What is the new role of the manager?

What is the new role of the manager?

By Erik Korsvik Østergaard, 31. January 2016

So, now we’re doing a transformation to a new culture and embracing Future Of Work. We’re empowering employees and involving them. We’re rolling out Agile and we have self-organizing teams. What’s left for me as a manager, or VP? What’s my role?

Good question. And one that I get a lot.

Your new role consists of these elements:

  1. Coaching and mentoring, using your emotional intelligence and experience
  2. Being strategic, thinking as an entrepreneur, working ON “your business”
  3. White space management, i.e. maneuvering the areas in your organization “where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent, and strategy is unclear”

It’s important that you co-create this role together with your managers, your peers, and your employees. You’ll be making a mistake, if you just apply this structure blindly to your organization without adjusting each piece of the puzzle. Ownership and commitment comes via involvement and influence.

Below we dive into each of the four elements.

Why this? What’s the reason?

Clearly, since we’re cracking the silos and establishing networked organizations, and since we’re pushing mandate out to the self-organizing teams, the need for redefining the “managerial spongy glue” is in focus.

If you simplify the leadership pipeline a bit, it’s about:

  • Leading Business
  • Leading Leaders
  • Leading Others

You should start thinking as if you’re running a start-up in the organization, i.e. you should to some extend cover all elements of this simplified leadership pipeline: You should be the manager, leader, and entrepreneur of your “product area”.

Naturally, you do that hand-in-hand with your Product Owners. Do not step on their toes, but provide them strategic guidance, and leave the ownership of the products to the Product Owners(!)

1. Coaching and mentoring

The World Economic Forum posted the The Future of Jobs report January 2016, forecasting how the changes rapidly are approaching. This is a wake up-call. You should be observant on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the disruptions it will lead to. It’s both scary – and filled with possibilities.

The report was accompanied with this list of Top 10 skills in 2020. Check numbers 4, 5 and 6 in 2020:

  • People Management
  • Coordinating with Others
  • Emotional Intelligence

So … Your team is now allocated to the projects or service lines, and spending a significant amount of time there. That means, that their daily relations and their first-hand micro-feedback happens in the context of the project manager/Product Owner/SCRUM Master/Service Manager.

This also means, that your responsibility is to focus on the long-term well-being of the employee to ensure things like:

  • Regular 360-feedback from the networked organization to the employee in your team
  • Continuous development of skills of the employee, being professional skills, business understanding, facilitation of delivery, or interpersonal excellence
  • Striving to match employees dreams and wishes with the requests for ability in the projects/services

2. Strategic work ON your business

As an entrepreneur you’re used to switching between working ON your business (with the purpose, direction, positioning, market understanding etc.) and working IN your business (PR, selling, developing, delivering etc).

As mentioned above: You need to start thinking as an entrepreneur, focusing on the outside context of your team:

  • How does the market look? Who wants your product, and what problem are you solving?
  • What value are you creating for your stakeholders customers? How do you measure that, and bring it back to your Product Owners and team?
  • How can we be innovative? Are we creative enough? How do we co-create the product with the stakeholders customers?

You should at all times be focused on the external context of your employees, your teams, and your products. Focus on these five elements at the same time, and on their overlap:

  • Purpose and direction
  • Innovation
  • Organizing (it’s a verb, not a noun)
  • Culture
  • And naturally, leadership

3. White space management

This is the least concrete skill to master.

A quote from the Wikipedia article on “White Space”*:

“White space is a process management concept described by Geary A. Rummler and Alan P. Brache in 1991 as the area between the boxes in an organizational chart—where, very often, no one is in charge. (…) White space exists in all companies…where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent, and strategy is unclear”. If white space is undefined, then the rest of the corporation operates in what they call “black space”. The study completed by the authors analyzed entrepreneurial activity in the white space area of corporations. The four key challenges to successful white space management requires establishing legitimacy, mobilizing resources, building momentum, and measuring results.”

In the new organizational structures there is a lot of White Space.

As a general design principle you should allow that teams decide on their own organizational structure, being hierarchical, flat, holacracy, or something else. This is the only possibility for scaling the New Leadership philosophy to thousands of employees: Focus on the space between the “cultural dots”. (For inspiration and further reading, see this article by Jacob Morgan: “The Complete Guide To The 5 Types Of Organizational Structures For The Future Of Work“.)

This skill is not something you can learn in a university, but requires extreme leadership skills. As Rummler and Brache describes it: “The four key challenges to successful white space management requires establishing legitimacy, mobilizing resources, building momentum, and measuring results.

4. Gardener of your ecosystem

Lastly, you have an important role when it comes to managing collaboration between all the leaders and key influencers, especially horizontally in the organization. You must be a gardener of the ecosystem around you, such that the dynamics of a strengths-based leadership team is nurtured, and that dialogue, engagement, and access to expertise are facilitated. This is one of the aspects of the so-called social business, namely facilitation of the health of the leadership ecosystem between the leaders.

Compared to ‘leading downwards’ to your teams and ‘leading upwards’ to your leader, ‘leading horizontally’ is many-fold tougher and a neglected or ignored discipline, especially in organizations who have not transformed away from hierarchies.

One traditional impediment for this is performance management. If you’re being monitored on local products and KPIs, you really must break this pattern and deliberately invest extra time in collaborating with your peer leaders, getting to know them, helping them with resources, and asking them for help. You must do this, even though you know that it takes focus away from their inherently incentive-directed behavior.


So, your new role is there. You will not be redundant, on the contrary, but your role changes dramatically.

Focus on employees long-term well-being, on thinking as an entrepreneur working ON the business, on the white space between the teams and products, and on your relationships.

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