Three Keys to Success For the 21st Century Manager |

Three Keys to Success For the 21st Century Manager

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A trio of recent Harvard Business Review blog posts all center around a common theme: what does it take to be a successful business leader and manager in the 21st century? What traits and characteristics should this new generation of business leader possess?

The posts center around three key areas: how a successful leader will handle the “new normal” of the 21st century business landscape, how the leader will exhibit the necessary people management skills, and how the leader can exponentially increase the amount of value generated by the company or organization.

We, of course, wonder how the rising (and, in many ways, disruptive) influence of open source tenets also plays a role.

Clearly, the rules of the game have changed. In his post, author and venture capitalist Scott Anthony refers to constant change in the business world as the “new normal”. Tomorrow’s leader, he claims, must be able to thrive in this new normal. Having mastery over today’s industry complexities and competitive environments is no longer enough. Tomorrow’s successful manager must exhibit “the capability to flexibly respond to unanticipated challenges.”

From his post:

Perhaps it is time to rethink this approach. Instead of giving up-and-comers larger assignments, consider intentionally giving them smaller, more ambiguous ones. Have them crack into a new geographic market. Ask them to lead the development of a completely new business model. Force them to think creatively about how they will access or assemble the resources to solve the challenge.

Facing highly ambiguous challenges will help managers develop a set of tools that prepare them for the uncertainties they will increasingly encounter as they ascend up the corporate ladder.”

Open source software development has proven that rapid innovation and change is possible in the technology industry. Outside of the industry, examples of the open source approach in action show that creativity, collaboration, and rapid prototyping are effective at tackling ambiguous business challenges. Are the leaders who understand the open source way best positioned to thrive in Anthony’s “new normal”?

Beyond ever-changing industry dynamic and the ability to both recognize and capitalize on them, consider how tomorrow’s leaders should be managing people. According to Stanford University professor and author Robert I. Sutton, the key to success for a business leader will be the willingness to truly have the backs of their team members in difficult and trying situations.

One of the defining, and most crucial, features of effective bosses is that they shield their followers — whether from political maneuvering or resource grabbing or just the innumerable distractions, indignities, time suckers, lame rules, and local idiots that go with organizational life — and create the space for them to succeed.”

The keys to success, Sutton explains, will be both self-awareness and consistency. Research shows that many managers have a skewed sense of what it’s really like to work for them. An effective manager will not rely solely on his understanding and assumption of what it’s like to work for him. In addition, successful managers cannot rest on the laurels of a few “acts of heroic protection” while ignoring the times when team members feel alone and unprotected. Consistency and authenticity will be key in leading tomorrow’s workforce.

Reduced hierarchy and transparency are both key principles of open source project management. Sutton seems to indicate that both are needed to be a successful leader of people in the 21st century. Have you seen examples of “heroic protection” at work in your open source experiences? And do you think this characteristic is indicative of a more open business leader?

The third post, by CEO and author Vineet Nayar, focuses on the top dog: the CEO. Nayar assers that CEOs in a post-recession world must rethink his role and responsibilities within the company and better understand that value creation has shifted within the enterprise.

According to Nayar, “at a time of virtually limitless competition between finely differentiated products, what you sell has become less important than how you do so. The value zone has naturally shifted to the frontier where front-line employees and the customer interact. That has made existing organizational structures outmoded.”

Under this belief, a chief executive will be successful if he believes that the workers who exist in this value zone – namely, customer-facing employees who aren’t necessarily in traditional positions of power – should be empowered to make decisions and take action in the best interest of the business.

Nayar’s advice, advocating a flatter organizational structure that pushes decision-making authority to the front line, is smacking of open source ideals. Nayar’s closing comments indicate that he believes open source principles are critical:

The new CEO can't play chieftain; he must be a team player obsessed with enabling value, someone who is willing to collaborate. Someone able to discover new grass roots leaders and nurture them.

The time has come for chief executive officers to transform themselves into chief enabling officers who enable, encourage, and enthuse employees that are toiling in the value zone.”

What do you think? Do you agree with the positions taken by these three authors? And how will the tenets of open source continue to push the managers of the 21st century to be better leaders?

We’d love to hear your thoughts.



Grooming Leaders to Handle Ambiguity, Scott Anthony, HBR, 6 July 2010

Do You Have Their Backs? Or Just Your Own?, Robert I. Sutton, HBR, 7 July 2010

Who Is the New CEO?, Vineet Nayar, HBR, 6 July 2010


Samuel H

I really like the "chief enabling officer" title. I think it is definitely the way to go in the twenty-first century. Everyone needs to think outside the box in this economy if they are going to be successful.

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To be successful in the new age, if the managers can learn one thing from open source tenets, it would be "How to be effective collaborator". Gone are the days when you would get things done based on your title and position. Today, communication, opennesss and collaboration play far more important role inside and outside your organisation.

How effectively can we influence matters more than what is our title. It is not just the "influencing up" that determines the success, it is "influencing across" that is important. And collaboration, sharing and peering are the key elements for "influencing across."

Vineet Nayar's assertion that value zone has shifted to front line and hence the role of the CEO, is so on the spot.

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Bhaskar Chowdhury

Hey John,

You hit the nail on the head mate! it is indeed time for the top ranks to step up and make a difference . I think they have had enough time in cold storage ,now their time has come to show their true metal.

Yup, they need to understand the open source model very well to deliver in the enterprise.Hand-holding is the key..but it is a forgotten act for top brass.


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