Who works for whom?

Thanks to some lively dialogue on other blogs, I've been reminded of what I dislike most about traditional business: the antediluvian notion that the team, group, or organization works for management, rather than the other way around.

I suppose that's come to be accepted because in most companies managers actually do the hiring. But it doesn't need to be that way.

In fact, in my first dozen years of business I was exposed to a different model. Every organization or business team that I worked for hired—and fired—its management. (The team usually did the recruiting as well.) The team made the decision regarding who was going to manage it, and it was cloudlessly clear who worked for whom. The business team in this case was a rock & roll band.

Here's how it works in the world of R&R…

Once the team—the band—finds a prospective manager there's usually a "dating" period during which the manager demonstrates to the band the kinds of results the manager can produce for the band if they decide to work together permanently.

(One band I was in decades ago played management candidates against each other—rather shamelessly I would admit—in a kind of bidding war. At the time we had the owner of LA's Troubadour competing against the manager of NY's Bitter End to work for us. As a result we had the opportunity to open for acts such as Joni Mitchell, Tom Rush, and David Steinberg in those nightclubs.)

In this model the business team gets to say: "Ok, Mr. (or Ms.) Big Shot, show us what you can do and then we'll decide if you're going to work for us." And if manager and band decide to work together, they establish an explicit understanding (usually a legal contract) describing what the manager is expected to do—often with performance benchmarks (for example, securing a recording contract for the band). If management doesn't perform, it's hasta la vista.

Now, contrast that with the attitude in mainstream business today—despite empty slogans and "servant leadership" blathering to the contrary. "Father knows best" is still the unwritten rule. Except in a few enlightened outposts (Brazil's Semco comes to mind) where employees do hire and fire their managers, major corporations still cling to the top-down model.

Of course a big company can't switch its governance model when there are larger forces—political and economic—that keep the old system locked in, especially for publicly traded companies. And in the case of most tiny start-ups, the leader is footing the bill for the fledgling enterprise, and in most cases can’t be fired without the company dissolving.

But, as I often counsel senior leaders and managers, it would be very useful (as a thought exercise at least) for them to start acting AS IF they could be fired by their "subordinates"—the teams, the workers—if they didn’t get the job done. Even better if this was their ground of being and they began living this way.

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  1. Sure sounds like a pipe dream in the organizations I've worked. "Servant leadership" aside, we knew who was downstairs doing the rowing -- and we didn't make the decisions about who was thrown overboard.

  2. I hear ya. “Servant leadership” happens to be one of my irritants. Some of the proponents of it have a distinctly “Father Knows Best” view of the workplace—a view that at its core is patriarchal and patronizing. I’m tempted to expound on that in the future, if I have the energy for the all-out war it might ignite with colleagues.

  3. What a wonderful post, John. Thank you. I am not sure if we ever even really consider what you are proposing here. This requires a major paradigm shift that requires those in power to actually relinquish it. Some feat this will be.

    Most of these things can be dealt with in a very fundamental way of implementing a sort of self-activated self-regulated humility gage. I find whenever I'm feeling more than I ought to about myself (for this is where much of this behavior stems), everything about me changes: my tone, my stance, the corners of my mouth, the stiffness in my neck, the slant in my eyes, and the way in which all of these responses visibily effect others, whether at home or in a business environment.

    When we really learn to self-regulate and respsect others our responses will be different to others and greater teams will be built where we are really in service to one another. This concept I LOVE! Lip service (espousing Servant leadership or any others) about team work means absolutely nothing if we all don't self-regulate from the outhouse to the white house, from parliament to the country, from manufacturing plants to the executive offices.
    We can do it! Yes we can!

    And, John, I love your comment here about the "patriarchal and patronizing" since of Servant Leadership. Funny...He who said "I have come among you as one who serves" never ever spoke patriarchal or patronizing words to the masses. He never even spoke a cross word to these. His irrate words were reserved for the self-righteous.

    I often ask: where am I?

  4. Judith, as one recovering politician to a potential one, I ask, "When are you going to run for public office?" Methinks you've got the right stuff.

  5. John, thanks for your vote of confidence. I happen to LOVE politics. If Barack would like for me to join his team, I'd be WAY excited!

  6. Judith, Just as JFK seems to have inspired thousands of Baby Boomers to pursue public office Barack may well do the same for Millennials and Gen Xers, especially if he wins it all. But I'm not asking about your joining Barack's team, I'm asking about your running for office on your own! I'll offer myself as a consultant. :-)

  7. John...while watching the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee Meeting at this very hour, there is a great level of intelligence and personality on display. This brings me to the thought of the impossibility of extracting personality from substance. I guess the most important thing would be to lead well and personality should follow such leading and not vice versa. But are these things inherently inseparable? If you'd be my consultant, I might consider a run for some sort of office :-) As I said, I love politics.

  8. What Los Angelino can forget the Troubadour where folk-rock was born and where the Byrds and Eagles were hatched? Hasn't been quite the same since the late seventies when the rock bands trashed it out, but in its day it was THE place to hang in LA and catch singer-songwriters before they became megastars.

  9. John...I just got Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf and its quite a book...so far. But as with all great books, the interpretations and ideologies that follow are often just as you described "patriarchal and patronizing."

  10. I don't blame Greenleaf for this but SL has been expropriated in strange ways - e.g. former Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's comment that "a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband..." (Huckabee is a nice fellow but this is a real head-scratcher.) That's why feminists have been teeing off on servant leadership for awhile - at least as it's PRACTICED.

    I would use the term "neopatriarchal" to describe what I see of servant leadership.

  11. Your memory serves you well, Mr. D! If certain cities function as creativity centers - as author Richard Florida points out in "The Rise of the Creativity Class" - certain nightspots in those cities function as creativity cauldrons. The Troubador, because of its Monday night "hoots" where any act could perform 3 songs on a sign-up basis and a few acts were pre-approved for short sets, was probably the best showcase for aspiring musical talent on the West Coast in the 60s & 70s - maybe in the entire country. Some of my favorites who got their start there were the Byrds, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Joni Mitchell. Other acts whose careers exploded after their appearances there include James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, and Elton John. Because my band wound up being managed by the owner of the club, the late great Doug Weston, I was lucky enough to have a stage-right view of the debut of many of these acts. The environment was cooperatively competitive where one songwriter's innovations brought out the creative best in another. Of course there were countless other nightclubs & coffeehouses in other cities (New York, San Francisco, Austin, London, etc.) that served similar purposes but few had as many of the right ingredients as the Troub did. I think I'll ruminate on this for a future post. Thanks for the reminder!

  12. I sure like the sound of a management team that is out to improve the quality of life of their employees. How do high level managers you coach take to the idea?

    I wonder how the oil prices will effect jobs soon. Will expensive communting be the next reason for people to change their job and work closer to home, perhaps more like the pre-car era?

  13. Anonymous: most senior managers I work with actually get it about who works for whom. (Of course they probably wouldn't let me in the door if they didn't.) But I wouldn't assume this to be a representative sample of business leadership in the world at large.

    BusinessWeek reports that fuel prices are already having a major impact on business travel, which will be a boon for web conferencing, etc.

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