Most managers today are overwhelmed. Thanks to rapid technological change, flattening hierarchies, agile work, and new attitudes about talent, they have to do more than ever. Lynda Gratton, professor at London Business School and the founder of HSM, points to a few ways we can solve the problem: by training bosses to be people leaders, outsourcing some of their mundane management tasks, and even splitting the role so some oversee work and others focus on talent development. Gratton is the author of the book Redesigning Work and coauthor along with Diane Gherson of the HBR article “Managers Can’t Do It All.”
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
Managers today are overwhelmed and that’s because their jobs were designed for a different kind of work world. One where people clocked in at factory stores or desk jobs, the tasks and teams didn’t change much. And a boss’s job was to push for great performance, but times have definitely changed.
Thanks to rapid technological innovations, flattening hierarchies, agile work, and new attitudes about talent. Managers have to do more than ever. Their spans of control are bigger and more fluid. They’re responsible, not just for business results, but also for employee development, organizational culture, and digital transformation. They’re expected to lead teams and projects flexibly, remotely, and with empathy. It is a lot. In fact, today’s guest says it might be too much. She has some advice on how to shift managers roles so they’re less overwhelmed and more effective.
Lynda Gratton is a Professor of Management Practice at London Business School and the founder of HSM, the future of work research consultancy. She’s the co-author along with Diane Gherson of the HBR article, “Managers Can’t Do It All” and the new book Redesigning Work. Lynda, thanks so much for joining me.
LYNDA GRATTON: Thank you, Alison.
ALISON BEARD: What exactly has happened over the past decade to make the role of manager too much for so many of us to handle?
LYNDA GRATTON: Well, actually we’ve been asking managers how they’re feeling for some years now. And, I think the combination of process re-engineering, we’ve digitalized many of the jobs, we’ve asked them to work in an agile way and hybrid, I think was just the final straw actually, and now two years into hybrid we are really understanding that these are fundamentally new skills and new ways of thinking that they now have to adopt.
ALISON BEARD: So what are you hearing from managers on the ground right now?
LYNDA GRATTON: I think they are still overwhelmed, I mean, I feel with regard to COVID, it’s sort of episode three of a long running saga and there’s still more episodes to come, but right now people are realizing that we’re asking a great deal of managers and have we really done enough to understand some of the fundamental shifts that are taking place in terms of their power structure. They’re now having to think about we, rather than me, their skills very much more about performance coaching than about being a task overseer and indeed the structure of the teams that they’re leading, which are becoming much more fluid and much less sort of static.
And in fact, it’s not just about learning new skills. It’s also about unlearning some of the old skills, like thinking, it’s all about me or thinking my job is to make sure that the task gets done right or thinking everybody’s going to be in the office every day. It’s a pretty static environment that I’m working in. It’s about unlearning some of those fundamental ideas that managers had about their jobs and really relearning some new ones.
ALISON BEARD: I talked in my intro of about some of these broad trends that are shaping the way managers need to do their jobs now, but I want to unpack them a little bit. First process re-engineering, how has that shifted how we do our jobs?
LYNDA GRATTON: Well process re-engineering has changed the dynamic of how we work. It’s made work flow, but of course it’s also created more work because as work flows and it flows more efficiently, the manager does more. And so we didn’t say, oh, now that work is flowing more efficiently, let’s have more managers, if anything, we said, let’s have fewer managers. And Diane who sits at the heart of IBM described it to me saying, this is as if they’ve got a plate of food and the food is just being piled on that plate. So I think process re-engineering gave them more work, but it didn’t necessarily give them more resources. Now, as organizations started to think about the digital agenda, then they began to realize that technology could play a role. And that actually you could use your technology to, for example, connect people with so much more ease so that the manager was now able to network in many ways.
But what was really fascinating from the manager’s perspective is that now it meant employees were talking to each other on these platforms and also the leaders were talking to them. So now the manager was thinking, well, hang on, what’s my role. I’m no longer in terms of power in the middle of this structure, in the middle of a hierarchy where I’m taking what the leader has said to me and taking it down to my team. So that really transformed the fundamental power base of the manager, which was a conduit of information.
