How to be a modern manager

Is the day of the control freak over? These days, good management is all about empathy and the savvy use of technology, argues UK MD of Regus Steve Purdy.

by Steve Purdy
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The expression 'control freak' has become horribly overused. There is one context, however, in which it remains an entirely appropriate term of abuse, and that is in the workplace, with those diehards who have not understood the realities of modern management.

So what is required of the modern manager? Traditionally, the manager’s role has always been to keep a more or less constant eye on staff, to direct and supervise. Line of sight was the first method – much as a teacher would control a class by keeping every pupil within view. Since this wasn’t always practical, employees in many workplaces were required to fill in timesheets – as if mere attendance were some guarantee of productive work!

Such managerial techniques are by no means a thing of the past. In many institutions with a traditional hierarchical culture – certain investment banks, for instance – the best route to advancement is still to be first in and last out of the office. Such a test is every bit as irrelevant as the timesheet. It artificially dilutes your talent pool by effectively ruling out a lot of women, parents of young children or indeed anyone with a life outside work and a reasonable sense of priorities.

The key to managing in the modern workplace is to forget about control, and think instead about motivation, teamwork, creativity and responsiveness. Then, when it comes to organisation, you need to be constantly on the lookout for new technology that can enable you to transfer information, communicate decisions and activate projects more quickly and cheaply than you ever thought possible.

Let’s take just one example: meetings. Throughout the 20th century, if you needed to bring key decision-makers, department heads or senior managers together for a board meeting or policy session, you would summon them all to a given venue, and arrange travel by road, rail, sea or air. For the past few years, the option of video-communication has been widely available, but old habits die hard and not all the environmental considerations in the world could prevent most companies from flying their leaders round the world to gather them at a suitable boardroom or conference centre. Then in April 2010 an Icelandic volcano erupted, sending ash clouds billowing out across European airspace and bringing several weeks of chaos for civil aviation. Suddenly the demand for videocommunicating took off in a way that aeroplanes so conspicuously could not. And guess what? People discovered that in every important respect it was as good as being there in the flesh – not to mention saving an awful lot of time, hassle and money.

Modern technology has changed many aspects of day-to-day management too. Mobile telephony means that a sales manager can keep in constant touch with widely dispersed sales teams, while GPS systems enable service centres to track the progress of engineers and maintenance teams, and RFID tags can enable managers to monitor the movements of people and products.

The technology is vital, because it changes the way you can do things. But it also changes a business’s outlook at the strategic level. Traditionally, we have always hired people to do particular jobs, then placed them appropriately – putting people into jobs. Nowadays, we identify the work that needs doing, then allocate it as efficiently as possible, sometimes in different parts of the world – taking the work to the people. The manufacture of aeroplanes is an example. Right up towards the end of the 20th century, planes were assembled in one place, where all the necessary skilled workers were gathered with their materials. Nowadays, the likes of Boeing and Airbus design and develop their machines, then transmit their specifications electronically to manufacturers all over the world. The result is that different parts of the plane are made in many different countries, and all sent to one assembly site, where they can be put together in just a few days.

Given this new strategic imperative – to take work to people rather than vice versa – the job of the manager becomes even more important. What has not changed is the fact that while people join organisations, they almost invariably leave bosses. Your daily life as an employee is still governed to a great extent by the person or people to whom you report. If that person tries to control you, bully you, or make you fit a mould that doesn’t suit you, it is only a matter of time before you look for work elsewhere. If, on the other hand, they treat you with consideration, acknowledge and reward your successes, and help you to be more productive, thereby boosting your own market value, you will not only want to stay, but will be encouraged to perform even better.

Too often in the past, people have been promoted to managerial posts by virtue of seniority, or years of service. Or they have caught the eye by virtue of their assertive personalities. In the worst cases, they have simply been the most skilful sycophants. These routes are more likely to throw up non-entities or bullies than good managers. By contrast, the quality most required of the modern manager is an ability to empathise – and thanks to Myers-Briggs and other psychometric techniques, this is not so hard to identify.

Once identified, suitable managers should be given the knowledge they need – not least in relevant areas of technology as discussed above – then given all the support and training they need to bring the best out of the people who report to them. Finally, they should be rewarded according to the results their teams achieve.

Modern businesses really do depend on their people, or human capital, if you prefer. To get the most out of them, we need the best managers we can find – and absolutely no control freaks!

Find out more about Regus.

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