Who works for whom?


[I was starting to write about a topic that’s been on my mind a lot, when I discovered that I had already written about this in detail six years ago!]

I've been reminded of late what I dislike about traditional business: the antediluvian notion that the team or group 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 about 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. This provided us 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./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 that keep the old system locked in place, 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 can’t be fired without the company dissolving.

But, as I often counsel senior leaders and managers, it would be very useful for them to start acting as if they reported to their "subordinates"—the teams, the workers—who could remove them 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. Subordinates don't work for their boss and bosses don't work for their subordinates. We all work for the customer. Forget that and the rest is academic.

    1. Well it’s not academic when the customer is shortchanged because the workers—designers, engineers, customer reps, etc.—are ill-served by their management. The customer is the casualty when management demands creativity-crushing servitude of its workforce. Or when it provides clueless strategic leadership.

      Now in a more perfect world an organization can function as one team in which leadership is distributed and situational—which is something we can all work towards. But where there are layers of supervisors, middle managers, senior managers, and executives it’s useful for those managers to know whom they’re working for. In those cases one could argue that the workers are the interim customer and the buyers are the final customer.

      This discussion also reminds me of the many times I’ve felt ripped off as a record buyer/customer when artists I loved were harmed by inept or unethical managers—which limited or ended the artists’ recording careers. Of course the artists' lack of business acumen usually contributed to the problem.

      1. I am reminded of a video I saw recently about a certain band going through 8 different managers.

        Ever heard Stan Ridgway's "Talking Wall of Voodoo Blues" ? Some painfully bad business decisions outlined there.

        1. I haven't heard that tune, but I will do a future post on the aforementioned band. Business lessons from Turtles.

      2. In a complex and ambiguous world I think that we absolutley have to be customer-focused... but... Well, those 'buts' include being prepared to tell the customer he isn't always right and in managing in a way that says "The most important thing is our staff." As our friend Mr. Peters points out (I parphrase a little): You take care of the staff, they take care of the customer, the customer takes care of the profit, the profit takes care of the business and round we go again."

        In your scenario above, I think one of the big issues is the way we've mis-used the word "Manager." My company is seriously thinking of going through every job title and stripping out the word Manager unless the job-holder manages people. And make it clear that if they're a Manager, that's their job: developng the people. Not looking up from a spreadsheet every now and again to ask disinterestedly if everything's OK but managing them. We're struggling a bit with what we'll call the folks who are Account Managers, Business Development Managers, Stock Managers and all those 'Managers' who are pretty much a department of one but I'm pushing for us to do it.

        1. Part of putting the customer first is not working with folks if they're not a match.

          When I've carefully hand-picked my clientele, I can put them first by putting my team first. If the team has everything they need, the client will be cared for, creating the positive cycle you describe.

  2. Hey John and Joel - great to hear from you and no I'm not retired - far from it - younger than ever. Running every day minimum 3 or 4 miles - lost 45 pounds in last 3 months - fitter than ever - Looking forward to running half marathon in 2015 and marathon in 2016 ... Realising that 62 is just a number ... My new life hero is a man I met last year who is playing golf twice a week at 92 having taken up the game at age 84 years ... Looking forward to the thousands of things I've still got to do. Will respond to your posting John in a while.

  3. The best managers and leaders believe in this statement: "The best way to gain power is to let go of power" - My feeling is the best managers and leaders are better described as 'coaches' just getting the best out of others. I think in 2014 more than ever before people are not 'managed' ... they are allowed to get on and do stuff by empowering leaders/coaches who know their own reputation will be enhanced when the folks who they nominally 'manage' on paper do great stuff. It reflects well on everyone including the person in charge. Tony Benn the late Labour party MP whom I loved dearly sadly passed away a few months back. Tony always said he was 'employed' by his constituents in Bristol when he was their MP - he said "In other words I work for 125,000 bosses!".... I'm no longer sure of the value of thinking about who works 'for' who ... Maybe its time we got rid of the term 'manager' and just acknowledged that all we all need to focus on is the outcome required and allow front line folks to lead in finding the solutions. It worked for Ricardo Semler so it can work anywhere if there is a genuine will for it to happen culturally .... And that takes leadership.

      1. If I lost 45 pounds I'd only have 45 more to go . . . but we're working on it.

        I love the concept as a manager as the person whose job it is to smooth the path and remove obstacles so the workers can get things done.

        Which is the opposite of some corporate environments I've endured.

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