Are you a 'marzipan manager'?

Today's managers should be hyper-connected, but all too often find themselves isolated - and that's bad for everyone.

by Julia Hobsbawm
Last Updated: 10 Apr 2017

I call them the ‘marzipan managers’. Stuck below the leadership icing, stuck behind a wall of email, a mountain of paper, jammed somewhere in the middle as if between floors in a skyscraper. No-one is helping them navigate, curating what and who they need to know, devising systems that focus them on the most productive things they could be: engaged and interested.

This group might begin to feel not just stuck but cheated. They have worked hard to get their first and maybe second degrees. They have certainly been questioned in detail in umpteen interviews before they even landed their job. Now, they face a peculiar isolation. They know a lot about their company but not in relation to anyone or anywhere else. The bigger the company or the larger the network, the more technically connected we are, and the higher the risk of being personally more alone.

The age of information overload has made it worse. Sherry Turkle, the American academic, put it right at the beginning of her book, Alone Together: ‘Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.’ The marzipan manager stays in their office, to some extent feeling safer there. Despite the job title and leadership training, their confidence often seeps away.

Networking could and should be a major liberation for these people. Networking allows you to create diverse groups of connections, and encounter diverse insights and thoughts. But the marzipan manager suffers, more often, from acute shyness. They hate networking, using the pressures of work as an excuse. In reality they often feel they have nothing to contribute or say, or that they will be asked to justify the time. So they stay indoors and stay stuck.

There is some investment in a kind of networking already, but it’s generally of the wrong kind. Firstly, there is the siloed conference, in which everyone is likely to be like everyone else, and where the hidden agenda is business development. (I would go so far as to say please avoid any kind of event with ‘networking drinks’ tagged at the end: it shows that very little care or thought has gone into understanding even the basics of social network theory and how and why networked behavior needs to happen at all.)

The second, equally dubious, type of corporate networking are those events held under the rubric of ‘leadership’. This has become a byword for everything hierarchal, structural and aspirational in the corporate world, but often bears scant relation to the new lateral, connected approach now needed. Managers are sent on courses or team-building exercises, kayaking down some rapids for old style bonding.

Whilst this can be great, it is not nearly as productive as showing them how to reconnect to ideas and make links between their personal interests and their corporate ones. The marzipan manager, just like the rest of us, has a blended self: they are both a professional and a personal person. The more work can marry up who they really are, and what they think and feel, the better.

Deny the marzipan manager the oxygen of outside connections and the power of ideas and they don’t so much burnout as tune-out. When we began to take people in corporations out of their traditional comfort zone, to what I call the ‘Names not Numbers’ conferences, it was often like overcoming a kind of intellectual starvation.

It turned out that many people with grand ‘manager’ job titles are actually forced into a sticky-sweet fix of a job, able only to do a handful of repetitive tasks which bear no relation to what actually interests them. We started to place them into an environment where they could talk freely about their views. Some gasped the air with relief but also guilt, anxiously gobbling up ideas as if it were somehow taboo.

I found this depressing (even as it opened up a rich business seam). Could this be the key to productivity? Could this be the reason why ‘leaders’ like entrepreneurs, people with autonomy and independence, rather than shackled managers, could be more productive by pursing what they actually like to do? I believe so.

There are six components of social health: the trio of having knowledge, networks and time under your control and having the right management, communication and sixth sense to know what is wrong and how to self-correct.

Corporate failure is littered with the after-effects of poor social health: poor communication, hasty decisions, ineffective management, emotional illiteracy, and restricted networks that reinforce bad behaviour. Enron, BP’s Deepwater Horizon and the collapse of the retailer BHS in the UK are just a few examples. Every company that performs badly usually suffers from at least three of the six markers of poor social health. The bigger those companies are, the more liable they are to that failure, the greater the risk that they rely on technological connection, are badly insulated for knowledge, and are badly connected in terms of the inward flow of knowledge.

Ironically, the marzipan manager is superficially hyper-connected. Many spend up to eleven hours a day digitally connected, and research has found that time ‘in the office’ can involve up to 88 separate 10-minute episodes of work involving email and other short, interruptive interactions. Small wonder that business travel is on the up, despite straightened global economic times. It is pretty much the only licensed time for stressed and harried executives to kick back on the flat bed and switch off.

The marzipan manager is the organizational equivalent of the political stereotype – ‘the squeezed middle’, marginalized within the organization. They have gone through the educational hoops. They have been interviewed and appraised to within an inch of their lives. But it doesn’t make them more productive, or more engaged, or happier, or more connected to the jobs they are supposed to do. They are unseen, unloved and unconnected.

Being fully connected means achieving some kind of intimacy. We need to redesign how we live, who we live and work amongst, to achieve a state in which trust, connection, communication, process and performance all knit together smoothly and in a way that feels right.

This is an edited extract from Julia Hobsbawm's book Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload (Bloomsbury, £20)

Image credit: Alice Wiegand/Wikipedia


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