The new manager is a perpetual learner

How do you make a culture that binds and is flexible?

How do you make a culture that binds and is flexible?

Managers know that their organizations have to become flexible in order to keep up with, or be in the lead in, their markets. But that means organizations have to change. What does new management look like?

Edgar Schein, the well-known American culture researcher, puts it in very clear terms. We do not know what tomorrow’s world will look like, he writes in his standard work, ‘Organizational Culture and Leadership’, but we do know that it will be different, increasingly complex and faster, and that there will be greater diversity. What that means, says Schein, is that managers and organizations will have to become perpetual learners. They will never be able to stop learning.

This involves an awkward paradox. An important feature of organizational culture is that it is a stabilizing force. Which makes it, writes Schein, a conservative force. So far, the focus of management practice has lain on organizations with a stable culture of this type. Now, managers have to promote a culture that both binds and is flexible. But how?

New management model

Together with colleagues including Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer, Schein forms part of a research group at the MIT in Boston. It was one of the first groups to develop a new management model for flexible organizations. Even as early as the 1990s, they saw the birth of a new type of organization, able to respond to fast-changing market conditions and the emergence of the internet. These were the years in which experiments involving more autonomy in teams were held in many countries, including the Netherlands.

Even now, several decades on, the quest for the definitive management model for the 21st century is nowhere near complete. Companies and organizations are experimenting more than ever with new forms, because the need for flexibility has continued to grow. There could be a disruptive competitor on every street corner.

Positive attitude

The starting point for the ‘learning manager’, which Schein formulated with his colleagues, is that he should actively work at creating a different culture with a strong emphasis on training. Schein drew up a list of requirements with ten characteristics that new managers should have, such as being open to diversity and contradiction. The most essential characteristic is a positive attitude – managers should believe in the capacity of their people to adapt and solve problems themselves. This is diametrically opposed to the traditional, ‘Work as you are told.’ Managers should convey this positive attitude.

The misconception that is still attached to greater autonomy in teams is that the people in them do not need any interference from management at all. But sound leadership is inly required in and around teams. Many experiments with shared leadership have been ended prematurely because of this view. Author and lecturer Jelle Dijkstra has studied various experiments and projects. Together with Paul-Peter Feld, Dijkstra wrote the book ‘Gedeeld Leiderschap’, which was the 2012 Management Book of the Year. New management is still often seen primarily as letting go, but in Dijkstra’s view, the reality is precisely the opposite. “A good manager does not let go,” he says, “but is actually more on top of things.”

Taking action

This does not mean that managers should tell their people how they should do their work. But in order for employees who are lower down in the organization to be able to come up with solutions themselves, they have to be properly supported and guided. What managers have to learn is to do this without taking action, as Dijkstra puts it. “The task of managers is to create the conditions in which other people can take the initiative. For many managers, this is the greatest challenge of shared leadership, because they have spent many years doing nothing but taking the lead.”

New forms of organization with more autonomy and shared responsibilities do have risks, such as a team not taking decisions effectively, which the management may not be noticing. It is precisely risks of this kind that make many companies hesitant. “A team has a certain dynamic,” says Dijkstra. “Sometimes things get more and more anarchic. Sometimes irresponsible expenses are incurred.” In short, there is a need to closely monitor things. Dijkstra says, “More autonomy means that managers actually have to communicate more. That is, to guide the team and provide them with the right information.”

In the other direction

As a management expert at Deloitte, Ronald Meijers sees how many large organizations struggle with similar dilemmas. The environment asks for maximum flexibility, but the organizational structure is stubborn and supervisors impose all kinds of restrictions. “Companies are concerned about their capacity to innovate,” says Meijers. “They have spent years structuring their organizations and fixing them in place. This was to make them as efficient as possible and to improve checks. Now, they are noticing that they have to move in the other direction.”

An important part of the problem lies in the ‘old’ culture, and especially how leadership is developed and people are appointed managers. Meijers refers to ingrained practices that still occur in most organizations. In short, it comes down to the wrong people being appointed. In countless organizations, there are still people in management positions who should not be there, which in itself causes enough problems, and also prevents autonomy being granted lower in the organization. It also inhibits innovation.

Wrong managers appointed

When a new boss is appointed, account is still taken of who has stood out in turns of performance or ambition. This means that someone who is results or status-oriented becomes the new boss. But their characteristics are precisely not the qualities that make good leaders stand out – certainly not leaders who have to guide autonomous professionals. Last year, the American survey company Gallup concluded in a large-scale study that the wrong managers were appointed in no fewer than 82 per cent of cases. The characteristics that are needed, according to Gallup, but which seldom feature, include the capacity to motivate and to establish relationships based on trust.

Meijers goes on, “The first thing you need to learn as a manager is that it is no longer about how you do your own work, but how you enable your employees to do their work well. Their success is your success. Unfortunately, there are many leaders who quickly forget that.” The result of the dominant leadership culture that is the consequence of the automatic appointment mechanisms is a working atmosphere in which colleagues wait for permission for everything they do. Lack of initiative and inefficiency are the result.

Coaching culture

The most essential step towards innovation and flexibility with more autonomous employees, says Meijers, is the development of a coaching management culture. Leaders should be appointed who give their people space and support. One measure here could be that leaders are no longer rewarded more than are successful professionals and businessmen. “We need leaders who are motivated by the urge to achieve something positive for their department,” says Meijers. “Not by the urge for money or status.”

This is how things are already done at Facebook, says Meijers. Anyone appointed a manager there does not receive a pay rise. And it is not without good reason that Facebook is one of the most successful new organizations of the 21st century.

Or, if you would like your whole organization to learn, look at our Tailor-Made programs. The themes for which we provide in-company training courses include New Ways of Organizing, Management Development, and Change and Innovation.

Source: This article is part of the ‘Nieuw Leiderschap’ special on Produced in partnership with De Baak.

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