Some thoughts on how we need to up our learning and development game when it comes to teaching and supporting managers in trying to succeed with hybrid working

Business schools still playing catch-up

The EdTech space is hot and getting hotter 🔥 both for direct to consumer education and corporate education. Indian Edtech firm Byju’s just raised money at an $18bn valuation and the Singapore-based challenger business school Emeritus is doing amazing numbers to fully justify its recent $3.2bn valuation, whilst the incumbent business schools are still playing catch-up. But there is one particular area where provision has not yet caught up with current needs. I have been doing a lot of leadership development specifically around how managers and leaders can adjust to hybrid working and this seems to be a keenly felt area of need. My feeling is that we need to urgently accelerate learning in this area, but we also need to go beyond classrooms and packaged courses to provide practical adoption support and in-context learning for managers and employees alike. It could be a great opportunity for those that get it right.

Too many managers, not enough digital dexterity

There are several issues coming together at once that make this an urgent challenge. As Brian Kropp, Alison Smith, and Matt Cain wrote recently in HBR, digital dexterity is in short supply within large firms, and if Gartner’s 2018 survey is correct and only 16% of managers and 9% of employees have the requisite levels of digital dexterity to adapt to current realities, then how can we do better? Another issue is the oversupply of generic managers in firms today, resulting from the perverse incentive common in many companies that means you need to leave behind your area of specialist skill in order to advance – i.e. to become “a manager” rather than an expert contributor. As Ed Zitron wrote recently in The Atlantic:

“In order to survive, managers, in other words, will need to start proving that they actually do something. What makes this shift all the more complicated is that many 21st-century, white-collar employees don’t necessarily need a hands-on manager to make sure they get their work done.”

This risks creating more, not less bureaucracy, and for hybrid and remote teams there is little more annoying and pointless than having even more meetings and calls, so that managers feel they are still relevant in a workplace that is quite capable of supporting self-management for many tasks and of coordinating work outputs using technology platforms.

The solution to this is perhaps two-fold. First, allow people to advance in the organisation without needing to become generic management meat in the organisational sandwich, or as Ed puts it:

“What we need—and will likely see—are more organizations opening a different track for people who are very good at their specific job, where these people are compensated for being great at what they do and mentoring others.”

Second, we need to rapidly transition management focus away from telling people what to do and having employees manually report back to them before being given their next task, and towards curating and cultivating the hybrid digital workplace, creating the conditions for high-performance teams to thrive, and generally acting as an umbrella to protect against corporate spam and the rainfall of proxy KPIs.

Where is the innovation in management learning?

As Michele Zanini put it recently, there has been far too little innovation in management in recent years:

It is not just that we need to learn new management methods for running distributed, agile and hybrid team structures; managers also need to unlearn a great deal of what Twentieth Century business schools taught them to be and to do. But perhaps one of the most urgent burning platform issues right now is equipping managers with the tools, mindsets and techniques to escape from the hell of wall-to-wall meetings and emails that they carried over into remote and hybrid working during the lockdowns. I have taught and coached hundreds of leaders in large firms on this topic over the past two years, and every. single. one… has told me they cannot work or think or change because their day is a non-stop sequence of (mostly unnecessary) Zoom or Teams calls. And this is not just an issue for older traditional firms. Gergely Orosz recently quoted a VP of Engineering in tech who said:

“After 1.5 years of 15-20 Zoom meetings per day, I hit my limit and can’t do it anymore. I’m taking the rest of the year to recover.”

I completed a 10,000 word script yesterday for a course module on leading hybrid teams for a client, and I worried that it all seemed to obvious and self-evident. But whilst the theory is simple and uncontroversial – everyone agrees this is a problem that needs to be fixed – unless you can walk managers through a detailed transition plan about how can unplug their brainstem from Zoom and start to win back time to create a better system of work, they cannot do it whilst all those around them are continuing to bang away at rocks with their two primordial communication tools: meetings and emails. We need to focus much more on practical support for putting new ways of working and new management approaches into practice, rather than just commission learning programmes that teach the theory, the principles and models. All of the complexity is in the implementation, but this is not something a cookie-cutter consulting firm can do either. I think, once again, this is about designing and implementing better organisational operating systems as both social and technological work platforms.