- Why should I read this? Through many conversations with firms of all sizes, we’ve learned that despite companies saying their people are vital to their success, the same firms don’t properly support those with most influence over their people: their managers. This article explores the real value of managers to an organisation. If you’re a manager, this may broaden your thinking about the role (and make you feel great about your job!). If you work in HR/People or an executive team, it might give you some ideas for development.
- What do we mean when we say ‘manager’: managers make the people around them better. They invest in people, figure out who they are, what they're good at, what motivates them, and then align the work a company has to do with their role and their growth areas (if you think that’s good, it’s because it’s not our definition).
- Getting over the bad reputation: for some reason, managers have a bad rep. We need to get over this - it discourages good managers from improving in the role, and good potential managers from taking it on in the first place.
- Companies have tried operating without managers: it didn’t work.
- Most roads lead through the manager: think about all the things that make your company a success and how high performance is achieved? In most cases, a manager will be involved.
- Each day presents opportunities: managers are the only ones who each day have all kinds of chances, great and small, to maximise their colleagues’ professional growth. This compounds over time to unlock incredible progress.
- Let’s talk briefly about culture: companies like to talk about how important their culture is. Managers are vital for ensuring it scales.
- Fires burn faster uphill: good managers create vital space for more senior leaders to operate by putting out fires before they reach them.
- Diversity, equity and inclusion: given a managers’ influence over individual and team progression, that includes significant power over who progresses fastest and how. Managers are often the frontline of any sustainable efforts to improve DEI.
- Further reading: this article links with other pieces we’ve written on how firms end up not supporting managers, some of the failures of conventional management training, and how technology can help. Take a look if you’re interested.
Across all the chats we've had with managers as we build Kommon, no one seems able to answer one particular question. The scenario goes something like this.
A lot of you will be able to recall a companywide meeting where senior leadership figures have reasons to feel positive and grateful. Perhaps the firm has just hit a revenue or profit target, or launched a new product. The atmosphere is cheerful and congratulatory.
At the end of a presentation with typically far too many slides, the CEO/Founder/Senior Partner will turn to the audience (or nowadays Zoom camera) and say some version of the following: ‘and of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without you, our incredible people’. Here’s a recent example of the genre:
Generally this belief is sincerely held. For many firms which rely on what have come to be called knowledge workers - consultants, lawyers, journalists, software developers, designers, project managers - their people are indeed vital to the success of the enterprise.
But who has the most influence on these vital people? On ensuring they are happy, productive and progressing? On many occasions, it is likely to be their manager.
And yet, this is the question: if people are vital to organisations, why don’t firms give more support to those who have most influence over them? Why don’t managers get the help they need to perform at their best in the role?
Because our research suggests this isn’t currently happening.
Why aren’t managers getting the right support?
We have some ideas which we’d like to take you through over the course of a few articles:
- Some firms don’t think managers are that important. This is a big topic, but we’ll use this piece to highlight some of the main reasons why they’re wrong.
- Poor management is a hard problem to see, measure and solve. Managers can be bad at asking for help, senior leaders have other priorities, and the effects of poor management are lagging indicators, all of which leads to it flying under the radar (we expand on these ideas in this piece).
- They think the problem is solved when it’s not. Many firms have some form of ‘solution’ in place - typically management training. Our research suggests these solutions may not be working, and organisations aren’t paying close enough attention (you can read our thoughts on this here).
Whatever the reason though, the end result is that we know there are lots of busy managers out there who could do with a hand, and a lot of companies who would benefit immensely if they got one.
It is this simple context which motivated us to build Kommon. We think it's time that managers had more options to solve their own problems, so they could perform at their best. Because when they succeed, everyone succeeds. We’ll briefly explain why.
What is a Manager?
We’ll keep this part very brief. We don’t want to get tangled up in semantic debates but we do want to make it clear who we’re speaking about when we talk about ‘managers’, and who we’re trying to help most at Kommon.
We agree with Molly Graham, COO at Lambda school. She puts it like this:
“True management is the act of making the people around you better. Management is about investing in people, figuring out who they are, what they're good at, what motivates them, and then aligning the work a company has to do with their role and their growth areas.”
Typically these managers run teams and have direct responsibility for individuals’ career development. We think it’s these individuals who can have an incredible influence on the performance of their teams (and by extension, their organisations) and who don’t get the support to fulfil that potential.
If you, or someone you know, has this set of responsibilities and you’re trying to balance them with all your other work, we’re building Kommon for you.