So now managers were in the situation where they were asked to do more through process re-engineering. They had less power because they were no longer part of that connectivity with digitalization. Agile meant that they were now also asked to take on a new, a whole new role as scrum master. And then hybrid came along. And actually for me hybrid and the pandemic has both been the moment where we really appreciated managers, but the moment that we also put even more on their plate.
I think that the appreciation of managers is very deep at the moment. So many organizations are realizing that those one-to-one connectivities, the empathy, the insights that managers are bringing is fundamental to the success of their organization, but at the same time, managers are saying, I don’t know how to do this job. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now.
So, our view is, whatever you decide to do, need to do something. This is a time where every manager has to ask themselves, should I be up-skilling, re-skilling, changing the way I think about this job? And every executive should be saying, could I do more to support this incredible group of people who absolutely are not the frozen middle but are in my organization right now, the beating heart of this company?
ALISON BEARD: Middle managers do get a bad rap. There’s been sort of this flattening of hierarchies that was going on, but then during the pandemic, I think we realized that middle managers are super important to make sure that people aren’t burning out, that they’re not quitting as part of the great resignation. It’s almost like in the same way we learned that we couldn’t have just in time supply chains during the pandemic. So, where do we stand now with how organizations view the importance of middle managers?
LYNDA GRATTON: Well, Alison, I so agree with the way that you are describing this. There wasn’t a time when we talked about managers, do you remember as the frozen middle, if only we said we didn’t have managers, then somehow, it would all be easier in organizations. They were the middle that never changed. But I think of the many insights that came out of the pandemic, the one I think that’s been most surprising and I’ve heard from many organizations is the simple truth that companies like IBM or like Microsoft, who’ve taken a very deep look at why some teams perform well and why some don’t, the one thing that comes up and I was talking to Microsoft only yesterday is the capacity of the manager to have one-to-one conversations with their team and to do that in an empathic and supportive way.
And that’s really focusing our attention on managers. In fact, it turns out they’re not the frozen middle, they’re actually the connectors. They’re the conduits that keep organizations, right now let’s face it under a lot of pressure that keeps organizations together. And that’s why we felt this was time to reevaluate that job and also to put resources behind helping them to be the best they can be.
ALISON BEARD: And there does seem to be this tension sort of, which is age old, between doing the hard stuff, you know, making sure work gets done and the softer stuff like talent develop and culture and team vision. We’ve long argued in HBR that managers are supposed to do both although people generally seem to be good at one or the other and sort of have to force themselves to learn, learn the opposite. Is that still the case that we want managers to be able to do both or could we move towards a world where you can be good at one or the other?
LYNDA GRATTON: I think that one of the things that we’re seeing now is high levels of experimentation. Organizations asking some fundamental questions about what people do, why they do it. So we’ve seen some really fascinating experiments and Telstra, for example, which is a telecoms based out of Australia, have said exactly that, we think it’s too big a job for one person. So we’re going to create leaders of work and leaders of people and treat them in different ways in terms of the communities they serve, in terms of the way that we measure their performance.
Other companies are really supporting both the people side of that job, but also the task side. So for example, IBM is saying let’s really reduce some of the task by using AI. So I think there’s much that we can do to help the task part of the job, but also, we can also support the people side. And we saw that in Standard Chartered Bank, the way that they’ve put a huge emphasis on both helping managers realize that their role is as a people leader, but also training them and supporting them in some of those incredibly difficult coaching skills that are so fundamental to managing people. So we’ve seen a whole raft of initiatives.
ALISON BEARD: Okay. So let’s dig into those solutions. Why don’t we start with what happened at IBM? So you said that was very much focused on removing some of the drudgery through AI. And I have to say that was the one piece that really caught my eye in your article. How exactly is artificial intelligence helping management, which is that sort of interpersonal role?
