world.


The Silo Manager Scenario


You manage 200 people in a 500 person plant with a $10,000,000 salary budget and a $2,000,000 capital budget

  1. You can’t be asked to increase revenue. You can’t influence the top line
  2. You can cut costs, sort of, depending on the plans you get from finance and input from HR.
  3. Your task is to keep your part of the machine moving efficiently. That is no small task, to be sure, but one surrounded by policies that guide and a support structure that supports


Line management + silo org chart = limited scope of operation.


Clients- what a pain in the neck! I have no knowledge of anything to the left or right of me.


My suggestion is that, rather than evaluating your status and importance based upon how many people are under you on an organizational chart, you step back and take an objective look at how much you actually impact on your employer’s success or failure. Shockingly enough, a good Product, Project or Program Manager with no direct reports can be more valuable than an Area Manager with 200 direct and indirect reports in a 1,000 manufacturing plant.


  1. Managing resources – that can be managing capital, not just managing people
  2. Exercising judgment , not just executing someone else’s policy


A lot of things have changed in 20 years:

  • No more computer punch cards
  • That princess phone is long gone
  • What’s that World Wide Web the youngsters keep yakking about?
  • The Phillies won a World Series
  • Over half the companies in the Fortune 500 20 years ago are unranked now and many are long gone
  • No one works in one company and gets a golden watch on retirement


Frankly, if your sense of job importance and value are based on outmoded concepts of corporate organization you may be in for a rude surprise. Remember my earlier statement about being a bureaucrat?


As I mentioned in a previous White Paper, we often get unsolicited calls from prospective candidates who are thrust into the market. Below is a typical call progression from someone with an entire career in a silo centric corporate organization. Let’s call him Jim Smith, a Plant Manager laid off after 30 years of experience at Acme Company. Let me warn you this is not a happy tale.


“I am leaving this message for a recruiter. This is Mr. Smith. I am a skilled Plant Manager and am looking for a new career opportunity. I want to talk to someone about your services. Call me at…..”


“I left a message yesterday and no one has called me back yet. My name is Mr. Smith. Call me at…..”


“I am following up on a resume I sent an hour ago. I have also left two messages and not heard back. This is Mr. Smith at …..”


“ I got an email confirming that you got my resume and that you have nothing that fits now. I don’t understand your business but I don’t think it is very professional. I can tell you that I have hired people in the past and will never use your services when I am hiring again.”


Now let’s put this in perspective. Hopefully you understand from our last White Paper why we can’t call everyone back.  We try to get back to everyone with at least an email about their resume and if it’s a fit for our market. Frankly, that is more than most recruitment firms do.


More importantly, Mr. Smith ( and who the heck calls themselves Mr. anymore? ), has only been used to two types of relationships- up and down, the boss and the subordinate. As a Plant Manager he has usually been the boss and is used to relationships in which he is the authority. He is important.


Let me make one thing clear. Mr. Smith is probably a really nice guy. He is just lost – a stranger in a strange land. Most relationships in the business world now are horizontal. They are of mutual consent and require influence focused skills not authority skills. That is certainly magnified in recruitment and employment. Mr. Smith has lived in a false reality for 30 years.  He has believed that because people have reported to him in an organizational structure that he has personally been important.  What he has missed is that his importance has almost exclusively come from the title on his business card. He may have exercised that authority well but, without that title, there is no boss/subordinate relationship.


Once again, this is not saying Mr. Smith is a bad fellow or is evil. This is a cautionary tale about understanding skills and attitudes that are important to employers now.


Let me leave you with this one direct statement. If you work in a vertical, silo focused company you will eventually be laid off. It may happen after 5, 10, 20 or 30 years. I am not sure when but I am sure it will happen. If your career and skills have been modelled based upon a false assumption about transferring to a similar role seamlessly in a similar company, you may just find that you work for the last of a dying breed.


In a game of musical chairs, the last man standing is not the winner.


As ever, thanks for getting this far and, please, remember Right Recruiting for all your recruitment needs.

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