We admit, the reputation doesn’t help
Writing about the importance of managers should be straightforward, and yet it’s easy to feel like you’re starting off on the back foot.
The word itself doesn’t conjure up images of business-critical high-performers, driving their organisations to new heights. Instead, the first thought when people hear the word ‘manager’ can be one of a meddling bureaucrat. One who rather than contributing to the progress of an organisation and its people, gums up the works with meetings and indecision.
One look at Google’s predictive search suggests we have some work to do:
(Props to the people keeping that last search result hanging on at the end.)
This reputation is damaging on two fronts. First, because it doesn’t encourage existing managers to strive to be the best at their role. And two, because it dissuades those who might become excellent managers from considering becoming one.
"Throughout my whole career I’ve avoided being a manager because of the stigma of the fact that it’s something everyone hates." (Kommon Interview)
In both cases, organisations are missing out on the immense benefits that engaged and impactful managers can have on their growth. We need to spend more time talking about the positives, because we know how important they are.
What happens if we pay attention
“The way to get somebody to pay attention to something is to take it out and put it back in.”
Not the words of an HR/people professional, but a six-time grammy award winning music producer. Yep, we know, much less cool. In a comparison he’s unlikely to get very often, Finneas’ comments about a piano riff in a Billie Eilish hit, also nicely sum up why we know management is so important - some companies have tried taking it out and putting it back in, and it got a lot of attention. Mainly because it didn’t work.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this was Google’s Project Oxygen. For readers who aren’t familiar, in 2002, Google removed all managers before bringing them back months later, in an experiment that was later described as a “disaster”. Their conclusion: “Managers matter a lot and can have a huge impact on employee performance”. Project Oxygen was their subsequent data-driven attempt to understand the traits that make great managers and implement them across the company. Other companies which ended up re-introducing managers after experimenting with flat structures include Zappos, Buffer and Wistia.
That is not to say that flatter structures can’t work. Nor is it as simple as managers or no-managers, there is a whole spectrum of potential innovation in between. But the myth of the manager as a negative force on work is just that. At their best, they unlock incredible value for their organisations and should be given all assistance and guidance in doing that.
“Enabling people to be successful is the most significant thing you can do for any company. If managing people has become part of your job then it is the most important part.” Blair Shane, Partner, Sequoia Capital
Most roads lead through the manager
As a thought experiment, think about what’s crucial to the success of your organisation? Then think about how high performance in any of those areas is achieved. In almost all cases, the manager plays an absolutely key role.
Let’s use Google again as an example of this kind of experiment (not because they’re necessarily exemplary, but because their transparency on this aspect of their work offers fascinating access into how they’re teams operate). When their researchers tried to understand the ‘secret of effective teams’, they concluded that for them, it was the following:
- Psychological Safety: team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other
- Dependability: team members get things done on time and meet the company’s high bar for excellence
- Structure and Clarity: team members have clear roles, plans and goals
- Meaning: work is personally important to team members
- Impact: team members think their work matters and creates change
What’s useful to note here is not just Google’s findings (although they may be pertinent for teams in your organisation too), but that the overwhelming influence on ensuring these conditions exist within teams rests with the manager. In the New York Times’ flagship article on the research project, it is telling that their story of how these findings were implemented at Google, begins with a someone called Matt Sakaguchi, described as, yes, a "mid-level manager".
Whilst this dynamic exists in an office environment, it can sometimes be less acute because of the influence of others. One of the reasons that the recent pandemic has cast more focus on managers is that as remote working has limited professional contact, the extent to which managers define their teams experience has become even clearer.
“What most businesses haven't figured out, it appears, is just how to pursue that opportunity. They've made enormous investments in management fads, quality circles, reengineering, restructuring, writing vision statements, and the like, hoping to increase efficiency, productivity, and flexibility. The results have been questionable. There's been plenty of disappointment and disillusion. Lots of programs have been thrown out. Things won't get much better, I'm afraid, until those businesses drill all the way down to their seminal ideas about management: "Managers hold the key to business success." Ken Iverson, CEO, Nucor Steel
Each day contains opportunities
The power of good managers rests not only in the breadth of their influence but in the frequency they can exercise it. Each day they have innumerable opportunities to progress their team members; from increasing their opportunities to learn, to offering feedback, to sponsoring them for projects which stretch them, to removing obstacles to their growth.
The positive effects of these actions compound. As James Clear points out, “if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done." This is the managers’ opportunity - taking every chance to maximise a team members’ growth during their work.
