Fire your boss

Empty stage Performing with my old band at our college reunion last weekend was a trip (so to speak) down memory lane. The original members of our group—The Morning—were back together, as we banged out three hours of originals and covers for our cheerfully inebriated audience.

I shouldn’t be too surprised that we sounded like our former selves (whom else should we sound like?) but I was impressed we played as well as we did while wearing earplugs. (The drummer plays too loud.)

We hadn’t gigged in 17 years—and hadn’t played together much at all since 1975—so it was fun to reminisce about our “golden years” in NY and LA, opening for the Dead, Sly, Joni, Zappa, Alice, etc. It was also fun to be reminded of a valuable rock & roll business lesson.

Our band, truth be told, went through managers like Henry VIII went through wives. In one nine-month period we had four different managers. In some cases we “auditioned” the managers and told them that if they could get us quality gigs and a recording contract we’d keep them. In two cases the managers were nationally renowned nightclub owners in NY and LA respectively, but each failed to deliver, so we moved on. That was because they worked for us, not the other way around.

It struck me later that this could be applied—in some cases—to mainstream organizations. What if business teams could actually recruit, hire, and fire their bosses? Don’t laugh—there are a few companies that actually do this, including Brazil’s Semco. (Of course in start-up companies this is tricky because there’s no team that predates the founder/owner.)

But even if there are practical considerations that make this arrangement difficult, wouldn’t it be useful for managers to act AS IF they were working for their teams, and not the reverse?

An earlier post—“Who works for whom?”—tackles this subject in more detail.

JOL drumming

By the way, don’t bother to google The Morning. We never recorded an album or single—and only appeared on one local TV show (in Hartford, CT) decades ago. We’re pretty much a Google no-show. But in an era of instant hype and social media sunburn, this guarantees a modicum of mystery about the band—which we'll happily exploit.

[7/1/14 breaking news: I spoke too soon. The Morning now has a website at with vids & pix.]

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »


  1. Same title, different role.

    For most people not involved in the poptastic world of rock n'boogie-ithym a Manager is someone with a defined objective within a bigger business. S/he's there to ensure a group of people achieve a sales target or hit a ceretain level of customer service or deliver a project on time. S/he probably takes part in the setting of these targets with senior management and then communicates them to the team to go out and achieve.

    Our rock n'boogie-ithym band Manager, however, works the other way round: the band tells him what the targets are (get us signed, get some gigs, make me rich) and his job is to go out and get those things achieved.

    I suspect the usual problems occur in band management. Just as some Managers are really poor at coomunication or set bad targets etc, I suspect that many bands have unrealistic expectations of their Manager. And fail to sit down with him and review progress or say "Well done" when it's justified or listen to his inout ("Have you guys thought about...") and all the myriad of things that plague everyday management. Just like some Managers can't manage a team, I suspect some bands can't manage a Manager.

    Same problem, different direction.

    1. Mark, I don’t see those management roles as so fundamentally different. First, in the entertainment world… Bands do try to manage the manager but just as often the manager is trying to manage the band. S/he has an agenda which s/he’s trying to sell to the artist. One of the managers my band had was an industry big shot who definitely thought of himself as the boss of the band, until we fired him. (We might have put up with his hubris longer if he had delivered, but he asked the record companies for exorbitant advances and pissed them all off.) It’s often a tug of war (which isn’t a bad thing) between artist and manager, a natural product of creative tension. That said, you make a fair point about the inability of many bands to “manage the manager.” (A worthy subject of a future post.) I’d concede that this was the case with my band. But now we essentially manage ourselves, for the occasional reunions we do, and our concert receipts are twenty-times what they were.

      In the more conventional world of business, there are of course those teams who don’t have the interest or the training to be involved in strategic decisions and are happy to be told what to do, especially in corporate behemoths. But in the case of a company populated by creative teams who are already in the know about what the business needs, a manager who thinks of his/her team as a group of “subordinates” to whom s/he is handing down the corporate objectives is operating in a model unsuitable for the times. “Trickle-down management” has its limitations.

      But the fundamental point is that managers in any setting should work with their teams as if their teams could fire them. Managers as community organizers, etc.

      1. I think we're entering a debate about leadership being one thing, followership another.

        My point is that for the manager to act as a community organiser, the community needs to learn how to be organised and how to manage the manager. If the manager starts acting like a community organiser straight off the bat, it's probably a step in the right direction but I don't think it would work properly unless the community recognised that it isn't a traditional management structure and they, too, have to change.

        1. Agreed. In many cases (tho maybe less so in tech startups) these teams need to understand that this freedom comes with responsibility. As one record company exec put it, “At the end of the day, whatever your level, you gotta make shit happen." Emphasis on the you.

  2. John, it was a pleasure to see you behind the drums again and a honor to be able to shoot it.
    I just wish more people could have seen it.

  3. When a manager consciously flips her thinking to working for her team v. above them, it can be a great awareness exercise. But even then, what are the motivations for that flipping? To be loved? To please people? To gain a the deeper understanding of how to have a great team? To meet goals and make more money?

    I'm happy for you John. Playing with the old band again ... wow! Very cool.

    1. The motivation for the flipping SHOULD be to fulfill the mission of the team. Sometimes that gets forgotten.

  4. That very smart man Trevor Gay posited long ago that front line managers know more about a business than upper management, and that the person facing the client knows even more than the manager.

    Buckingham and others have explained that employees don't leave companies, they leave managers.

    If employees could fire their manager, if managers could fire their mid-level boss, I'll bet business would work differently.

    I consider every business relationship a partnership; jamming, as you've called it, with each of us taking the lead at different times.

    Slavery is a bad idea. Partnership is better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »