Back in Sept 2013 when I was blogging a lot I wrote about increasingly disruptive effects of social media on management in “Change your Attitude or Die Like a Frog“. That title, by the way, was a reference to the “boiled frog syndrome” where it’s said that frog in a bucket of water over a fire doesn’t realize, until it’s too late, the dire implications of rising temperature.  Apparently, frogs are actually cleverer than that, but are aging SME owners?

Since then the social media phenomenon has “heated up” somewhat and companies are mainly concerned about controlling time employees spend on it and what they say about the company and its managers. But the hidden effect is on attitudes to authority and expertise and on formation of personal and collective identity: how people see themselves and the organisation they work in. Evidence of unprecedented dissatisfaction with authority and establishment figures and systems is conspicuous in politics (Trump and Brexit are the extremes) and it’s affecting management too.

Personal identity is no longer mainly determined by job or career. People increasingly curate their identities and their connections in social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Furthermore, jobs, workplaces, and the employment market are changing so fast that stable job-based identity is history. So are the patriarchal, static, mechanistic, hierarchical structures typically pictured in those box-and-wire-pyramid diagrams. Yet most managers still see themselves as running such an organisation: plugging people into the pegboard of positions, as if they’re process machine-parts.

The Seek and Trade Me job adverts may pay token attention to the changing employment market by candy-coating job opportunities. But when it comes down to it, they’re typically just looking for the right part to plug into their organisational pegboard. The give-away clue is the typical list of tasks called a job description. Finding the right person to fit the position becomes a major problem when its the hole left by the aging owner of a successful SME stepping back from the operational centre where they’ve probably have been since the beginning. Where do you find such a matching part?

You’re on a hiding to nothing in that search because that owner is an outlier in an outlier organisation: less than 2% of start-ups last that long and when they do it’s probably because of a lucky fit between the idiosyncratic mix of owner attributes and market opportunity. The chance of finding a replacement for such quintessential Kiwi business owners with their cultural heritage of self-reliance, broad competence, resourcefulness and hard work, is close to zero That’s why most GM appointments to Kiwi SMEs fail, proving to the owner yet again that “you can’t trust anyone to run your business”.

Extracting the aging owner from their (probably his) business isn’t a matter of tidying up the accounting systems and plugging in a GM. It requires a transformation of the way the owner and the employees perceive and behave in the organisation. The owner’s attempts at withdrawal typically trigger confusion, stress and conflict among employees whose established identities and relationships are disrupted when long-established tacitly understood roles, co-dependencies and systems begin to unexpectedly fail. So, the owner is drawn back in to settle disputes and repair failed systems.

Maybe the solution strategy is suggested by the ways that organisation and identity emerges on social media where there typically aren’t any pre-defined box-and-wire pyramids; people choose who they associate with, and curate their personal and group identity in the process of working out useful and fulfilling roles where they can do what they do best. In the SME context that would mean creating such space, and in that space, facilitate new and altered working relationships. That may seem like inviting chaos but, with wise guidance, the space left by the owner’s withdrawal is potentially space for people to step up; for new combinations of responsibilities to emerge; new work relationships to form and flourish, and previously undiscovered talent to shine, so that the organisation organically adjusts to fill the hole in new ways. Remaining emergent gaps can be filled by new recruits, selected for their relational rather than simply functional fit.

SME owners may be sceptical at first that their employees have sufficient interest or capability to accomplish such a transformation. The early stages may tend to confirm that for them, but with perseverance, wise guidance and coaching, it works. The alternatives are dying in the traces, selling for a song, of simply handing it to family when they have as much chance of success as the last GM.

Where would the aging SME owner get such wise guidance and coaching? Chose people who understand the context and the dynamics. They’re probably older, experienced SME owners too, who by fortunate fit of their idiosyncratic  personal attributes, experience, education, with the market opportunity, together they are effective, wise guides and coaches. Talk to Omnicom OCC and associates of course.