The Role of a Manager Has to Change in 5 Key Ways
pchyburrs/Getty Images

“First, let’s fire all the managers” said Gary Hamel almost seven years ago in Harvard Business Review. “Think of the countless hours that team leaders, department heads, and vice presidents devote to supervising the work of others.”

Today, we believe that the problem in most organizations isn’t simply that management is inefficient, it’s that the role and purpose of a “manager” haven’t kept pace with what’s needed.

For almost 100 years, management has been associated with the five basic functions outlined by management theorist Henri Fayol: planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling.

These have become the default dimensions of a manager. But they relate to pursuing a fixed target in a stable landscape. Take away the stability of the landscape, and one needs to start thinking about the fluidity of the target. This is what’s happening today, and managers must move away from the friendly confines of these five tasks. To help organizations meet today’s challenges, managers must move from:

Directive to instructive: When robots driven by artificial intelligence (AI) do more tasks like finish construction or help legal professionals more efficiently manage invoices, there will be no need for a supervisor to direct people doing such work. This is already happening in many industries — workers are being replaced with robots, especially for work that is more manual than mental, more repetitive than creative.

What will be needed from managers is to think differently about the future in order to shape the impact AI will have on their industry. This means spending more time exploring the implications of AI, helping others extend their own frontiers of knowledge, and learning through experimentation to develop new practices.

Jack Ma, co-founder of the Alibaba Group in China, recently said, “Everything we teach should be different from machines. If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years from now we will be in trouble.” Ma is referring to education in the broadest sense, but his point is spot on. Learning, not knowledge, will power organizations into the future; and the central champion of learning should be the manager.

Restrictive to expansive: Too many managers micromanage. They don’t delegate or let direct reports make decisions, and they needlessly monitor other people’s work. This tendency restricts employees’ ability to develop their thinking and decision making — exactly what is needed to help organizations remain competitive.

Managers today need to draw out everyone’s best thinking. This means encouraging people to learn about competitors old and new, and to think about the ways in which the marketplace is unfolding.

Exclusive to inclusive: Too many managers believe they are smart enough to make all the decisions without the aid of anyone else. To them, the proverbial buck always stops at their desks. Yet, it has been our experience that when facing new situations, the best managers create leadership circles, or groups of peers from across the firm, to gain more perspective about problems and solutions.

Managers need to be bringing a diverse set of thinking styles to bear on the challenges they face. Truly breakaway thinking gets its spark from the playful experimentation of many people exchanging their views, integrating their experiences, and imagining different futures.

Repetitive to innovative: Managers often encourage predictability — they want things nailed down, systems in place, and existing performance measures high. That way, the operation can be fully justifiable, one that runs the same way year in and out. The problem with this mode is it leads managers to focus only on what they know — on perpetuating the status quo — at the expense of what is possible.

Organizations need managers to think much more about innovating beyond the status quo – and not just in the face of challenges. Idris Mootee, CEO of Idea Couture Inc., could not have said it better: “When a company is expanding, when a manager starts saying ‘our firm is doing great’, or when a business is featured on the cover of a national magazine – that’s when it’s time to start thinking. When companies are under the gun and things are falling apart, it is not hard to find compelling reasons to change. Companies need to learn that their successes should not distract them from innovation. The best time to innovate is all the time.”

Problem solver to challenger: Solving problems is never a substitute for growing a business. Many managers have told us that their number one job is “putting out fires,” fixing the problems that have naturally arisen from operating the business. We don’t think that should be the only job of today’s manager. Rather, the role calls for finding better ways to operate the firm — by challenging people to discover new and better ways to grow, and by reimagining the best of what’s been done before. This requires practicing more reflection — to understand what challenges to pursue, and how one tends to think about and respond to those challenges.

Employer to entrepreneur: Many jobs devolve into trying to pleasing one’s supervisor. The emphasis on customers, competitors, innovations, marketplace trends, and organizational performance morphs too easily into what the manager wants done today — and how he or she wants it done. Anyone who has worked for “a boss” probably knows the feeling.

The job of a manager must be permanently recast from an employer to an entrepreneur. Being entrepreneurial is a mode of thinking, one that can help us see things we normally overlook and do things we normally avoid. Thinking like an entrepreneur simply means to expand your perception and increase your action — both of which are important for finding new gateways for development. And this would make organizations more future facing — more vibrant, alert, playful — and open to the perpetual novelty it brings.

