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Thought Leadership

Is it time to retire the title of manager?

January 30, 2020

In an era of endless disruption, the word feels increasingly dated.

Every year, the professional wordsmiths and gatekeepers of various dictionaries announce their lists of new words deemed to be in sufficiently wide use as to warrant their blessing and inclusion. Among Merriam-Webster’s new words and phrases of 2019 were deep state and fatberg (a portmanteau of fat and iceberg, describing a large mass of fat and solid waste that collects in a sewer system). Gig economypain point, and haircut, in the business sense of an asset suffering a loss in value, also got in.

I’d like to propose an alternate list: words that we should consider retiring. Not that they should be deleted entirely from the English language, of course, but just moved out of popular usage. And at the top of my list is manager.

The word has had a long and useful run. In the days when industry dynamics were more predictable, executives could focus their attention internally, searching for opportunities to “manage” or refine their processes, and using techniques such as lean manufacturing and Six Sigma to achieve quality improvements and cost savings. The role of managers was clear: The company gave them assets, including time, money, people, and other resources, and their job was to optimize those resources to within an inch of their lives.

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The ExCo Group’s Adam Bryant wrote this article for his column in Strategy + Business. It was originally published here.

As the CEO, Jeff Lawson, explained in my interview with him, “[The value is] based on the Internet meme of how to draw an owl. It says: ‘Step 1, draw some circles. Step 2, draw the rest of the owl.’ That’s what it takes to be an entrepreneur — you have to put aside all the reasons you think you can’t do something or figure it out. Our job is to come in every day and take a vague problem that we don’t know how to solve and figure out the solution.”

And that’s not just true of entrepreneurs. Isn’t that everybody’s job now? Shouldn’t it be?

So, if not manager, what should people in those roles be called? I vote for team leader, which sends a clear and powerful signal that your job is to lead (and all the responsibilities that go with that, including setting strategy and priorities, and helping people build new skills), rather than just making sure people are doing their assigned jobs. And I know these won’t fly as much, but I also like the idea of calling managers coaches or even talent developers.

Whatever the preferred label, it’s time for a refresh. The focus has shifted: Instead of people doing what they’re told to do and making the most of the resources they have, they now are coming up with ideas that nobody else has thought of — and creating new opportunities.

Merryck’s Adam Bryant wrote this article for Strategy + Business. It was originally published here.

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