Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Gender Differences, Generational Differences and Personal Management Styles

In a series of posts last year on my personal blog, I looked at the question of differences between the generations - generation x, generation y and Nextgen. I returned to this theme a little later in Another Funny Mixed up Day where I protested the notion, among other things, that only those under a certain age could manage generation y.

I remain of the view that managing people is all about that, managing people, and has to be done individually independent of generational or gender differences. However, I am now reviewing some elements of my thinking.

Our individual professional and management styles are inevitably formed from our own experiences. My own style has been formed by my now extensive experience as a manager and professional adviser. This affects my approach in a variety of often unseen ways. We all know that this happens, but it can be hard to see unless something forces you to reassess things.

At present I am working as part of a team in a unit that is part of a much bigger Government organisation. I am held against a formal line position that is, in structural terms, at a level I last held in my early twenties. I am a fair bit older and have had a lot more experience than the majority of people I am working with and for.

While the organisation is very Australian in style - open, friendly - it is also hierarchical. Our unit is strongly female in gender terms measured by both overall numbers and management, in fact the first time I have worked in a female dominated group. As a consultant I have had many female clients and have worked in majority female teams, but that is a different thing.

To add to the complications, while I have had a lot of public sector experience, this has all been at a a national level. This is the first time I have worked within a state agency, and the culture and processes - the way we do things round here - are very different in all sorts of sometimes subtle ways. My styles and instinctive ways of acting derived from my own public sector experience do not necessarily fit in.

All this has forced me to look at the ways I work. I thought that I would share some of this with you because I think that it is relevant to management in general, to approaches to team and project work and to the development of new working styles that are now required because of the combination of demographic and cultural change.

Nothing that I say should be construed in any way as a criticism of the place where I am working. My focus is on the things that I am learning, the lessons as I see them for management in general, professional services in particular.

The Female Influence

The office has a softer, more social feel to it, with constant small social gatherings and celebrations for everything from Chinese New Year to International Women's Day to St Patrick's Day to welcomes for new arrivals.

This week my wife and I celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary. I came into work to find hearts all over my desk, with congratulatory messages. I must say that I like all this, although as a male I found the International Women's Day shoe parade a little unusual as a work break!

Looking around, I contrasted the female feel of the place with two other models.

The first was the conventional organisation where the tone is male and women adopt the male styles, including aggression.

The second, one still common in many parts of professional services, is the largely female support unit within an organisation whose overall tone has been set by conventional structures.

Problems here were encapsulated for me several years ago when I was facilitating the appointment of a a practice manager for a smallish law firm. One candidate described the core role of the position as "managing the girls." Needless to say she did not get the job, but her attitude effectively summarised the problems sometimes found in female dominated support units.

I am not quite sure how you increase the feminine in conventional organisations, but I do think that we can learn in terms of the importance of the small ceremonials.

Generational Differences

This is the first time for a while that I have had a chance to work with younger people at the same level, looking across and up as compared to down, the manager perspective. I find this very interesting, in part because it fills a gap.

I know my daughter's generation (my girls are 17 and 19) as well as older generations, but I have had far less direct contact with those in their twenties and early thirties. Now looking up and across as well as down, I can see clear generational differences, although I am not sure that they are accurately captured by the conventional generational descriptors.

I am clearly more obsessive about work, less laid back. My younger colleagues work hard, but also (I think) have a more balanced attitude.

Management Experience

While there are generational differences, this does not affect the basic principles of good staff management. But here there is a real issue, one that is I think wide spread, and that is reduced real management experience associated with the hollowing out of middle management and the move to small team working.

Management is a skill and as such has to be learned by doing.

By the time I was thirty I had had reasonably broadly based management experience acquired in incremental bits. People today are not so lucky. Indeed, today people can and do reach senior management level without ever actually managing anything! This can lead to monumental organisation threatening stuff-ups, although the effects are usually lower key.

We try to compensate for this by reliance on systems supplemented by training, but this is really not enough. We actually need to build in, create, specific management experiences if we are to overcome the problem.

Learning New Roles

One of my problems as a professional has always been my desire to do as well as advise. I am not alone in this. All management related professionals suffer from this to greater or lesser extent simply because we want to see our advice implemented. This can be a real problem because it leads to us confusing our roles, becoming involved in things outside our mandate.

This is another lesson for me in my current role because I must limit myself. I have put must in bold to emphasise the point. If I do not, I move from asset to uncomfortable liability.

I knew this before I arrived, but have found it unexpectedly difficult.

In some ways, I have done every job in the current unit from top to bottom. I also have years of organisational experience. I find myself constantly wanting to react outside my formal ambit, to change things, to take command. However, this would not only undercut the chain of command, but is also potentially dangerous because I lack understanding of all the organisational nuances, the things that are known but unsaid.

My role has to be supporting the team to achieve the things they want/need to achieve. I think that I can play a valuable role here so long as I am disciplined.

I have emphasised this point because I believe that it has broader personal, professional and management importance.

The idea that we have to learn to work in teams, to adopt different roles, has been popular since at least John Naisbitt's Megatrends. Yet the reality is, I think, that it has rarely happened. We are all stuck in the roles and persona's we have developed. We still have to learn how to do this.

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