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Is general management dead?

Increasing complexity of work means fewer generalists, more specialists

By Brian Kreissl

While I haven't actually seen much written about this topic, it really feels like general management is a dying field these days. Increasingly, it appears that organizations are appointing functional specialists to managerial roles and there seems to be less of a focus on management as a profession in its own right.

While there are several reasons for the phenomenon, this trend actually seems to ‎run counter to what many management thinkers have been saying lately – that people who have superior technical or professional skills don’t always make the best managers. The idea is to have separate career paths mapped out for technical specialists versus those who are interested in and have an aptitude for managerial work.

People with strong interpersonal and communication skills, an appreciation of the “bigger picture” and the ability to think strategically, coach, lead and inspire others generally make better managers than those who are very strong technically. But those aren’t necessarily the people who get promoted into managerial roles these days – other than perhaps certain employees who are designated as “corporate high potentials” and are therefore considered viable succession candidates for senior leadership roles in virtually any functional area of the enterprise.

Regressing back into previous roles

Let’s face it, when someone is promoted into a managerial role because she was a good technical specialist, the tendency is often to regress back into her previous role by doing hands-on technical work when others should be doing it. Such managers are often guilty of micromanagement and perfectionism when dealing with their direct reports.

While the manager may actually be better at performing a task than her direct reports, she needs to be able to delegate effectively, provide adequate direction and develop her employees. She also needs to understand she simply can’t do everything and is actually more valuable to the organization by sharing her knowledge and focusing on the development of others.

Managers don’t have to know everything and should surround themselves with competent people. They should, however, have at least some knowledge of the particular domain they are managing.

To me, that is the main reason why we’re seeing fewer general managers these days. Because work is becoming increasingly complex, it is necessary to have people with functional knowledge and expertise to oversee the work of specialized and highly-skilled knowledge workers. This results in a tendency for managers to be promoted up within functional silos.

Other reasons for the demise of general managers

There are, of course, other reasons behind this trend, such as the fact that more organizations are requiring managers to be hands-on as a result of cost-cutting and a shortage of resources. Today’s leaders are frequently required to do a certain amount of “real” work in addition to core managerial tasks such as supervising, directing, controlling, organizing, planning and budgeting.

In many cases, technical specialists don’t respect pure managers and see them as bureaucrats or figureheads who don’t understand the work they do and spend all of their time in useless meetings. In some cases, this can even cause real problems such as loafing or padding of estimates on projects. For this reason, most management roles in technical areas are staffed by people with strong technical backgrounds.

Today’s organizations are much flatter with fewer layers of management. In particular, there are a lot fewer middle management positions, with the result that frontline managers are now a lot closer to the work performed by the people they are managing.

There are definitely fewer management and leadership development programs and less funding for training and development in organizations. This applies not only with respect to high potential employees, but also in relation to graduate training programs. The result is fewer general managers who are rotated through different functional areas.

I have mentioned this before, but organizations are also becoming increasingly picky in their recruitment and in many cases are looking for so-called “purple squirrel” candidates. Because of that, they are often insisting on hiring strong managers who also have deep technical or functional expertise – and in many cases they are able to find such candidates, with the result that generalists lose out.

They say you need to be a specialist to get hired, but a generalist to be promoted. But if companies insist on hiring only specialists with a narrow view of the business, there may just be fewer candidates to promote to senior leadership roles.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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