Why You Should Update Your Management Style

It’s not your father’s management job.

That’s the first and most important thing to know, whether you’re a new boss, a veteran boss, the boss’s boss or a boss to be.

Yes, Dad may have trudged eight miles in the snow to get to work, but when he got there, he could depend on seeing the same faces he’d left the night before and that he’d see the next day, the next month, the next year. By and large, they did what they were told, reliably. Employees gathered at the water cooler to share jokes they thought were funny. If someone brought a briefcase, it was to carry paperwork and slide rules. And Dad was always right — at least that’s what everyone said to his face.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for the good old days. “When I started out, the boss had all the power and all the perks,” says Tom, a middle manager at a manufacturing firm who just celebrated the Big 4-0. “We did what we were told, and waited until the day we could be the boss. Now I’m the boss, and no one will do anything unless they want to. I have to cater to them or they leave. When is it my time?”

Well, Tom, believe it or not, your time is now. It’s true you’ve missed out on three-martini lunches, power suits and insincere fawning. But you’ve also missed being a cog with no real power or influence. You’ve been spared doing the same damn thing every day for 30 years just to get a gold watch. You’ve also been entrusted with a job that matters in a way that managers’ jobs have never mattered before, because your actions, more than any other factor, will make your best employees stay or go.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to be a bolder, better boss: a boss with a strategic impact on the success or failure of your organization.

Let’s step back to put your work force into perspective.

Goodbye Gold Watch, Hello Swatch

Until the 1980s, employee loyalty meant punching the same time clock from diploma to grave. Whether the boss was a kindly father figure or an antacid-swilling S.O.B. didn’t matter. People shrugged off any ineptitude by their managers and kept plugging until they earned that nifty gold watch.

No more. Today’s employees have attention spans the length of an MTV video. They don’t want your gold watch. They’re Swatch employees; watches and jobs are of the moment, not for a lifetime. No wonder the average job tenure is now 3.5 years. But don’t dismiss this Swatch mindset as youthful rebellion and wait for GenXers to just “grow up.” The Swatch attitude cuts across all age groups, and it has nothing to with being raised by Big Bird. To understand it, think back to the mid-1980s when hundreds of thousands of employees at America’s biggest companies were axed — often with little or no regard for their contributions, longevity or dignity. The message to employees was clear: You’re only valuable until we have a bad quarter and shareholders scream, at which point you’re expendable.

Swatch workers have actually accepted this New Economy mindset, but they aren’t stupid and they have mortgages to pay. So they’re ever ready to go where they can get the best deal: the best job challenges, the best compensation package and, yes, the best boss.

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Labor Shortage

As if the Swatch mindset isn’t enough of a challenge, the problem is compounded by demographics. We’ll save you the expense of therapy and tell you right now that you can blame Mom and Dad for that. They didn’t have enough kids. You can do the math:

  • 76 million Americans in the baby-boom generation are beginning to retire.
  • 44 million Generation Xers are left in the work force.
  • That means 32 million fewer workers to fill America’s jobs.

And during the next 15 years the problem is going to worsen. Workers will be aging and retiring. The supply of 35- to 45-year-olds will decline by 15%, but even according to the most conservative estimates, the demand for workers will continue to increase. You don’t need a calculator to see the problem. It won’t begin to get better until 2010 when the kids behind GenX enter the work force. That’s a long time to wait.

Let Them Be Paid Cake

Of course, some companies feel like they’ve already got the situation under control. When the manager at a Silicon Valley company recently pointed out to his boss that many experienced workers were leaving the company, the boss gave him the Marie Antoinette wave. “Oh, just throw a few more baubles at them,” she said. Problem solved. Or was it?

Well, she had the right idea. With quality workers in short supply, she knew she had to make her current employees stay. She knew retention is the name of the game. What she was missing, though, is an effective solution.

And, of course, she isn’t alone. Most companies trying to cope with dwindling talent have developed equally ineffective retention strategies. They practice the three Os:

  • Options (they bribe people to stay)
  • Overtime (they force the remaining people to work longer hours)
  • Offshore (they send jobs overseas to make up for the lack of workers here)

(Then there are the companies that use the fourth O: Ostrich. They simply refuse to see the problem.)

Of course, none of these strategies is effective for the long term. They’re expensive, complicated and stress-inducing. They also do little to resolve the underlying problems that encourage good employees to leave. Fortunately, there’s a solution to the talent shortage that is long term, inexpensive and readily available. So readily available, in fact, that it’s usually overlooked. That solution is you: the boss.

We Have Met the Solution, and It’s You

You’re the solution to the talent shortage because you, more than any other factor, make your best people want to stay or go. Think about your own career. Has a boss ever driven you out of a job? Have you ever had enough of being manipulated, soothing a fragile ego or being discredited, lied to or ignored?

If you answered yes to any of these, you’re in good company. In a 2000 Lou Harris poll, 40% of people who rate their boss “poor” said they’d look for a new job within the year. Only 11% who rate their boss “excellent” said the same thing. Clearly, the boss isn’t the only factor people consider when making a job change. But think about those numbers another way. If 11% of your people left instead of 30% or 40%, wouldn’t your company show its appreciation with a nice bonus check?

Their Way or the Highway

The toughest part may be letting go of outdated management styles. We cling to the way we were managed earlier in our careers, but this makes no more sense than dealing with Russia as if it’s still a communist superpower. Swatch employees need a new kind of management:

  • They want to be trained: They know they may be job hunting tomorrow, so maintaining and growing their skills is vital.
  • They want to be coached: They don’t need a manager who will walk to the plate with them, hold the bat, swing and run. They need a manager who will show them how to be better hitters, strategize their next at bat and show them how to beat the opposing team.
  • They want flexibility: Families and personal lives are their top priorities, and they need flexibility to be able to manage those parts of their lives.
  • They want the truth: They’re savvy enough to accept mergers, downsizings and massive change as part of life. They can cope with anything, but they want to know what they’re coping with.
  • They want to belong: They want to believe in what the organization is all about, and they want to know they’re making a contribution.

Managers who can’t provide these things lose their talent. It’s that simple. Too many other jobs are out there where the bossing may be better. The old days of “my way or the highway” are gone. Now it’s their way or the highway.

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Management, skills