Why Make Managers?

Jane looked back at me and proceeded to ruin my whole day. We had planned the reorganization of our division carefully, placing people in each place where they could make the most contribution. Jane saw that, but she wanted to be a manager instead.

When she had started with us, getting her management card punched was a major career step. We gave people increases in salary, just for becoming a manager. As managers, we were rewarded for making more of ourselves. Management was a career step everyone focused on.

Since then, we have grown smarter. Should everyone be a manager? Not hardly. Should we all be developing managers? I think we know better now.

When Jane started with us, proceeding to lead others in your skill was the next logical step. Then it made sense. If you were good at something, and you could show others how to do it, we'd put you in charge of people who did the same thing. So salespeople became sales manager, engineers became Vice Presidents of engineering, financial analysts became Controllers. It made sense if you needed people who were good at what their subordinates do.

Everything changes. So fast that the old structures get in the way. For instance, the technology changes faster than I can monitor and still focus on other tasks. The marketplace changes faster than management can cope with. The pace of financial change is intense enough to require ongoing attention from the best minds we have. Now, we need our best and brightest people on the front line. If they are truly expert, we can't afford the overhead of having them do something that they have not mastered. We designed our reorganization with that principle. The best people should do the work.

As their areas of expertise changed people quickly knew more than their managers. Managers can never remain current. They will always be a step behind changes in the field. How much of a problem would that be? When we were honest with ourselves, we decided that this is nothing new.

Instead of trying to stretch the best people to be excellent at two things, we decided to eliminate the management roles. Who needs a manager who needs to be updated always? We asked: If the person is really the best at what they do, and they know what to do, do they need a manager at all? The answer is yes. We don't need managers to supervise their old skill. We do need them to manage our resources wisely. That is another skill entirely.

Instead of making management a career step, we decided to make it a career. Then, we decided that it is a career that should get no more compensation or reward than any other. Clearly, some technical skills are worth even more to us than management skills. We started to compensate by skill set, not status.

This is not what Jane was thinking. She was concerned that we would keep her career back by not making her a manager. I told her all this. She was not convinced.

What did convince her was the way we now treat our individual contributors. We honor them to death. We pay them of course, and well. But what really makes people want to do more work is to connect their contribution to their own sense of value, what Maslow called self-actualization. We do that religiously.

That is a skill only some people can do. We train for that skill just as we train salespeople to work their territory and technicians to test the hardware. This skill is what we call management. Managers are skill workers just like salespeople and engineers.

There are two critical skills. First, a manager working for us must be able to set a clear picture of what the other skill worker is to accomplish, and then get out of the way. This is a delicate balance. We liken it to showing someone the boxtop of a jigsaw puzzle without telling them how to assemble the pieces.

Second, our managers must know how to help individuals recognize their own contributions. This generally means that a good manager does not just tell the person how good he or she is, a good manager also helps an individual discover it himself or herself. To do this, we train good managers to talk less and ask many questions. My job as a GM? Develop those two skills and make sure they get honored at every level.

In our world, managers are skill workers, but at skills they do not yet have. We need, train, compensate, and honor them, but no more and no less than we do the same for engineers and salespeople.

Similar to article published in Business Horizons, January 1996