But after the global financial crisis and the spectacular fall of CEOs, there are indications of a backlash against corporate levelling, a reassessment that could herald the resurrection of those once-demonised managers.
In their book, Manager Redefined, Tom Davenport and Stephen Harding have taken on the mission of getting managers in from the cold and back at the heart of business management. Both authors are senior practitioners with Towers Watson, which specialises in human capital, risk and financial management consulting.
The authors offer a brief history of management and the changing role of the manager. They define the ideal character and responsibilities of the 21st century supervisor, and offer ways to measure managerial performance.
They start off with a sad survey of how managers have fallen from the pinnacles of industrial-age organisations to the disposable adjunct they have become.
A quote from super-CEO Jack Welch says it all: "Managers slow things down. Leaders spark the business to run smoothly, quickly."
However, in an interview with Classified Post, San Francisco-based Davenport notes a trend towards the re-appraisal of the manager, even an end to CEO-worship. Given the global economic turmoil, Davenport says the world needs to reinvent the manager. Citing the manager's hybrid status as an ex-employee, former corporate-systems operator, and the boss' sidekick, the authors say: "Think of the power they could unleash if they brought this accumulated knowledge and experience to bear for the benefit of employees and the organisation. Unleashing that power is our main aim with this book."
The authors believe the manager should act as a "broker" between employer and employee. "Rather than being a necessary evil, what can managers do to contribute to competitive edge?" Davenport says.
The book highlights what Davenport calls the four basic building blocks of what managers can do: executing tasks, building relationships and performance capability, and energising change. To succeed, these building blocks need a foundation: an atmosphere of authenticity and trust between employers and the workers. Reworking the concept of "human resources" is crucial, which Davenport says should be replaced with "human capital".
"Many organisations refer to their people as their most important asset. I'm not an asset. I am an owner of human capital. My knowledge, my talents, my abilities, my skills - these are my assets."
Davenport says managers should help employees nurture their human capital in support of the organisation's aims.
In Asia, where most companies are family-owned and run by professional managers, Davenport says supervisors should explain to their employers the importance of a well-motivated workforce in achieving business goals.
The main implication of the book's proposed redefinition will require a new generation of managers. "We need training and careful selection. Empathy cannot be taught," Davenport says.
The book's message is simple. "Leadership is essentially having a vision for a place better than where we are."
The manager is in charge of getting everybody to that place.
- The manager position has been under assault. It’s become a conglomeration of pieces and parts, designed to do too many things and engineered to
do none of them well
- We view managers as a centre of power and influence, more latent than actual in many companies, but real nonetheless. We think organisations have simply lost sight of this
- Managers need to do the task of people development very subtly ... offstage, creating an environment for success – managing the environment rather than managing