We want managers to become truly human again: to be people who love to learn and love to teach, who liberate and innovate, who include others in the process of thinking imaginatively, and who challenge everyone around them to create a better business and a better world. This will ensure that organizations do more than simply update old ways of doing things with new technology, and find ways to do entirely new things going forward.


For some of your team members, the idea of using data to inform decision-making can feel intimidating. Maybe they don’t consider themselves to have strong analytical skills. Maybe they felt overwhelmed by their statistics course in college. Maybe they like to “go with their gut,” or simply dread the idea of wading through a ton of data. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you can show your team that there are simple, straightforward ways to make a big impact with data, it will go a long way toward getting your employees to use data more often in their day-to-day decision-making.

Consider three examples. The first involves Billy Beane, front office executive for the Oakland Athletics and the subject of Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, who transformed baseball using data. He didn’t do it using fancy new math, or even sophisticated statistical work. He did it by asking an important question: What kinds of players in the Major League draft typically go on to have the most successful professional careers? He used years of data to answer that question, and then drafted players with those attributes (e.g. those who were playing in college, drawing lots of walks, and so on).

Beane’s insight was not some kind of arcane statistical manipulation. It was much simpler. He recognized that he could predict who would succeed in the Major Leagues by studying who had succeeded in the Major Leagues. That’s just exploiting a pattern. In the same vein, the logic behind Moneyball can be applied to any business — there’s enormous potential to use data more powerfully without spending years studying statistics or using complicated algorithms. The essence of “big data” is much simpler: Ask an important question, find the data that might offer an answer, and figure out the pattern.

Example two is out of law enforcement. When police in Santa Cruz, California, claimed that they had “solved a crime before it happened,” it was not some futuristic, Orwellian crime fighting strategy. It was just a pattern. The Santa Cruz police used crime data to determine when and where crimes were happening most often. Then they sent more officers to these locations. One of these spots was a parking garage where there had been a large number of break-ins. Officers spotted two suspicious-looking women lurking near a car. One of the women was wanted on an outstanding warrant; the other was carrying drugs. Police arrested them both — ostensibly before they broke into the car.

Did the police really solve a crime before it happened? The question misses the point. The Santa Cruz police used data to spot crime patterns and then sent officers to the places where they would have the most impact. That’s not mathematical genius; it’s just clever use of data.

Insight Center
Scaling Your Team’s Data Skills
Sponsored by Splunk
Help your employees be more data-savvy.

Lastly, when the retailer Target wanted a tool for reaching pregnant shoppers (who tend to develop strong retail loyalties during pregnancy), analysts developed a “pregnancy prediction index.” This was neither as hard nor as intrusive as it would appear. Target already had the relevant data. The retailer has a baby gift registry for expectant mothers — women who had effectively told Target not only that they were pregnant, but when they were due. Analysts studied the shopping habits of these pregnant women  to discern what products they were more likely to buy than non-pregnant customers: baby wipes, unscented lotions, vitamins, and a handful of other products, some more obvious than others. The next step was just a logical leap: Women who begin buying these products are likely pregnant and can be targeted (pun intended) for pregnancy-related products and services. That is clever business, not statistical wizardry.

Of course, Target faced significant blowback when their pregnancy prediction index figured out that a high school girl was pregnant before her father did. (A series of pregnancy-related coupons from Target prompted the dad to ask some pointed questions of his daughter, according to a New York Times story on Target’s data analytics.) This is a good time to remind your team that big data requires judgement, too. Some patterns are better left private.

Most of the time, however, customers benefit enormously from well-targeted information. We want recommendations for products we are likely to enjoy, discounts for services we use, and customer service that has been refined by constant feedback. And your employees have the power to deliver these benefits, even if they consider themselves “non-math types.”

That’s because the revolution in data analysis in the last 15 years has been made possible by three things: digital data, cheap computing power, and connectivity. Fifty years ago, baseball teams had loads of statistics on player performance — but it was written in pencil in binders filed away in dank storerooms. The same was true with crime data and credit card receipts and customer satisfaction surveys. We had the information — but there was no easy way to compile and analyze it. The patterns were there. We just couldn’t see them, at least not cheaply or easily.

Then along came the personal computer, digitalization, and the internet. Suddenly, we could suck all that information out of basement storerooms and moldy ledgers and see the patterns lurking there — free, and within seconds. Once data became more valuable, we began collecting more of it: with loyalty programs, on social media, from scanner data, and so on.

