One of the most striking changes in the business world over the past several decades has not been technology, globalization or even the changing nature of work itself. The most interesting change, to my mind, has been the evolution of management style. To be sure, technology, globalization and other "big picture" transformations have played very significant roles, but management itself has changed in substantial ways.
One need only look at old movies or nostalgia shows like "Mad Men" to see the changes that have taken place in executive settings over the years. In many instances, these fictions, not far removed from reality, portray hardnosed businessmen who were not only sure of themselves, but didn't take any guff from anyone. In reality, these were the types of guys -- and they were inevitably guys -- who moved through the business world with smooth autocratic certainty.
Today, in some of the most profitable and successful companies, their attitudes would be seen as anachronistic as a typing pool. No doubt younger employees would simply snicker, giggle or tweet the absurdity of it all. At its best, that hardnosed, no-nonsense style is entertaining. At its worst it can easily become counterproductive to a company's primary mission. It is not that business is taken any less seriously today than in the past. If anything, there is even more pressure on employees to perform at every level of a company's hierarchy. However, to do this requires a very real sense of teamwork.
I am old enough, sadly, to remember the real Mad Men, along with their three-martini, expense account lunches and bulging briefcases. In truth, they were not all that efficient when compared to today's businessman. Part of that is due to the amount of data they had available and speed at which it was delivered. However, a good deal of their inefficiency was simply an unavoidable byproduct of their own arrogance. They alienated or discounted potentially valuable sources of information, refused to correct bad decisions quickly, and resisted acknowledging even painfully obvious changes in the business environment.
If we think of these guys as successful, it is because the business world was to a very large degree much more forgiving in those bygone days. Many of the tools used today to quantify performance simply did not exist. The economy was booming, and everyone was entitled to one lagging quarter or bad year. Remarkably, many of these guys also failed upward. Based on little more than a personal style that projected a credible "blunt approach to business," they moved from company to company into ever-higher positions of no-nonsense failure.
Today, there exists a younger, more agile worker who takes it on faith that he or she will need to constantly upgrade their skill sets throughout their careers. Just as they assume they will not retire from the job and company they signed on with at 25 or 35. This churning of employees through the workforce is good news for the company that knows how to spot and use diverse skill sets. It is also good news for managers looking to create and lead productive, innovative teams.
Compared to the gone days of Mad Men, managers have been dealt an entirely new hand of massive amounts of quantifiable data, along with a workforce with a potential for enormous productivity and creativity. How well they play that hand depends almost wholly on their own approach to management and their own agility.