When I first began my corporate career in the early 1980s, it was about the time that United Technologies had a prominent advertising campaign centered on the theme of “Let’s get rid of management.” The suggestion was that employees should be led, not managed. The notion that we didn’t need managers made no sense to me then, as my career was taking shape, nor does it now. Had I been left to my own devices, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the professional success I have had.
I still retain great respect and gratitude for those managers who, early in my career, helped me recognize and reach my potential. Theirs were the examples I tried to emulate as I was given responsibility for managing others. As I advanced in my career and eventually took on the role of managing other managers, I expected of them the same commitment I had been shown and hoped I had demonstrated.
Worshipping at the Altar of Leadership
It was and still remains disheartening to see how few managers seem interested in “managing” — doing the day-to-day work of motivating employees, setting them on the right path, making time for them one-on-one, and keeping them accountable. “Management” and “manager” have become quaint bywords for an old-fashioned way of running a business. People instead worship at the altar of leadership, on the misguided assumption that all any of us needs to do is “be ourself” and let the brilliant light we shed cause others to follow.
While there is arguably nothing more invigorating than inspired leadership, with its focus on the big picture, the blue sky, the vision of tomorrow and how we will get there, there are two great truths that must be acknowledged: The trains have to run on time, and not everyone is cut out to be a leader, including many who have the right stuff for management. (And the reverse is true of leaders: many of them are woefully ill-equipped to manage. Ronald Reagan was a forceful leader on the world stage—“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”—but was known to be a terrible manager. He delegated to the point of abdication of responsibility, and ran a country mile from delivering tough news to subordinates.)
Managers need to ensure that the subordinate bench is focused on the delivery of results. And it has to be done in such a way that employees are engaged and happy to be there. The role of the manager, then, is to work with their respective teams to challenge the status quo, finding newer and better ways to make the mouse trap, and to strive to remove or eliminate obstacles that get in the way.
Managing is about building trust, helping your employees foster relationships and allowing them to discover and fulfill their potential. It’s about recognizing and appreciating individual contributions and weaving them into the fabric of teamwork, instilling a sense of pride and responsibility, celebrating victories, and yes, giving feedback, even when that feedback has to be constructively critical.
Google: Building the Better Boss
Is all of that so difficult? Apparently it is. In 2009, Google, a haven of statistics and information if there ever was one, embarked upon an initiative it called “Project Oxygen.” Google wanted to know how to build a better boss, and so it took a deep dive into the subject, talking to employees and managers, and slicing and dicing the research. Google came up with some eight key ingredients for the better boss.
The findings should not be a surprise to anyone who prides him- or herself on being a good manager. Among them: have a clear vision and strategy for the team, ensure that you make career development a priority, and — wait for it — employees actually want results-focused bosses who make time for them one-on-one.
Despite the lack of earth-shattering findings, Project Oxygen’s impact was significant at Google. The lowest-scoring managers saw the most improvement, especially in the areas of coaching and career development. The improvements were consistent across management levels, various functions, spans of control, and geographic regions.
So how do we breathe Project Oxygen into other companies? Certainly the need is there. The Gallup organization released “State of the American Manager” (2015), a global study of some 2.5 million teams, covering some 27 million individual employees. Gallup’s findings suggest that while women were found to be more effective managers than their male counterparts, neither gender had a natural gift for it. In fact, Gallup would suggest that only one in ten individuals have the natural ability to manage a team of people.
Where to from here?
We can begin by selecting individuals for management positions who are not necessarily the best subject matter experts, or the charismatic luminaries who can’t help but lead — and are helpless at management. Rather, we should look at those who have an inner strength to challenge the process, and who have as much or more interest in the careers of their workmates as they do in their own.
Once that is accomplished, there are a few key objectives they should strive for, including making quality time for their employees for regular one-on-one sessions; monitoring the work flow of the unit, and ensuring key metrics are achieved. Managers also have to foster a sense of team and harmony; nothing will go pear-shaped faster than a group of employees with no one in charge.
Just look at Zappos. The wildly creative online shoe and clothing company a few years back introduced “holacracy,” a self-governing mode of operation, devoid of traditional management and organizational structure. What ensued was disruptive, with individual self- expression ruling supreme. Zappos fell from the Forbes list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.” Employee turnover rose to some 30% in 2015—10 percentage points above average. (CEO Tony Hsieh—who retained his title in the move to a flat management world — has disagreed with suggestions that holacracy is to blame for any trouble at Zappos.)
There should be nothing sacred about the traditional management model, nor the historical pyramid corporate structure, and indeed Zappos should be applauded for thinking outside of the corporate box. Flatter organizations and fewer layers of management can enhance communication and improve service delivery. More management for its own sake is not the answer—better management is. Employees need both management and leadership. But in making “management” and “manager” dirty words we’ve failed the very people we’re responsible for.