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Interview - Managing in a lean future

E&T talks to author Ruth Spellman, whose new book explains how managers need to adapt to a changing workplace environment.

You know that the world of management is changing when a new book on the subject opens with a lengthy chapter on values and ethics. While in the not so distant past leadership manuals concentrated exclusively on what's in it for top dogs and fat cats, today, according to Ruth Spellman, we have to look at the broader picture. Whilst once we were told how to be single-minded in pursuit of victory, while in the process grabbing bonuses that would buy us speedboats and ski lodges, it's not like that anymore.

Spellman's new book – 'Managers and Leaders Who Can' – offers a refreshing shift in focus, where the emphasis is not so much on winning, but on competing responsibly, sustainably and fairly. Sounds like another book from the liberal fringes of ethical business? Well no, it comes from the chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, from someone whose professional aim is to increase the level of qualified managers out there, to 'raise the profile of the organisation through clear messaging, first class research and providing a range of accessible services' to her membership.

The central premise of 'Managers and Leaders Who Can' is that the post-recession business climate is radically different from the past, and that with this cultural shift comes a new set of outward-facing responsibilities. To respond to this new world order, says Spellman, managers now need 'to be capable of taking account of a much wider range of issues'.

If this sounds nebulous and utopian – the future's different and we've got to change – remember this is only the starting position. Knowing this, we've got to translate the change in philosophy into a real change in how we act, says Spellman. She underlines this point by starting with a discussion on corporate values and ethics – topics that were once, if we were lucky, bolted on as an afterthought in an appendix that might be relevant to MBA students.

According to Spellman, these qualities are the rudder that steers the ship and become more and more important as the task ahead becomes more complex. But why is it more complex today? Essentially, says Spellman, as corporate belts tighten, there are simply more people making demands of today's overstretched manager. And they all want their pound of flesh in a world where failure is not an option.

'I was talking recently to a manager who faced the challenge of reducing the headcount in his division by more than half. At the same time, the same manager was being presented with ever more ambitious growth targets for his division and was grappling with the dilemma of how to achieve better results with fewer people and a dramatically reduced budget.'

This is hardly uncommon. So what do we do? Spellman thinks that managers in these situations need help and advice 'to negotiate their way through the turbulent, fast-moving business climate'. This, then, is what her book is really about.

More from less

In such a situation there are often opportunities to manage better and lead with more clarity of vision. Spellman has gone to captains of industry, heads of industrial institutions and learning establishments for their views on the topic. Not surprisingly, when it comes to the ethical aspect of management, these leaders speak with one voice.

'Ethics and values are right at the heart of any great management and leadership team,' says Martin Bean, vice chancellor of the Open University. Of course, he's entirely correct. But what these experts can't tell you is what form these values should take. Spellman's book can't – and doesn't – attempt to tell you what to think. But it is helpful in its approach of advising you as to what you should be looking at: sustainability, corporate social responsibility, environmental policy, personnel development, encouragement of innovation.

But there is more to 'Managers and Leaders Who Can' than simply exhorting people in power to behave better when times are tough. 'In writing this book,' Spellman says, 'I have been influenced by the research and evidence to which the Chartered Management Institute has access, and by my own gut instincts. Although we live in hard times we have a thousand opportunities a day to do things better by being proactive. Managing risks, seizing opportunities and becoming better at stakeholder management are realistic aspirations for us all.'

Another theme that emerges is how working with new values can help managers make the right decisions about what they do and how they do it. Risk management, business continuity, managing technical change, introducing green initiatives, developing brand reputation and embracing diversity are all strategies that may once have been secondary to delivering results to shareholders, but are now central to any business ethos. In her chapters under these headings, Spellman carves through what these issues might mean, and reassembles them as an entire package for the responsible manager in the 'post-recession world'.

The big question, though. is whether there is enough experience and skill in the upper echelons of today's management pool to take on the 'new reality'. In the chapter headed 'Management Change and Uncertainty' Spellman makes it clear that 'the evidence suggests that there is still a huge gap in our ability to lead major change initiatives successfully'. It goes on to say that the research is there to show that most change programmes fail because organisations don't have the capacity to react quickly enough to changes in customer requirements. 'This is not a situation we can allow to continue. UK plc needs to invest urgently in raising management and leadership skill levels so that we can raise our game and achieve sustainable competitive advantage.'

This is very typical of the issues raised in 'Managers and Leaders Who Can'. There are problems, sure, but there are solutions too, but the solutions required sustained investment in people. 'At a time when budgets are being squeezed to the limit there is a tendency for organisations to cut back on management training and development. This,' says Spellman, 'is shortsighted and counter-productive. It means that managers are left exposed and the ability of the business to improve performance and meet future challenges is stymied.' *

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