Why Managers Matter

Big companies, great companies – some of my favorite companies like Google and Zappos – are moving away from the concept of a hierarchy and managers.  They are touting the benefits of Holacracy; a flat structure composed of people who fill various roles and work within a circular structure.  Decisions are made within groups, by the people who have direct contact with the problems these groups are trying to solve.  Sounds like nirvana, no?  Who hasn’t worked for a terrible manager?  Who hasn’t wanted to grab the reins and make their own decisions?

While Holacracy sounds great in theory, in practice I think it has some serious flaws.  The main flaw, as I see it, is that it assumes that managers bring no value to their teams.  I agree that there are more bad managers than good ones, but I would argue that the good ones, the true leaders, bring a great deal more to their teams than a Holacratic structure can.  Here’s why:    

Great Managers Keep Teams Aligned

One of the biggest challenges both inside and outside of a team is keeping the group aligned with the overall goals of the company as well as the needs of other teams.  Without that view from outside of a circle, it is too easy to become a silo, only focused on the needs of your group.  While that might solve problems within your team, it doesn’t necessarily serve the greater good of the organization or your customers.

Great Managers Allow Performers to Focus

One of my core beliefs is that individuals have different strengths and weaknesses.  Some people have strengths that are best focused on solving problems, engaging customers, or developing products – the front line of business.  Other people have strengths that are best used behind the scenes, in coaching, leading, and communicating.  If everyone on a team is expected to fill multiple roles, nobody can focus on their strengths.

Great Managers Push Teams to Perform

A flat structure drives performance, but only if all the participants are performers.  I think this is why companies like Google are successful with this structure.  They have the resources to hire for it.  The reality for the other 99% of companies is that there will be A, B and C players within any team.  Strong managers push the B players up, the C players out and the A players to perform at their peak.

Great Managers Serve as Coaches and Mentors

The talented 20-somethings that are joining the workforce right now list training and development as one of their top reasons for joining a company.  They want to know that they will have more senior professionals helping to guide their career.  Strong managers make time for one-on-one coaching and career development, and see the promotion of their team members as a part of their own success.

Great Managers Make Tough Decisions

Nobody likes to make a difficult decision.  It could be letting someone go, it could be cutting back on spending, it could be admitting that a major mistake was made on a team project.  In a flat structure, it is up to the team to decide how to handle difficult problems, and there can be a real temptation to either minimize the issue or disregard it entirely.  Strong leaders know that part of their role is to deal with challenges head on, no matter how difficult, and make the right decision for their team and company.

While I understand the heart of Holacracy movement, having had more than a few bad managers myself, I don’t think it is the solution for most companies.  While it may work for industry leaders like Google and Zappos who can afford to draw only the A players in their field, most organizations have to figure out how to hire, coach and motivate everyone else.  

I would propose an alternative solution: Change your view of management from something you’re promoted into to a discipline you learn.  I believe that strong managers are grown, not born, and that it takes training and development to build a great leader.  I think that management should not be seen as the next step in a long line of promotions for everyone, but should only be pursued by those with corresponding strengths.  There should be alternative paths to promotion for those who don’t have an interest in what it takes to lead others effectively.

Bottom line: Instead of getting rid of managers, invest in developing strong leaders within your company and reap the benefits.  

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