From commander to coach

How a demographic shift created more questions and a new type of leader

Based in Franklin, Gary Minor has been coaching leadership teams for more than two decades. Among the topics he regularly covers with clients is the transition in the past few decades of many successful leaders from commander to coach. Minor spoke recently with Post Editor Geert De Lombaerde about the implications of that shift.

You say today’s workforce thrives on a
more collaborative approach to achieve lasting results and that leaders shouldn’t be threatened by workers asking, “Why?” Talk a little about that.

A lot of people take that “Why?” as a challenge or a threat, but it’s a good check because it indicates your team members are engaged. It’s also a good check for you because if you can’t explain why you want something done — tying it to the core purpose or values or the larger plan — maybe it shouldn’t be done at all.

So the “Why?” is also a way to prioritize.

Right. It is so much harder to get things done these days. There is so much more distracting noise and most people have a much wider span of responsibility than just a few years ago, . So if you as a worker don’t know the “why” of certain things, it hampers your ability and your motivation to do them.

When would you say this trend really started? When did more people begin asking, “Why?”

Think about when World War II veterans began retiring in large numbers. Then think about when personal computers began to land on desktops in large numbers. Those two things are not related but they both happened from the mid-’80s through the early ’90s.

As a result of the second of those, we ended up eliminating millions of middle management positions. Those people’s main roles were to be conduits of information from the top to the bottom and all levels in between so everyone understood as much of the “why” as they needed to execute the part they were told to do.

We’ve realized more than 20 years later that those managers also were bringing along younger generations. Now, when you look at the generation in their 50s, my generation, you see fewer people who know how to lead. They didn’t get that mentorship or grow with the military the way World War II and Korea veterans and their contemporaries did.

Before this shift in the mid-’80s, the assumption was that the order givers were right. You did what you were told, and the way to execute was much more clear. After the shift, there were far fewer order givers, fewer people who had been in the armed forces to receive that training.

So we had less direction being given to more people.

And we’ve now figured out we need to have that human connection. The good news about technology is that we can do so much more. The bad news is that so many people are trying to do it all by themselves. “You’ll figure it out” doesn’t work anymore. There are too many distractions and too much ambiguity.

Plus people are looking for more meaning from their work now.

When things were going great before 2008, the commerce wheel was spinning so fast and throwing off money so quickly, we lost track of things. But so many of the people who became unemployed — and often stayed unemployed for a long time — have had a lot of time for reflection. They may have bought Halftime by Bob Buford when it came out 10 years earlier in 1997, but now they had the time to actually read it. And they realized they wanted more meaning from their work. They wanted to leave a legacy.

And for a lot of folks, that means working for themselves or in a small business.

The majority of the job growth in the future is going to come from small companies. But at those companies, the span of responsibility for each person will continue to become even wider.

In so many industries and professional services, we don’t need the large numbers anymore. A 300,000-square-foot manufacturing plant can now be run by less than 100 people when it might have taken thousands a generation ago. But it takes so much more conversation, more interaction between those 100 people to make things work.

Are younger generations really ready for that? You don’t have to look too far these days to find teenagers with their noses buried in a mobile device — and not communicating in the way you say we need.

No, that’s not teaching them the skills they’ll need. We can no longer function without technology — nor should we — but simply having access to tech isn’t helping us in the workforce. We can talk about an Apple device or an Android device, but the best devices we have to lead and influence other people are our own brain and mouth. Sharing your own ideas face to face is much more persuasive or influential than a touch screen.

So the first thing we need to do is stop arguing that we don’t need these interpersonal skills, that technology has supplanted the need for good old face-to-face communication between real living, thinking people. Then, we need to start teaching it early and regularly, perhaps as early as pre-elementary school.

We need to teach our kids many of these extroverted skills, such as how to shake someone’s hand and to look a person in the eye, have a true exchange of ideas with someone who is actually in the same room. The good news is these skills are easy to learn.