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IMD Professor Wins Financial Times’ Management Challenge

As COVID-19 sparks a shift to hybrid working, leaders need fresh skill to navigate the new norm, says Michael Watkins, IMD Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change.
October 2020

The age of hybrid working demands a new type of manager, one that can foster meaningful connections among virtual teams and also cultivate true collaboration back in the office.

In the Financial Times’ weekly management challenge, readers were tasked with coming up for a fresh title for these middle managers.

And Michael Watkins, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD, won this week’s test with his suggestion of “pathfinders”, a reference to how the middle managers of the future must guide the way, taking their teams to new and exciting places.

Watkins noted that routine tasks will increasingly be automated, and this is already happening to a large extent as artificial intelligence displaces vast swathes of the global workforce. As this digitization process deepens, the work that humans do will change and be supported by intelligent algorithms.

“As that process continues, more of the narrow expertise that informs analytics is going to be automated. What remains is the critically important work of fostering collaboration, innovation and acculturation,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has compounded this shift, with offices now being reserved for collaboration and routine work being performed largely remotely, if not being completely automated by smart machines.

What is the role of a leader in this new hybrid world of work? Watkins said leaders will have to adapt their skillset to each environment. In the virtual world, the focus should be on goal setting, progress checking, information sharing and relationship building.

In face-to-face work, which he believes will be significantly reduced in scope, middle managers must spark deeper learning, innovation and creativity in teams. “Leaders have to establish the path their teams are going to go down in a way that sustains energy and focus,” he said. “They must become pathfinders.”

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