The manager is dead. Long live the manager.
Our ears pricked up when we heard that Zappos had decided to do away with managers and job titles. The idea is to distribute power more broadly, increase accountability, and get rid of all the bureaucratic layers that can make companies feel corporate in the worst possible way. The formal name for the org structure they’re adopting is “holacracy,” and Zappos is probably the biggest company to try it out.
The underlying intent seems spot-on. But let’s hope Zappos still finds a way to preserve the best of what great managers do (even if they no longer call those people managers). Because while companies certainly don’t need any more bureaucratic layers, they do need people who feel a sense of accountability not just for the work but for the people doing the work.
As Thomas Watson Jr. said: “The key factor in the maintenance of good human relations is the individual manager.”
Great managers mentor and inspire their teams. They feed the team’s hopes and put its fears in perspective. They set the big-picture goals and keep the team moving forward. They have the amazing ability to be both in the work and above it, alongside the team and ahead of them. They know how to bring out the best in each person and how to harmonize the team as a whole.
That’s not to say that a team of talented people can’t self-organize to achieve good results. They can. But unless every person on that team has a high degree of self-awareness, amazing communication skills, a sense of accountability for each person’s success, and the ability to think systemically about the work, that team is going to hit a wall at some point. And at that point, they will most likely pine for a manager.
Not every manager is a great one. And we can understand why folks at Zappos have soured on the idea. But we know from the people who have sought out Teamworks that there are scores of great managers out there—and even more good managers who want to become great ones. These managers believe that when you focus on building a great team, great results follow.
So, instead of eliminating managers, let’s give them the tools they need to make management meaningful again.