The gating factor now is imaginative questions, not proper computations. Anyone can learn to ask great questions. Take this one: What kinds of people turn out to be the best at sales? That’s just the Billy Beane question again, only for sales rather than for baseball. You can use data to identify the attributes that define top performers, and then hire people with those attributes.

To be clear, it’s hard to measure and quantify important skills like “listening”; the data must be collected over a long enough period to separate luck from skill; and so on. Still, the process of putting data against questions can burst myths and overcome stereotypes. This was one of Billy Beane’s first insights. His scouts were looking for talent based on “rules of thumb” that weren’t borne out by the data. For example, they were enamored of pitchers who could throw superfast, even as decades of data showed that accuracy matters more.

There are a few other caveats to keep in mind as well. First, big data tends to produce patterns, but it is not deterministic. Billy Beane is going to draft some duds; not every customer buying baby wipes and unscented lotion is pregnant.

Second, all data are inherently backward-looking. By definition, they come from the past. Because of this, data analytics will miss inflection points. Customers cannot provide meaningful feedback on a product they can’t imagine.

Third, sloppy thinking is just as dangerous with data as it is without — maybe even more so. Yes, customers who call a complaint line report low levels of satisfaction with the service they get because it’s the complaint line. The right questions to ask are: 1) Are customers more satisfied (even if still angry) at the end of the call than they were at the beginning; 2) Which employees have the most success in improving customer satisfaction? and 3) What techniques do those successful employees use?

It’s true that basic statistics are what gives power to the patterns; knowledge of basic statistics is an important skill to have. Still, I would rather teach a savvy marketing person how to do basic data analytics than try to get a statistician to think about improving the customer experience. Interesting answers are out there. People who care about those answers just need to go looking for them, maybe with a little bit of prodding. The easiest way to get all of your employees excited about using data is to demystify what is actually going on.

Fernando Trabanco Fotografía/Getty Images

It has been well documented that immigrants contribute disproportionately to entrepreneurship. This is true both in the United States, where they represent 27.5% of all entrepreneurs but only 13% of the population, and in many other countries around the world.

On average, immigrants contribute twice as much to U.S. entrepreneurship as native-born citizens do. But immigrants aren’t just creating more businesses; they’re creating more successful ones. A Harvard Business school study comparing immigrant-founded businesses to native-founded ones showed that immigrant-founded companies perform better in terms of employment growth over three- and six-year time horizons. The authors of the study, William R. Kerr and Sari Pekkala Kerr, conclude that immigrant-led companies grow at a faster rate and are more likely to survive long term than native-led companies are.

Why is this the case? Researchers are not completely sure, but as William Kerr has said, “The very act of someone moving around the world, often leaving family behind, might select those who are very determined or more tolerant of business risk.” It’s important to highlight that not all immigrants or non-immigrants are the same, and there is obviously a tremendous amount of variability between individuals. However, many of the qualities that would seem to make immigrants more likely to succeed in building their own businesses are reasons you should consider hiring them to help build yours.

A growth mindset

Success in today’s business environment requires having a “growth mindset.” A person with a growth mindset believes their talents are not stagnant. They believe they can do more by working hard, coming up with good strategies, and taking input from others. Such people achieve more than individuals with a fixed mindset, who tend to think they were born only with certain innate talents, which are unlikely to change.

A concept closely related to that of “growth mindset” is that of an “immigrant mindset.” People who are willing to uproot their lives in search of something better are the types of people who are determined to make change happen themselves. To migrate to a new country also takes a high level of confidence in one’s ability to change and a high level of tolerance for uncertainty. More importantly, they believe in their ability to figure things out and adapt once they get there.

Being unafraid of new challenges and proactively reaching for them is extremely important for long-term business survival. Those companies that do not continually innovate and adapt along with advances in technology and changes in society eventually see their products or services fade in importance. Meanwhile, competitors, or simply new and better ways of working, replace them. Growth demands that businesses view change as imperative, not optional. Immigrants, who are veterans of change, would appear to be likely to help businesses remain competitive and thrive.


It requires adaptation skills to survive, let alone to thrive, in a new place. When you’re in a brand new culture, and especially if you’re learning a new language, the need for change isn’t a one-off, but rather a continual daily requirement. This is why even immigrants who might have come from wealthy or privileged backgrounds in their home country tend to quickly lose any sense of entitlement. Adapting can be a painful and difficult process, one that takes place on an ongoing basis. It forces a reexamination of the familiar and requires a person to make changes to how they think and act.

