The manager of the future

By Stephanie Argentine, Executive in Residence, Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness

Woman in a video conference call at a coffee shop.

Throughout his career, the late Harvard professor Clayton Christensen produced groundbreaking insights, but when he died, the quote we saw most often was this: “Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.”

In the School of Management, I teach a graduate-level hybrid course nicknamed “The Future of Work,” and Christensen’s concept of disruption—how the future will disrupt the role of the manager—is on everyone’s minds.


Here’s the punchline: I don’t think the future will change the manager role. Don’t get me wrong, the future will change a lot of things—we’ve seen that over the past several months, as organizations worldwide shifted to remote work. But the critical work of managers—why we have them and what we need them to do—won’t change.

This is because the role of a manager is based on our needs as humans, and humans don’t evolve as fast as work and the workplace do. For the foreseeable future, a manager’s role will be the same tomorrow as it is today because employees need the same things from their managers—whether they’re working down the hall or in another time zone.

The 5 C’s

So, what is the critical work of a manager? You can count our key duties on one hand. 

  • Communicate: Discuss the company’s vision and strategies, the department’s direction and goals, and in times of crisis, what we know and don’t know. Hopefully, leadership teams provide key messages you can share with your team, but if not, communicate anyway. Find out what employees want and need to know, and communicate that up, so you can answer questions later. 
  • Clarify: No one shows up to work thinking, “I am going to screw this up today.” As managers, it’s up to us to clarify what good looks like. What do we expect? What do our clients, customers or colleagues need? If employees are not doing what is expected, managers must clarify and ensure understanding.
  • Coach: In a recent report, the CEB Corporate Leadership Council looked at the most impactful behaviors managers could demonstrate. Several could be grouped as coaching: Provide recognition and feedback; help employees find solutions to challenges; amplify good and filter out bad aspects of organizational culture; and coach employees in their growth and career development. Research shows employees value and crave feedback. They want to make progress and have an impact. Managers must provide coaching so they can. 
  • Connect: As managers, we must help our team see their collective purpose and how their work connects to the greater whole. We can connect people within our company and network. We can connect employees to—and sponsor them for—growth opportunities, including new projects and roles.
  • Customize: We need to understand what makes each team member unique, and customize, tailor and adapt how we support them. In Ken Blanchard’s The One-Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, he gives two basic frames for delegation and follow-up: “Act and then advise” or “recommend and then act.” Managers must adapt how they delegate and follow up depending on the individual and task.

No one can say for sure how the coronavirus will impact workplaces in the future. What is certain, though, is that even if the “how” changes, the “what” will not. Our duties as managers remain the same: Communicate, clarify, coach, connect and customize.