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries has sold over a million copies and is most famous for the frameworks it offers founders on how to develop their businesses. However the epilogue contains an interesting observation on our current world of work: “What is needed is a massive project to discover how to unlock the vast stores of potential that are hidden in plain sight in our modern workforce. If we stopped wasting people’s time, what would they do with it?”
It was interesting to see these sentiments echoed in the real world by the CEO of Snowflake Inc. which successfully IPO’d in 2020. What did he credit for their success? “Bottom line: There is room up in organizations to boost performance by amping up the pace and intensity. Considerable slack naturally exists in organizations to perform at much higher levels. The role of leadership is to convert that lingering potential into superlative results.” Managers are the key to identifying that potential and making sure it is fulfilled, every single day.
Let’s talk briefly about culture
Many organisations talk about how much their culture contributes to their success. It’s become so commonplace that for this article, we took a guess and blindly searched the S-1 of Airbnb before its hotly anticipated IPO. We couldn’t have asked for a better example if we’d written it ourselves:
“The most defining part of working at Airbnb is our culture. Our culture is one of the main things that attracts people to work at Airbnb, and it is a key ingredient to our success” Airbnb, Inc. S-1
And what about the role of managers in this? A recent report by the Society of Human Resource Management found that 76% of American workers surveyed believed that their manager set the culture of their workplace.
Whilst founders and CEOs play an outsize influence in shaping the culture of a company, once an organisation scales to a certain size, the role of these figures in the day-to-day lives of most employees will diminish. At this stage, managers become the ambassadors of the executive team. They become the example that employees see most often, the ones who they can ask questions of and engage with. They become absolutely key for reinforcing culture.
That’s before we’ve even spoken about hiring. Tobi Lutke, the CEO of Shopify, has variously remarked that he believes a company’s culture is represented by its people: “Culture is a cross-section of all of the people in the company, at any given time.” It’s as simple as that. In this respect managers don’t just have a role day-to-day, but particularly in their capacity to hire. Every decision they make on this front has the capacity to dramatically impact the culture of their team, and incrementally, the organisation as a whole.
Fires burn faster uphill
Managers aren’t just an executive team’s ambassadors, they’re also its firefighters. For those who don’t know him, Michael Lopp is an engineering leader at Apple who writes on management under the pseudonym Rands. He has a brilliant take tucked away in a footnote of one of his articles. We can’t really improve it, so we’ll just repeat it in full:
“The colorful phrase is “shit rolls downhill.” The inversion of that statement is also true: “fires burn faster uphill.” The further you are up the organizational chart, the further you are up the hill, the more fuel there is for the fire. Teams often successful extinguish small fires before you ever see them, but the ones that get to you are burning, and they are burning hot and often unstoppable”
A lot of the good work done by managers will often remain unseen. If your senior leaders are able to focus on their core work without the distraction of malfunctioning teams, it’s absolutely invaluable to the success of an organisation. However, it’s very hard to get rewarded for creating an absence of issues. Just ask anyone who works in IT support.
The infernos which reach the attention of senior management are often those fuelled by talented people leaving. It’s not always true that ‘people don’t leave companies, they leave their boss’, as is often quoted. But it is certainly true that managers have a significant influence on individuals’ professional experience and can have an impact on retention. Estimates of the costs of departing employees vary, for example from $15,000 to 2 times annual salary. Either way, that’s an expensive fire.
The manager’s role in diversity, equity and inclusion
By this stage, it should be clear that given a manager’s influence over individual and team progression within an organisation, that also includes significant power over who progresses fastest and how.
Since the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, and the subsequent widespread protests against racial inequality and injustice, organisations all over the world have taken steps to examine the part they can play in this societal movement (some more sincere and effective than others). Google Trends shows that searches for ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’ (DEI) in the US dramatically spiked in the weeks following Floyd’s killing and have stayed at historic highs ever since:
The role that a manager can and should play in corporate DEI efforts is a large topic that we’ll address fully in a separate piece. But at this stage, we’ll ask a similar question to earlier in this piece - if you look across your DEI efforts, how many of them go through the manager?
In most organisations, it is managers who play a key role in the creation of professional opportunities. Whether in formal hiring and promotion decisions, sponsorship and mentoring, or more prosaic everyday actions which over time compound into significant professional advantages. As organisations increasingly look to improve their approaches to DEI, the focus should be falling on the manager.
We’ve barely scratched the surface, but we think we’ve done enough for now to say that managers really matter. Does the support they’re getting in your organisation match that?