Developing the plateauxed manager

Developing plateauxed managers


The problem


Firms are becoming more effective and efficient. They are responding to global competition, relatively slow growth and demanding customers. They are removing layers of management and creating flatter structures. Flatter structures reduce communication costs and speed up progress.


Flatter structures reduce the opportunities for managers to progress vertically through the hierarchy. These “vertical” careers that most people hope for, are becoming rare. Many managers equate vertical career progression with status and their sense of value at work. If they can’t get this, they may opt out or become negative.


At least three other career patterns are possible. The figure below summarises them.


Career PatternDescriptionBenefits to the IndividualBenefits to the Organisation
VerticalProgress through a hierarchy.Understood, provides rewards of status and salary.Easy to manage when there are opportunities.
LateralDoing different jobs in different parts of the organisation.Learning, marketability, good development for general management.Breaks down inter departmental barriers. Develops high-fliers.
DetachedDoing jobs in many different organisations.Learning, interest, broadening horizons.Breaks down inter company barriers. Encourages an outward-looking culture.
InnerDeveloping oneself as a person, living ones values.Happiness and satisfactionChallenges the organisation to think profoundly


The last three patterns are possible within flatter structures.


I believe that our common expectation of “vertical” careers is not innate. It had a function to build loyalty to an employer for life. Most managers of around 45 to 60 years have their “vertical” expectation enforced strongly at school, higher education and in their early career. “Work hard at school and then you will get a good job with good prospects!” When they don’t get what they expect, they get angry, bitter and may switch off. This is understandable.

Finally, society and many organisations discriminate against older people. It is often unconscious but just as hateful as racism and sexism that most of us condemn. Ageism has an outer component when organisations exclude older people from objective consideration for selection or promotion. It is even more damaging when we start to believe the nonsense that society says about us. “I am no good because I am 45. I just have to keep my nose clean and then I can retire.”


The internalised ageism can make older employees avoid risks and growth opportunities. It does not have to be this way. We all know of 80 year olds who live exciting lives and make good things happen. It is rare but it is possible.


If organisations don’t deal with this issue they will become stuck. Hopelessness is contagious as fed up people discourage others especially when they manage people.


What is the alternative?


One alternative is to create a more liberating organisation. The organisation would foster the growth and development of everyone. This does not mean going back to the old multi‑layered organisation.


The organisation would liberate the talents and energy of its older employees by: –

  • Valuing their special qualities such as sense of proportion, experience and practical skills.
  • Asking members of this group what they can contribute and what would help them contribute more.
  • Actively seeking their unused talents.
  • Outlawing direct and indirect age based discrimination.
  • Teaching their bosses to develop people by listening, appreciation, support and challenge.
  • Setting up coconsulting and support groups so older people can help each other.
  • Setting up cross-functional projects and involving older people in them.
  • Tapping the accumulated wisdom of the older employees by having them “mentor” more junior staff. Some younger people might become “Apprentices”.
  • Finding ways to reward people for working better as well as hierarchical responsibilities.

Everyone is rigid to some extent and finds some things difficult to learn. If an older person finds say learning to use some software difficult, then the junior person could help. Mutual development can be very creative for both. You are building teams of two.


What are the potential benefits of solving this problem?


There would be energy and excitement because everyone is involved in learning. This atmosphere and the freer communication would lead to you developing new products, services and ideas more quickly. The organisation would be more flexible and balanced. Your best people would stay. You might even find new products to sell as you think more about the needs and feelings of older people.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick