A recent headline in the news:
Among Smaller Companies, Disdain for Hierarchy Collides With Need for Oversight – WSJ
In the article itself it said … “… a symbolic gesture: avoiding the word “manager … ” a “very bad term” in<one company’s> view … preferring “leader,” or the company’s own acronym, PRP, for “primarily responsible person.”
What kind of bullshit is this?
Manager is a bad term so we will call it something else <so no one knows it is really a manager>.
This kind of reminds me of when businesses went through that horrible phase where they stopped called people what they were, titlewise, and came up with titles like Chief Karma Officer or Data Ninja or Brand Evangelist or whatever title they thought was ‘more respectful’ <only to find out that it was actually ‘more confusing’>.
There has always been a disdain for managers.
That is the bane of a manager’s existence.
And I will admit there is an exponentially higher disdain for management in small or younger companies and even more so if they have a younger leader/founder.
In these companies where speed and autonomy are prized above all else managers are often dismissed as archaic, or worse, dead weight.
It is mostly here that everyone likes to talk about avoiding layers of supervisors, fancy titles or a corporate ladder to climb.
And all this baloney is being distributed under the guise of ‘trying to balance the desire to free workers to create and the need for a decision maker to ensure projects run smoothly.’
Inevitably these companies struggle to weigh the need for managers against the desire to keep things loose.
Here is a real business truth.
Good managers keep things loose within a construct. The business is a playground … with a fence.
I will suggest today’s business has too many leaders. Well. Let’s say we have too many leaders who are crappy at leading.
Although I will give many leaders a break because they grew up within a more hierarchical structure and over time businesses have flattened to some extent … therefore they are being ask to lead differently than what they were actually trained to do.
The flattening of organizations has created issues in that leaders have been promoted and are now being asked to do more of a ‘combo’ role and at the same time we no longer have enough managers. This could easily translate into the belief business are over-led and undermanaged.
Managers are good to have. And … well … necessary.
Here is another business truth.
Management has traditionally been a worker’s best way to get ahead and increase earnings.
Let me be clear.
There’s management and then there’s management.
And management without organization and a viable operations plan is dead in the water.
In addition there are managers and then there are bad managers.
I have had the pleasure <or fortune> to have worked with large behemoth bureaucratic organizations with middle managers and middle management as well as small flat start-ups without middle managers and middle management <the owner or leader makes all important decisions and guides as well>.
But flat start-ups only work for so long.
Because … well … start ups do not want to always be start ups. As growth and success occurs you better get some kind of management plan and manager<s> to sit between the workers and the head cheese <owner>.
There is a huge difference between visionary leadership and organizational management.
A big thinker may be good at thinking big but suck at management <but they get fooled into believing they are good at management because they say things like “well … when we were first starting up and I was involved we got shit done.”>
<note: ask any employee about that time in the company environment and 99% of the time they will begin with ‘it was crazy”>
But inevitably you need managers.
Umpteen books have been published on management, a whole bunch of management gurus and management consultants have pontificated upon it, and management schools have built courses around it.
But the question remains in peoples’ minds – what do managers really do, and a more important question, do we really need them?
And this is crazy to think there shouldn’t be managers and leaders.
In many cases leaders can manage <but they don’t need to know how everyone does their job> and a manager can also be a leader <but they may not be a visionary>.
The chart does a nice job of delineating aspects of the two positions … albeit it makes it look very black & white and in today’s ‘lean organizational charts’ there is often blending.
But let’s get back to managers and this ‘do we need managers’ crap.
Managers not only manage … they teach and enhance and … well … kind of lead people who really don’t know shit into positions where they actually know shit.
Wherever you go you’ll find bad managers.
And you will find good managers.
Actually, bad or good is not the correct term here – it’s effectiveness. Effective managers improve the effectiveness of their teams and consequently the organization benefits.
Let me take a moment and digress on this whole good manager and bad manager thing.
Because there are some things that should be discussed about managers … because managers runs a massive spectrum.
- <as an employee> you don’t know what you don’t know.
Managers help you from yourself.
Yes. I just said that.
As an employee <especially a young employee although many older tenured are absolutely in this category> you think you not only know everything … you know what is best. And anything other than that is bullshit or idiotic.
Time and a good manager provide perspective … and prove you unequivocally wrong.
In the short term things look one way but given time you will look back and say “whoa … I was naïve and I didn’t know shit.’ You may have good instincts and you may even be one of the brighter bulbs in the pack … but you still don’t know diddleysquat.
Therefore in the here & now all you see are managers impeding progress <see: “what I believe is obvious should be done.”>
And when employees start saying crap like: “If you are too far away from actually doing the work, you don’t really understand the work anymore and what goes into it.”
A company does NOT need more people at the top who actually understand how to do things themselves. They do not need men and women who can manage and, at the same time, show others how to get stuff done. Many junior employees do not like to hear this but when you actually do see this <a leader showing people how to do shit> it is typically a sign of one of two things:
- A company that will never grow beyond the direct involvement of that person <because a person can truly only have a limited number of direct reports>.
- A company in which the owner/leader doesn’t know how to lead or delegate mostly because they haven’t got over the infamous “no one will ever do it as well as I can” hump.
Managers bridge the gap between leaders and doers <future managers & leaders>.
- It is exponentially easier to be a crappy manager than a non crappy manager
Crappy part 1.
I imagine I could begin on this topic with ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ manager version.
If you are good professionally you get promoted. And you typically get promoted slightly faster than your practical skills. You are expected to grow and learn into your job. This means you are inevitably going to be asked to do only what you have seen done … not what you have actually done. And as any military person will remind you … “a plan never lasts beyond the first minute of a battle.’
Reality is always a different version of what you thought it would be.
Oftentimes you are simply making it up as you go.
Crappy part 2.
It is just plain easier to be crappy. Just to do exactly what your bosses tell you to do and tell your employees ‘no’ <because it is less work than if you say ‘yes’ and actually have to implement>.
It is just easier to fall into a pattern where you end up:
- Setting more targets to be achieved <because you are being pounded by leadership to ‘measure results’ in often obscure meaningless ways>
- Trying to motivate through communication campaigns <ones with slogans> which have been developed by some other department in the organization trying to justify their existence>
- Implementing another offsite meeting with an expensive facilitator <under the guise of creative thinking and ‘being out of the box’>
You may have laughed at all of these things but being in management you get trapped into this behavior because it is ‘good for the organization.’
It is just easier to be crappy.
All that said.
Business research shows middle managers may affect company performance more than anyone else in an organization … and that includes the top executives.
Even in the new ‘technology segment.’
- In reviewing 12 years of data for 395 companies in the videogame industry, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School professor Ethan Mollick found that middle managers were more important to the success of individual products than creative game designers or than other organizational factors, such as firm leadership or HR practices. Dr. Mollick measured how much of the performance difference among companies could be explained by middle managers. According to his analysis, middle managers accounted for 22.3% of the performance differences among companies, more than three times as much as the game designers who invent storylines and characters.
And Kotter noted three things to keep in mind:
- Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.
- Strong leadership with weak management is no better, and is sometimes actually worse, than the reverse.
- Management is about coping with complexity. Without good management, complex enterprises tend to become chaotic. Good management brings a degree of order and consistency.
In my experience we need managers who can anticipate and excel in crisis management <sometimes referred to as ‘resolving bottlenecks throughout the day’>.
When I discuss management with people I almost always use these two quotes at some point:
“Your job is to anticipate… To give them what they want and/or what they need just before they have to “ask” for it – to be surprising yet self-evident at the same time. If you are too far behind, or too far ahead of them, you create problems, but if you are right with them, leading them ever so slightly, the flow of events feels natural and exciting at the same time.” - Walter Murch
“We must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.” – Indira Gandhi
Good managers calm chaos … and inspire action from inertia.
Managers give organizations freedom to explore success and yet balance it with a tight enough construct to insure shit gets done efficiently.
Managers translate a leader’s vision into practical terms for those who are implementing.
Managers make a vision come to life.
Managers make the work match the vision.
Managers manage plans … plan implementation and the broken plans <when they inevitably fall apart and it takes the good managers to find the possibilities in the broken pieces:
Managers develop people.
It seems odd for me to suggest ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ in a world where information and knowledge is accessible at every desk.
With the rise of a more knowledgeable worker a manager is even more important because they need to manage how the knowledge is implemented <as well as assimilated mentally>. It sounds trite but people are a company’s most important asset. A manager has to develop that asset.
Back to “who needs managers.”
If someone had suggested ‘who needs management training?
I would have been all on board.
It appears just last week, an unnamed Vatican source close to former Pope Benedict XVI was quoted as saying:
“His idea of hell would be to be sent on a one-week management training seminar.”
Me? While used to think management training seminars were simply a visit to purgatory they were actually hell. Sitting through all the vapid bullshit of feel good team-building management seminars do not build anything but the desire to slam ice picks into your ears because of whatever bullshit the facilitator is babbling away about in front of you.
Management training seminars?
I will lean on Keith Richard wisdom to summarize my feelings on management training seminars …
“I’m gonna find my way to Heaven, cause I’ve done my time in Hell”. – Keith Richards
I’ve done my time in hell.
Who needs management training seminars? Not me or any organization I would lead <note: I would still have training>.
I am not going to outline specifically what managers do. There are gobs of good business management books which outline them <Drucker & Kotter are probably your best sources>.
Why is shit like ‘do we really need managers’ being bantered about?
Think of 2 main reasons.
- Younger people are willing to do the work to prove themselves … but they are also more capable to be involved then they have in past generations <in significant ways>
Management needs to revise how they train and involve young people. Until they do so … young people will be frustrated and frankly, bored.
- Incompetent managers
This is just a reality in business. This is not a generational thing.
Always remember The Peter Principle <canadian educator Laurence Peter>:
- In any hierarchical organization, individuals tend to rise to their level of incompetence. It’s simple. An employee who excels at his or her job is likely to be rewarded with a promotion. Success in this new position could bring another promotion, and so on.
Eventually, however, the employee gets promoted to a position whose demands exceed his abilities, and he ends up marooned there with no prospect of further advancement and little chance of demotion. At best, she becomes mostly harmless; at worst, she impedes progress.
“In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent.” – Laurence Peter
Here is what I know for sure.
Every good organization needs good managers.
When employees say a manager doesn’t do any of the dirty work 99% of the time it is not because they can’t … it’s because they are choosing to not do it.
Because they see themselves as leaders. This can happen mostly for 2 reasons:
- Poor outlining of responsibilities <the person was hired for a reason but the manager took the position for another>
- The person doesn’t want to be a manager. They are in the wrong position <fire them because they want to be doing something else>
By the way.
Whenever you hear about leaders who ‘don’t understand how to actually do the work’ it is a reflection that they suck as a leader.
Good leaders are always left to lead.
Bad leaders leave people wanting more … and they will end up asking for what they see as the most important things <i.e., what they do>.
In the end.
I think it is kind of nuts that in today’s business a manager is being asked to not see themselves as a typical manager.
they are being put in a position where they even avoid the language of management … avoiding things like referring to team members as ‘direct reports.’
Good businesses need good managers.
And maybe more importantly … good businesses need to have managers who are proud to be managers <which means we would need to encourage calling them managers>.