The manager is dead. Long live the manager.

The manager is dead. Long live the manager.

Posted on Jan 23, 2014 | Tags: | 3 Comments


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.


  1. Aldric Giacomoni
    January 27, 2014

    This is an interesting thought. The linked Washington Post article mentions a few interesting things. Fundamentally, I believe, there is a difference of concept in the company organization:

    **”At its core, a holacracy aims to organize a company around the work that needs to be done instead of around the people who do it. As a result, employees do not have job titles. They are typically assigned to several roles that have explicit expectations. Rather than working on a single team, employees are usually part of multiple circles that each perform certain functions.”**

    In this model, the traditional concept of a team manager may very well be ineffective. What is “a team” in this world?

    * there are people known as “lead links” who have the ability to assign employees to roles or remove them from them, but who are not in a position to actually tell people what to do
    * Decisions about what each role entails and how various teams should function are instead made by a governing process of people from each circle
    * the broadest circles can to some extent tell sub-groups what they’re accountable for doing
    * there is still structure
    * employees’ work is still watched

    An interesting thought is this one:
    **”[W]hile the system lacks traditional managers, it does not mean that leaders won’t emerge. If anything, the goal is to get more people to take charge.”**

    Wishful thinking? Self-organization may indeed work quite well, as long as you increase trust between employees.

    So what do we have… We have “lead links” who can assign people to various roles. We have employees who have various roles. The team part of the team, instead of being a hard, company-determined structure, is left to the team to handle. It is more fluid. It is allowed to change.

    Teamworks is right to wonder about some of the traditional values of the manager. Who is responsible for the eagle-eye view? Who is responsible for bringing up blockers, for removing them? Who is responsible for handling friction within the team?

    Forbes has a good article for this:

    It seems that a holacracy is, as Forbes puts it, “hierarchy on steroids”.

    “Basically, in holacracy, there is a hierarchy of circles, which are to be run according to detailed democratic procedures. At the same time, each circle operates within the hierarchy. Each higher circle tells its lower circle (or circles), what its purpose is and what is expected of it. It can do anything to the lower circle—change it, re-staff it, abolish it—if it doesn’t perform according to the higher circle’s expectations. The word “customer” or a reference to any feedback mechanism from the customer don’t appear even once in the Holacracy Constitution. The arrangements are purely inward-looking and vertical.”

    There’s a lot of good stuff in the Forbes article, but I’ll skip to the second misunderstanding they list: “No managers in holacracy?”

    They indicate that there are “roles” which are managers in all but name, and that even though the accountability of the role can be changed by the governing rules of the circle, that doesn’t make that person any less of a manager.

    Based on the Forbes article, it looks like a holacracy might be some answer to what Agile does not discuss, namely the administrative (and not customer-value-driven) tasks such as sick leave.

    I can see how a holacracy could leverage Teamworks successfully; the upper circle would handle the manager tools. I do not see a fundamental schism in the traditional model. I do see a potential for increasing team communication.

  2. Teamworks
    January 28, 2014

    Aldric: Thanks for your thoughtful response. You’re most likely right that holacracy is more nuanced than all the “Zappos eliminates managers” articles suggest. Yet, we’re still not convinced that the explicit care and feeding of the team — and of individual team members — is deliberately taken on by anyone within those circles. And that worries us. We give Zappos credit for experimenting. Time will tell if the experiment is a success.

    • Aldric Giacomoni
      January 28, 2014

      That’s absolutely correct. There’s no way to know whether that is an explicit role or one which they hope will naturally crop up. I’m curious to hear more about Zappo’s experiences with it.


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