Why It Is Now Time to Redesign the Role of Managers

Sweeping changes in technology, working habits, talent management organisational hierarchy – not to mention the pandemic – mean that most aspects of our working lives have changed.

One group which has felt these changes more than most is the managerial cohort. In fact, most managers today feel overwhelmed as they navigate changes to the power, status, skills and structure that once defined their role.

In the past, management roles were stable and well-defined – and they attracted candidates who respond well to stability. Over the past few years, new priorities and responsibilities have been added, changing these roles beyond recognition in two major ways.

How the work of managers gets done

• Reporting lines have changed, with many managers now leading swelling teams that are two or three times the size of their previous teams.

• Matrix structures mean that managers are often leading teams whose day-to-day work is led by other managers, at a cross-division level, with little room for them to guide or influence.

• Agile working structures mean that team hierarchies are flatter, with team members working more autonomously and reporting on their progress to a scrum master rather than their line manager.

What people expect from managers

• Digitisation means that teams need constant upskilling – and that managers need to approach this with agility and empathy to ensure people build the skills they need without feeling they aren’t good enough for their roles.

• I&D requirements mean that managers must constantly reassess the makeup of their teams to ensure they are as inclusive as they can be – a challenge which stretches them on multiple levels.

• Newer generations of talent are more ambitious and want continuous feedback rather than annual performance reviews, meaning that managers are spending far more time providing performance feedback and engaging in career discussions.

It’s no surprise that many of those affected by such monumental instability, are feeling frustrated, unhappy, and unable to cope. The problems that arise from this are acute because managers have such an important role in the workplace. According to McKinsey, good manager relationships are a key driver of job satisfaction. And managers have a disproportionate ability to influence employee outcomes when it comes to increasing productivity and preventing burnout. What they can’t do is achieve these things if they are experiencing burnout themselves. To help them, we need to reassess and rebuild the role of managers.

How to rebuild the role of the manager

Map out what is needed to drive sustainable high-performance: As with any role, the key is to understand what is required and what makes the role productive.
Typical management roles have two distinct areas of responsibility: people leadership and work management. Mapping manager roles to assess what proportion of each of these responsibilities are present helps understand where managers need support.

Be intentional in how you design management roles. In some organisations, the answer will be a case of training existing managers whose skills lean towards work management to be better leaders (and vice versa). In larger organisations where bigger teams are more common, it may be more beneficial to split management roles in two: leaders of people who coach teams with similar skill sets to build their skills and reach their career potential, and leaders of work to draw talent from around the matrix and plan, manage and assess how work gets done. However you decide to design your manager roles, it’s vital to ensure that they align with the needs of your talent community and the ways in which work gets done.

You can learn more about redesigning management roles by listening to Lynda Gratton on the HBR Podcast here.