LYNDA GRATTON: Well, so much of the task of a manager is about collating information. For example, remembering what you got paid last time, remembering what your performance is, reminding yourself that maybe this person is going to quit. And what AI can do in such a fundamental way is to act as your assistant on those roles, really helping them to focus on the things that really matter, like having a great one-to-one conversation. But I think what’s interesting about IBM is, it’s not just that they’ve taken the tasks that are most routine off the manager’s plate. What they’ve also done is to ask managers to step up and you perhaps remember the manager’s success index that they use is a clear statement about what it is they want managers to do and the way that they will measure performance to ensure that they have those license to perform.
And I felt that, that was tough but fair and particularly fair to all of us who have had terrible managers. It’s always, it’s always good to remind ourselves that as we know from those large data sets, the reason we stay in an organization is we have a friend at work. And the reason we leave is because of our manager. So, really holding manager as to high standards is fabulous for anyone who’s in their team.
ALISON BEARD: Let’s talk about this wacky idea of splitting the role, that they did at Telstra. You have one set of managers overseeing the work and one manager, one set of managers overseeing the people. How does that work in practice?
LYNDA GRATTON: Well, we spoke to Alex Badenoch, who’s really the architect of this separation. And she saw it as very much part of a much bigger program of work that the CEO had set off, which was really to get closer to customers and understand more what it was that customers needed. And they realized that in that link with the customer, the manager played a very important role, but as lots of companies are finding the manager was overwhelmed by what was required of them.
And so they did a practice which actually you’ll see quite a lot in professional service firms of this separation between work and people. And what that means is that you get total clarity of what it is you are supposed to be doing. So for example, if you’re a leader of work, then your job is to do the scheduling, to make sure you’ve got the right people on the bench to manage the projects, to manage how these projects work together.
Whereas if you are a leader of people and let’s say you have a chapter of 200, your role is really to understand each one of those people, to understand what their needs are, what their expectations are, what their hopes and desires are in terms of how they grow. And that means by the way that the leader of work and the leader of people is assessed using different data. So, the leader of work is assessed by questions like, did the project happen on time? Were the right people on that project? Whereas the leader of people is assessed by things like, did people, what’s the engagement score of these people? And I think really intriguingly how many people did you encourage to join a different part of the organization? And that really goes back to, I think something we said earlier, which is, managers power used to be about keeping people in their team. And here’s Telstra saying, that’s actually a good thing. It is really important that managers encourage people to develop skills that are beyond their current group, but actually would help us with all of that sort of co-creation that we know is so important in organizations.
ALISON BEARD: The leaders of work still need all those people skills, right?
LYNDA GRATTON: Yes. But it’s not they who are doing the one-to-one. And I think this is a sort of fundamental insight that Alex brought to this structure. The most important thing that we’ve noticed during the pandemic is the manager’s capacity to sit down with you or with me, and to have an in depth conversation about us, about how we’re feeling, to empathize with our situation, to help us think about where we could get to. And I think that what you are seeing here is a realization that the amount of time required to do that makes it very difficult for a manager also to do the scheduling work and some of the performance management work. So it’s not to say that both groups wouldn’t be involved in a one-to-one, but it does say that the leaders of people that’s a primary role for them.
ALISON BEARD: If I am a leader of an organization, sort of say in the C Suite, in the HR department, and I want to think about some of these solutions, how do I go about evaluating what’s best for my company?
LYNDA GRATTON: I think that we’re in a major point of redesigning work and for me that’s a design process. It basically says, let me understand what’s happening around here. Let me model and imagine what could be. Let me experiment and see what’s working and then let me enact. And I think what Diane and I wanted to do with this article was to show you, the reader, that there are many really exciting experiments happening right now.
So my advice to any leader right now is to ask yourself, what’s the purpose of your organization? How do you help people be the very best they can and what role therefore should managers be playing? And try and experiment as much as possible. This, I think, I’ve been an academic now for more than 30 years and I’ve never been in a period where there is such astonishing experimentation taking place.
