The case for 20th century management

Think corporate purpose, flat management and flexible working are self-righteous fads? You're not alone.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 04 Nov 2019

There's a common narrative that every 21st century business needs a purpose. 

All the big boys have one. Facebook’s is to bring the world closer together, Royal Dutch Shell’s to power progress, while Philip Morris International, the multinational purveyor of cigarettes, has the rather noble purpose of creating a smoke-free future (and coincidentally "fighting the illegal cigarette trade").

It’s not surprising, as there are many benefits to having a purpose beyond making a profit - if it’s genuinely held, it moulds culture, helps to mobilise staff behind a common goal, and provides a convenient PR tool to appeal to meaning-driven millennials and gen Zers.

But purpose isn’t a panacea - it’s hard to define and if bolted on can seem insincere. To an extent this holds true for other thoroughly modern business trends like remote working, flat management structures and hot-desking.

You may think some or all of these fads aren’t all they're cracked up to be, but you dare not say it in public. Who wants to be branded as a dinosaur, after all? 

But maybe it's time you own it. Maybe purposeful business or employee empowerment aren’t better ways of doing business per se, just better for certain companies or certain leaders at certain times.

For example, in an opinion piece for Campaign, Dan Cullen-Shute, chief executive of creative firm creature, highlights the difficulties of putting flexible working into practice, especially in a service-driven industry. 

"It’s easy to stand on stage and tell people to say no to an 8am meeting – but if that’s the only slot everybody else can do, refusing only gets you so far..." 

Working from home is one thing if you’re filling in spreadsheets, but another thing entirely if you’re manufacturing aircraft engines. It’s not unreasonable to expect your staff to be at their desks at certain times, but heaven forbid you say that in public.

(Flexible working is a good thing for various reasons, but it doesn't have to be all or nothing. It can be as simple as letting working parents start at 10am, or letting the CFO finish at 3pm on a Tuesday so he can make it to pilates - and ensuring they feel comfortable doing so.)

The wider point is that remote working, much like purpose, shouldn't be there just for the sake of it. The reason you make flushing mechanisms for office toilets isn't that you want to enrich lives, it's that you want a steady dividend for the pension funds that bankroll your business. 

Indeed, there's no reason they have to be mutually exclusive. Your purpose could - and almost certainly should - be making money by providing really good toilet flushing mechanisms, delivered with really good customer service. You don’t have to feel bad about the fact that you’re not the all-empowering, flat-management promoting Jesuit of 21st century leadership people say you should be. 

While there are some fundamentals - a little humility helps, burnout cultures are bad, trashing the environment isn’t great for the long-term prospects of the business, etc etc - there is no one-size-fits-all for good management. 

With that in mind, closet dinosaurs may be pleased to know that there’s another leadership trend that would serve to back them up: we live in the age of authentic leadership, so maybe try being true to yourself and what works for your business, rather than wrapping yourself in glossy PR schtick and pretending to be something you’re not. You never know, it just might catch on.

Image credit: Central Press / Stringer via Getty Images

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