Dharmesh Shah, founder and CTO at HubSpot and an immigrant to the United States, writes about many of the changes he made on an ongoing basis in order to fit in, from getting rid of his accent, to changing his appearance, and even temporarily changing his name to David.

Here too, immigrants may offer a benefit for employers. Businesses are increasingly finding that rapid adaptation is necessary for success in today’s competitive environment. Hiring immigrants may help you build the organizational muscle of adaptability that will enable your company to be more receptive to, and act upon, the continual change that is required of businesses today.

Diversity and inclusion

Immigrants usually improve a company’s ethnic and linguistic diversity, and they also bring a plethora of unique experiences, backgrounds, and knowledge to the workplace. And companies are paying attention to research finding that firms with more diverse people on staff have healthier financial performance, largely because non-homogenous teams tend to outperform teams with lots of similar people.

But hiring a more diverse workforce is only half the equation. Without giving people equal chances to participate and truly integrating them into all aspects of the business, teams won’t reach a state of high performance very quickly, and the unique aspects of individuals won’t be leveraged to the highest degree. This is where inclusivity comes in.

Immigrants know what it feels like to be an outsider. Throughout my career, I have noticed that the people on my teams who have either immigrated to a new country or spent extensive time living abroad are highly sensitized to the fact that others might not feel included. They tend to be more inclined to promote an inclusive way of working than employees without this experience. They are also more aware that others might contribute different experiences from their own. So, they tend to be more willing to hear voices that might otherwise go unheard in a business environment. Because they have experienced what it’s like to be different first-hand, they can also be more likely to be in tune with the realities of discrimination, both blatant and the more pervasive subtle kind. This, in turn, may make them eager to help prevent their colleagues from experiencing it.

Global readiness

One of the most frequently overlooked benefits that immigrants bring to a business context is that they have international experience. Knowledge of other cultures and languages might not seem critical for a business that isn’t yet selling outside of its home country, but in order to keep growing, nearly every business hits a point at which they need to expand beyond borders. And today, with most businesses having an online presence, they are global from day one.

Most companies are not prepared to handle global business from day one. They orient their firm around the needs of their home market alone. And when they do go global, it’s usually a painful process filled with plentiful organizational learning and growing pains.

People who bring experience from a different country and cultural context may be more likely to prevent a company from having to deal with such pains, while accelerating the company’s organizational learning about how to become a global company. In my role at HubSpot, leading international expansion and strategy for the company, I’ve found that many of the employees who have immigration experience tend to think about potential international challenges much earlier. They’re not just thinking about the markets you’re in now and the customers have today. They have a more global outlook on life itself, and they bring this perspective to their daily work. They design processes and do their work in a way that prevents global friction later on as the business grows into new markets.

Integrate Cross-Border Experience into Your Business

Here are some practical ways to make sure that your company is recruiting adaptive people with a growth mindset and cross-cultural experiences:

Invest in mobility and immigration expertise. Often, candidates who have immigrated might require additional support to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, especially where visas and work requirements are concerned. Make sure your legal team can support you with the ability to advise on the specifics in this area.

Add international or cross-cultural experience to your recruiting priorities. Clearly explain your priorities to your recruiting team. They can help add international experience as a desired quality in job descriptions, screening tools, and so on. You can also tell them to look for people who were born in your home country, but spent a good part of their lives living abroad or have other cross-cultural experience.

Flag people who know multiple languages. It’s not always easy to tell if someone came to your country from another just by looking at their resume, especially if they obtained higher education once they got here. Professional profiles, such as LinkedIn, enable you to filter by language to quickly find people with international experience. Also, consider adding language expertise to your existing systems, so that you can identify employees who might already have this without their managers being aware.

Keep an eye out for candidates with an adaptive mindset. You don’t have to be an immigrant to demonstrate many of the qualities that make immigrants successful in business. Give consideration to employees who don’t shy away from change and have a track record of choosing the foreign over the familiar. Look for people who have made major career pivots, have overcome unusual or significant challenges, or otherwise show signs of willingness to explore uncharted territory while adapting and thriving in the process.

Encourage employees to obtain international experience. If you have offices outside your home country, consider creating incentives for employees to spend more time in those offices. The expenses can add up, but nothing replaces the value of living and working in another country, no matter how long, to help them contribute in a more meaningful way to your business, especially if international business is a key part of fueling your overall global growth.

No comments