And it might be that you say, actually we don’t have the resources to do the sort of coaching that Standard Chartered Bank says does or you might say we don’t have the AI that IBM has, but you will have some capability that helps you to focus on your managers. And even if it means changing their name, Standard Chartered Bank for example said, let’s call these people, people leaders and let’s bring them together in communities. Every organization can do that. So I think understanding what’s possible, thinking about the purpose of your own organization and how this will fit. Then, I think we have a chance to strengthen what the pandemic has shown to be one of the most important roles in any organization
ALISON BEARD: And all these experiments, do have some early results showing that they’re increasing employee engagement and performance?
LYNDA GRATTON:Well, interestingly, all the companies that we cited, all have very deep engagement scores. Part of the reason they focus and continue to focus on things which frankly are pretty time consuming is that they have seen engagement levels have gone up both for managers, but actually more importantly from their team members.
ALISON BEARD: And what about if you’re not in the C-suite, you’re an individual team manager. Can you do any of this kind of work on your own?
LYNDA GRATTON: Absolutely. In fact, one of the pieces we explored in the article was about the power shift, the skill shift and the structure shift. I think every manager right now should be asking themselves, how do I unlearn this all being about me and start using the word we more and actually think about how can I help every member of my team. I think in terms of skills, all of us can really think about how do I increase my performance coaching skills? How do I more actively listen? And I think in terms of structure, a real win right now for every manager is knowing how to manage a fluid team and particularly a team that’s hybrid. And we’re already beginning to get very good practice on how to do that well. So, I would say that the real focus is actually on managers. I think I speak as a manager myself, we have a real opportunity to up our game during this tough period.
ALISON BEARD: And would you advise managers to also advocate for these sort of larger organizational changes as well?
LYNDA GRATTON: Well, if I was a manager or more importantly, if I was sort of sitting in an HR role, I would absolutely be looking at what other organizations are doing. My feeling right now is that during the pandemic employees looked inwards and asked themselves, what could I do differently? Who am I, how do I want to change the way I work? But organizations looked outwards and said, what are my competitors doing? How do I retain people? How do I make sure I develop them? And so, yes, you need to look outwards at the great practices that Diane and I have talked about. And there’s many more out there. Just to be sure that you are leading, you’re on the leading edge when it comes to making your managers be the very best they can be.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Is there any risk that, this idea that actually now, you don’t just have to do your incredibly complex job, but you have to rethink your role is, will be another burden?
LYNDA GRATTON: Yeah. I think that’s a really good question and we’re getting, we’re getting feedback like that at the moment as we work with organizations to help them redesigning work, part of what they’re saying is this is just too much, it’s too much on top of what we’ve already got. So it’s really important that as we increase what it is we want managers to do. For example, empathy, managing hybrid teams and so on, we also take something off their plate. And I think what we tried to do when Diane and I were, were writing the article and thinking about this, we saw that as being very important, it’s actually about unlearning and letting go as much as it is about learning something new and taking something new on.
ALISON BEARD: And we know from the examples you cited Standard Chartered, IBM, Telstra that employees are happier. Are managers happier?
LYNDA GRATTON: Yes they are. And we know that the relationship between employee engagement and manager engagement is very high. When everything’s buzzing, I mean, we know this ourselves and our own team, don’t we, when everything’s buzzing, you feel part of a great positive team. And so when managers are able to really focus on what matters. For example, having one-to-one time with their people, giving them me time to think about what should I be doing, then that reflects very well on their own wellbeing and indeed their own mental health. If you have in your organization, not a frozen middle, but a burnt out middle, now is the time to act on that.
ALISON BEARD: Terrific. I hope everyone does. Lynda, thanks so much for being with me.
LYNDA GRATTON: Thank you, Alison
ALISON BEARD: Founder of the consultancy HSM and Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, her new book is Redesigning Work and along with Diane Gherson, she wrote the HBR article “Managers Can’t Do It All.” You can find it in the March-April issue of Harvard Business Review or at hbr.org. If you like this interview, you might also like episode number 709 with Sari Wilde on Why “Connector” Managers Build Better Talent.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant and Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.