Gone are the days when middle management was expected to lead troops into some territorial battle with rivals. Disregard the old command-culture favoured in the ‘80s. Abandon that tired business school mantra about always seeming to be the smartest one in the room.
These days, it’s about collaborating, listening and treating more junior employees as equals. The prevailing culture for successful businesses now is a management structure that is flat, where the most junior associate has a chance to develop the next big idea.
Don’t know how to get by in such a world? Here, then, are five things all managers need to know to succeed in business today.
5. Trusting Workplaces Breed Creativity
The best leaders find a way to encourage creativity in their teams. Pulling that off begins by dispelling the myth that some people just aren’t creative.
“Everybody has the ability to be creative in one way or another,” said executive coach Charles Day with The Lookinglass, a management consultancy in New York City. “The key is to figure out how to unlock it in your employees.”
To help new ideas grow, be sure employees have context. In other words, they should understand the overall goals of the company. When a new idea fits the business strategy, be generous with the time allocated to exploring it. Then be sure your more junior employees know they won’t be criticised for trying a novel idea that fails.
Some companies foster inspiration by encouraging employees to try new creative outlets. Computer design firm FiftyThree, based in New York City and Seattle, holds regular classes to teach employees subjects such as fashion illustration. The company’s IT guy won’t be designing dresses for the runway anytime soon, but the process helps employees to tap into their imagination.
“It might seem strange to teach a bunch of engineers how to do fashion sketches,” admitted FiftyThree, co-founder and chief executive officer Georg Petschnigg. “But creativity happens when boundaries are crossed.”
4. Trust Your Intuition -- Sometimes
Within a generation, the concept of instinctive intuition has gone from quack science to a proven strategy for success in business.
That’s in large part thanks to studies that show it’s best to rely on a gut feeling when you need to make a quick decision. It’s especially true when you have extensive knowledge of a subject.
“A lot of people think intuition is general purpose, but intuition is actually domain specific,” said Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at City University of New York. “Intuition is the result of your subconscious brain picking up on clues and hints and calculating the situation for you, and that’s based solely on experience.”
Maybe one of the most famously intuitive leaders, Steve Jobs, often spoke of following his heart. This helped Jobs green light two projects that seemed too risky back in 2001: iTunes and the iPod. It is more than just a gut feeling, however. The lesson from Apple, Pigliucci said, is to follow-up snap decisions with meticulous attention to detail.
“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition,” Jobs told the graduating class of Stanford University in 2005. “They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
3. When to be Funny
Knowing when to use a joke can help disarm uncomfortable situations and help bosses build real relationships with their employees.
However, jokes should never belittle a more junior employee or stray in to the realm of off-colour humour. But a boss who can crack jokes at his own expense? That’s a good way to lighten the mood.
At Zappos, a Nevada-based online shoe retailer, toy-gun wars regularly break out between departments, and videos of employees oddly dressed and dancing on their desks often end up on YouTube. All that joking around has made employees more loyal to the company and more productive.
“Any type of positive humour seems to improve job satisfaction,” said Jessica Mesmer Magnus, associate professor of management at the Cameron School of Business at University of North Carolina, Wilmington. “Humour shows that you’re a real person and that you can relate to your employees on the same level.”
2. Trust in Delegation
It takes faith for managers to delegate important tasks, and it’s something few successfully pull off.
The reason is simple: They often think they’re better equipped to do the work than their more junior employees.
Instead, the key is to trust them with the difficult parts of the job. Let them succeed, with just a few nudges and checks, workers will be more likely to work hard for you.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about trust and that willingness to be vulnerable,” said Matthew Pearsall, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
1. Top-Down Collaboration
Creating workplace collaboration isn’t as simple as just telling employees to work together. Instead, managers must give their teams specific tools, then oversee how they are being used.
“We often tell people to work together, but we don’t tell them how,” said E Allan Lind, professor of leadership at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, North Carolina. “First, we have to be mindful that people working together is not a normal state of things.”
Managers must show how good ideas come out of working together. They must also demonstrate that real collaboration equals innovation, and be on the watch for communication breakdowns.
David Kelly, founder of the wildly successful design firm Ideo, is famous for asking a group of people that have very little in common on their curriculum vitaes to solve a problem. Sometimes it’s the data guy who comes up with the entirely new engineering solution or the computer geek who figures out the best marketing strategy. For Ideo, this team approach has helped the company create everything from airplane lavatory signs to the first computer mouse.
Those meetings may lead to team members disagreeing. Within reason, that’s a good thing, according to Lind.
“Conflict is like the fire in the firebox of an old steam engine,” Lind said. “You don’t want the fire to get so hot that it gets out of the firebox, but you don’t want it to go out, either.”
Creativity happens when boundaries are crossed.