What's true in life is true for managers in 2016: Some things change, some things stay the same. But how do you know which ones fall into which category? For starters, effective managers do what they've always done: lead a team of people to efficiently convert a vision into an actual reality. They know how to head off problem scenarios and mitigate those that do arise before they spiral out of control.
There's no denying that the workplace is changing, though, and most work environments are steadily pushing managers to revisit their skill sets. Here's a look at some of the skills great managers have always needed that are becoming more important, plus a few others that are coming into wider demand.
Remote work is here—that's no longer news. As of this time last year, two-thirds of employers were allowing their staff to telecommute at least periodically, according to research by Intuit, and another report put the share of workers regularly working remotely at 38%.
This trend is only set to continue, and no matter where your own company's own stance falls on remote work, it's wise to develop the skill set you'll need to manage remote teams. And that starts with your own mentality. As a manager, don’t be so quick to shoot down the idea of working from home. For some people, flexible work is actually more productive work; in some instances, telecommuting may be the only option for employees with certain family and personal obligations.
Now more than ever, managers need to abandon one-size-fits-all expectations for their employees. For example, a working mother might ask to work remotely a few days each week in order to take care of her young children. You don't need to offer carte blanche invitations for all your staff to develop their own schedules—after all, your job as a manager is still to manage these requests, just like all others—but you do need to be receptive to them and understand how they might help.
Showing a genuine openness toward helping your team members balance their work and their lives demonstrates you have their best interests in mind. It can cultivate loyalty and keep lines of communication strong—both crucial things in an era of job hopping and remote collaboration.
As Susan Vitale, CMO at the recruitment software company iCIMS, told Fast Company recently, "You need a product that looks really good, whether you are a software designer or a shoe manufacturer." Increasingly—and in Vitale's telling, across a widening swath of industries—design is no longer the sole concern of the design department.
To be sure, that trend won't affect every manager at every business, but it's certainly impacting more of them. After all, effective managers don't just supervise their teams from a distance. The best of them have always understood the various roles each of their employees fulfill, and what that entails on a day-to-day basis. As product and design considerations rise to the fore in more of that front-line work, it may be smart to brush up on your expertise in that area.
"In today's market, it's difficult for products to compete by offering more features than their competitors," says Zeke Binion, UX design director at Table XI. "Instead, more and more companies—including Uber, Nest, Slack, and Disney to name a few—are creating competitive advantages through compelling experiences." Put simply, it helps to have a basic grasp of how.
Whether or not you're leading a product team or a group of designers, Binion adds, "As a manager, you'll need to be able to guide your team toward creating a great experience" for whoever will be using your products and services—especially since that's becoming a more fundamental business principle with ever wider implications. If "the customer is at the heart of every product decision," as Binion puts it, then it should probably guide your managerial decisions, too. And you'll need at least the baseline knowledge to make them.
Great managers should always be learning. Maintaining an intellectual curiosity can prevent stagnation, and a continuous desire to learn also benefits your team in more ways than you may think—including when it comes to retention.
"Intellectually curious leaders challenge the status quo . . . and aren’t afraid to ask ‘why,'" Richard B. Slansky, chief financial officer at the biotech company OncoSec, tells me. "If an adequate answer cannot be articulated, then managers should . . . modify the policy, procedure, or direction given." That's always been true. But as companies struggle with high employee turnover, this willingness to change course quickly and decisively is growing more important. And it starts with a constant, personal desire to develop.
Effective managers today, Slansky says, "also have the self-awareness to realize that they need to continuously improve their skill set to better understand their employees, projects, and business processes," since those things are themselves changing all the time. Being too complacent or incurious to stay abreast of it all ultimately makes for weak leadership.
Increasingly, managers need to be willing to serve their employees and support their team. This may contravene some familiar notions of hierarchy, but it doesn't do away with structure altogether.
Instead, think of your role as that of a public servant. You need to listen to your employees and understand their needs and expectations while helping them in their day-to-day tasks so they can succeed. Put yourself in your employees' shoes and consider which type of manager you'd rather work with—someone who's routinely engaged in the work that you do and is always there to offer regular feedback, or someone who simply passes off assignments to subordinates and checks in once a year with an annual performance review?
Like it or not, you can't manage your teams the same way you might have done 10 or 15 years ago and still expect the same results. The business world is changing, and the roles workers play are evolving to keep up. But one familiar precept still holds true: If you don't make the effort to stay ahead of the curve, you risk getting left behind.