This is not an age-old question (yet), but it is defining the future of work.

Leader-shaking-hands_272408_l_srgb_s_gl_Small.jpgManaging people and managing projects are two very different functions.  However, as human resources constrict as a result of competitive markets, internal cost controls, and a company’s need to make room for investments in innovation, its people managers are becoming more and more active in managing projects for the team also.  That means that our leaders are tasked, maybe even burdened, with being efficient at both functions.

In a recent Oxford Economics Workforce 2020 research program sponsored by SAP, just 44% of employees surveyed globally say that leadership at their company can lead the organization to success; even fewer say their company is committed to diversity.  For the United States, specifically, the rate was a bit higher with 55% of respondents agreeing that their leaders have the skills to manage talent effectively, but that means that 45% of the leaders are still viewed by employees as not equipped to effectively manage talent in their organization.  The insights are even more discouraging in China, where only 38% of respondents indicated that their leadership has the skills to effectively manage talent – and this is in a region with great potential for business growth.

The Future of Work is About Specialization


What we are seeing happen in the workplace is that career growth takes shape in the form of expanded project scope and expanded people scope.

This is in direct opposition to what we are learning from our future leaders – the Millennials that are redefining the workplace, work habits, and work norms.  The Oxford Economics Workforce 2020 research program uncovered that 56% of American executives say they rely on younger employees or recent graduates to fill entry-level positions – many of whom will be under the leadership of inefficient managers (as revealed above).  These executives also responded with a strong tendency toward a contingent workforce, with 83% of executives in the research report that they plan to increase use of contingent, intermittent, or consultant employees in the next 3 years.  This is clearly a complex problem.

Don’t fret just yet, there’s a path to success in this new workplace – specialization.  We must support and enable people managers to manage and lead people and project managers to manage and lead projects, without expecting them to do both.  Especially given the extended work days, travel, and requirement to do more with less, we can make a big impact on employee satisfaction and company performance by allowing our workforce to specialize and do what they do best.  This shift to specialization leads the way in the contingent workforce.  And, it is happening naturally, as highlighted by the Department for Professional Employees which states that there are more than 7.7 million self-employed and temporary workers (“contingent workers”) employed in management, professional, and related occupations.  This will only grow as Millennials, our future employees and leaders, are demanding a more specialized education and work experience, and the developing education model promoting charter schools and specialty learning platforms, like STEM and Magnet programs, expand.

A great example of this is at SAP, my employer, where we have separate career paths for “experts” and “managers”, where experts are typically individual contributors that have deep domain expertise and knowledge and want to continue to grow in an individual contributor capacity and where managers are exceptional team leaders, effective collaborators, and enjoy the people side of the equation.  By creating separate career paths for these contributors to the business, we can optimize skills where they provide the most value and create an environment that propagates advancement and success.  It’s no surprise that SAP was ranked in the top 20 companies to work for (based on Glassdoor ratings).

For you to create specializations in your workforce, you should consider candidates with key traits of effective people managers and effective project managers.


Effective people managers are:

  • Visionary
  • Empathetic
  • Influential
  • Supportive
  • Adaptable
  • Collaborative


Effective project managers are:

  • Communicators
  • Trustworthy
  • Enthusiastic
  • Organized
  • Knowledgeable
  • Problem Solvers

While there are other skills that would apply to both people managers and to project managers, these two lists depict a clear differentiation between what makes an effective people manager and effective project manager.  It is possible to find people who have traits from both of these lists, but the ability to effectively use these traits in daily work is challenged by increased stress levels, competing priorities, limited resources, and tight timelines.  To expect even someone with many of these traits to do both effectively in a single day is unrealistic.


It’s Up To Us

Now that we are armed with the insights from research, understand the areas for improvement, and are clear on the trait differences between effective people managers and project managers, it is up to us to affect the change that is required to build an effective organization for the Future of Work.  A good place to start to understand the natural tendencies of your employees is to execute a skills assessment.  There are many good ones, though I think the simplicity and clarity of the results from the StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment makes it a great one to leverage.


Learn more

Consider cloud HR technologies, like SAP SuccessFactors, with embedded people development and training tools to support the initiatives you deploy as a result of your assessments.

To learn more about the Future of Work, check out the latest studies and expert opinions.

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