Expert Insights

Towards a new style of management

The financial disaster of 2007-08 was not just a failure of economic policy, but also a failure of corporate management as we know it. So argues Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, and author of several books including Reinventing Management. We spoke to him about why he believes current management is flawed and what companies can do to inspire the ‘Google generation’ of future leaders.

Julian sees the problems of management on two levels: at the highest level there’s a failure of behaviours and systems, which have led not only to the financial crisis, but also to other major corporate disasters, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

At the other end of the spectrum, he believes management is failing in a much more mundane way that’s crippling innovation and holding back companies. Employees feel disengaged, while managers themselves are often held in low-regard.

Failure to change will result in a slow yet gradual demise. There won’t be a single thing you can point to, but over a five to 10-year period, you can lose your way and then it will be too late.

“If you accept that management isn’t working as well as it might, we have two choices,” Julian says. “Do we live with it or try and improve it? Failure to change will result in a slow yet gradual demise. There won’t be a single thing you can point to, but over a five to 10-year period, you can lose your way and then it will be too late.”

Think small, think differently

Julian argues there are a number of things companies can do. The most obvious is improved training and development; too often, employees are thrust into management roles without formal training. “But maybe the problem is the corporate environment as a whole: the organisation is too big, too complex, too domineering in its style.”

Although cautioning against radical overhaul, he believes companies can learn from newer, smaller successful companies. Organisations such as Google and Facebook (before they became the behemoths they are today), as well as recruiters Happy and digital agency NixonMcInnes have a more democratising, empowerment-from-the bottom-up approach that encourages greater autonomy and innovation. Google, for example, gives people time off to spend on innovation, while NixonMcInnes believes in collective decision-making, measuring happiness with a core metric and celebrating failures as opportunities to learn.

Inspiring the next generation

It’s not just structure companies need to think about: understanding, motivating and communicating with future managers and leaders is critical.

“The next generation have rather different expectations and needs when it comes to work,” he says. “They are much less bothered about the conventional notion of a ‘career’ and don’t expect to stay with one employer. Deferred gratification – working hard for years for the right to do something interesting – is less common. This means today’s firms have to work harder to make work intrinsically interesting and rewarding, for its own sake, if they want to attract the best young talent. In other words, more project work, more freedom to experiment, more opportunities to work in interesting places and with interesting people.

“However, it’s also important to present a realistic view of business. When they see a five-year-old company like WhatsApp sold for $19b, they think this is somehow ‘normal’. We need to find ways of motivating young employees in the ways I’ve mentioned but also give them a realistic sense of how business works in the real (not Silicon Valley) world.

“Take communication. This generation loves virtual communication: instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook, etc, and they love to multitask as well. This creates all sort of challenges for the older generation who often prefer face-to-face meetings and phone calls.” While accepting that different forms of electronic communication – not just email – will become increasingly prevalent in business, “you have to explicitly discuss with them how communication will happen, what is acceptable and what isn’t, while ensuring new managers and leaders find suitable opportunities to do the aspects of their job that need face-to-face interaction, such as coaching and personal development.”

All this means that companies need enlightened executives to try innovative new ways of working and understand what makes young talent tick. There will be an inevitable back and forth as there is with anything new, but if you’re successful, this will give you licence for bigger experiments and wider change. And change is not beyond even the most traditional of companies.


  • Traditional top-down management styles are fundamentally flawed.
  • Enlightened executives should embrace experimentation, but in a careful, low-risk way.
  • Companies need a better understanding of the new generation of leaders.

Julian Birkinshaw

Julian Birkinshaw is Professor and Chair of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School. He is a recognised expert on innovation, entrepreneurship and renewal in large corporations, and has written numerous books and articles for international journals. He is very active as a consultant, speaker and executive educator to many large corporations.

Williams Bain

Williams Bain is an exclusive hybrid interim and change management provider. We’re trusted by some of the UK’s largest organisations to support the implementation of complex strategies that accelerate results and lead to definitive, positive and measurable change.