Old-School Vs New School

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I recently read a very interesting Blog by Ruth Schwartz on The New Labor Movement, I recommend you take a look. Ruth’s comments resonated with me on a topic that I have been struggling with for some time. How does a leadership team bridge the gap between old-school entrenched management and the new school approach of increasing employee engagement? In the end the company goal is the same, the difference is how you get there without confusing your staff or causing friction in the leadership teams.

To paraphrase Ruth, traditional jobs suck. Employees feel they need to look out for their own best interest and employers feel employees should be happy to a job. Employers practice a top-down approach of directing activity instead of engaging and collaborating with employees. This is felt as micromanagement and indifference towards employees opinions or suggestions. This rings true to my early employment history as well. Do what you are told and maaaaybe you will get a raise. The boss’s cousin gets the good shifts and promotions, but I didn’t want to say anything and risk my job.

old-school-vs-new-school-1To a large extent, this is traditional old-school leadership and management. The senior leadership teams knows best and dictates direction from above. In addition, traditional management is bottom line oriented, and attempts to increase the bottom line through cutting expensed and placing more demands on employees. Raises are scrutinized, hours increased, staffing cut and responsibilities spread amongst the standing. I would suggest there is a standing distrust between the staff and the leadership, the staff believes the leadership would squeeze a pint of blood every day out of every employee. In contrast, the leadership may believe that the staff is doing as little as possible to keep under the radar and maintain their job.

Trust is in the toilet, that can’t be good.

I have been through an MBA program and feel that I’m pretty well versed on the contrarian view of contemporary leadership. This is the leadership style that Ruth writes about, investing in your employees and building the relationship between management and staff through a number of transparent activities. This simple fundamental shift from traditional leadership says ‘take care of your employees, and your employees will take care of your customers.’ I touched on this on my blog on Ebay and Intentional Employee Engagement, where it is no secret that the new school technology and service giants in Silicon Valley go above-and-beyond catering to their employees, and their company performance doesn’t lie about their success.  This approach attempts to increase the bottom line by increasing the top line revenue through company performance rather than expense cutting.
So here is the million dollar question, how does a mid-level leader bring contemporary management practices into corporations with entrenched old-school senior leadership? I’m positive there are more than a few organizations out there that are faced with this same dilemma. Senior management is looking through the window at Google’s full parking lot on a Friday night, instead of looking in the mirror at his own organization’s penny pinching and uncomfortable culture. As a contemporary mid-level leader, it’s difficult to roll out employee-centric programs when faced with budget cuts, increased load, staff reductions and most importantly, lack of upper management support.

One can choose to do nothing, which is guaranteed to accomplish nothing, or one could take baby steps which may lead in the right direction. One approach may be to push a grass roots initiative in the small area that the mid-level leader has influence over. Small gestures like information sharing and town halls to let the staff vent, if nothing else. Open decisions with the group to involve the entire team in the conversation to provide community ownership in the decisions made. Place trust in your staff and encourage experimentation and mistakes to better their abilities. Celebrate the mistakes to build trust with the staff, just knowing that failures are not punishment-worthy will go a long way. Recognition for above and beyond efforts with public praise a maybe few comp hours. All this can be low to no cost to the company, and should result in an uptick in team morale and performance. At some point the other groups in the organization will recognize the community in your team, which is sure to catch the eye of the upper management when work product increases. The mid-level leader’s task is to empower his staff and run interference so his team can excel before the nay-sayers swoop in.

This may sound like a simple approach but eh alternative is to do nothing, risk nothing, gain nothing. I don’t like those odds.

One day the current mid-level leaders will be the old guys, hopefully they are open enough to listen to the younger generation.

What are your suggestions, I’d love to hear them, maybe even put them to the test.

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2 thoughts on “Old-School Vs New School

    Ruth Schwartz said:
    March 31, 2014 at 7:40 AM

    Hi Kurt,
    If the question is how to bring human principles when the senior management is old school, then the answer is to be human, transparent and a leader where ever you are in the organization. Your results will speak for themselves. There are also many tools available to move your team to higher levels of performance and transparency no matter where in the tribe you live. And if you can’t initiate change then self preservation will always win. (Or it should.) Thanks for the article. Ruth

      kurtwspencer responded:
      April 1, 2014 at 12:37 AM

      Thanks for the comments Ruth,
      I agree, do what you can from wherever you can. The results will take care of themselves. -k.

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