It’s Not the Manager……anymore

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By David C Forman, bestselling author “Fearless Talent Choices”


According to the Mayo Clinic, the person you report to at work is more important for your health than your family doctor.

For almost three decades, the practical wisdom from Gallup has been “People join companies but leave managers.”  This finding, grounded in their research, was heralded in “First Break All the Rules” (1999) and has been reaffirmed by Gallup ever since.  In 2019, for example, Jim Clifton and Jim Harder published a book on their latest global research on the future of work, and their title says it all:  It’s the Manager.  They assert that the quality of managers and team leaders is the single most important factor in your organization’s long term success.

The role of manager has a long tradition in organizations.  There are established management hierarchies, manager training programs, delineated career tracks, and rites of passage recognitions.  Managers were the essential link between employees and company leaders; they helped ensure that the company’s strategies and policies were communicated, understood, and implemented by employees.  These alignment and quality-control functions were considered essential in large, dispersed, hierarchical organizations.

For the individual, becoming a manager was a critical step in achieving a long-lasting, prosperous career.  The higher up the corporate ladder you went, the more power and influence you had; and the more money and prestige you received.  Managers became directors, who then became vice presidents, and some ascended even further.  The benefits to becoming a manager were obvious.

Interestingly, Google views managers differently.  In today’s world, Google sees managers as threatening high freedom workplaces that employees seek.  The power dynamic at the heart of the management process rarely allows for choice, flexibility, and genuine employee expression.  Google intentionally takes power and authority over employees away from managers.  Decisions such as who to hire, fire and rate performance are made by a group of peers, a committee, or a dedicated independent team (Boch,2015).

The last several years have also put a strain on the traditional role of managers.  COVID  necessitated people working from home and accelerated the view that your job is not where you work but what you do.  The office is virtually anywhere, and there is no boss several cubicles away.  Employees had to focus on the job and the outcomes they were responsible for, and to do so, they had to manage themselves and become more self-reliant.

Another factor is that traditional, hierarchical, multilayered organizations are simply too slow and cumbersome to respond quickly to market conditions.  There are two types of organizations today in this turbulent world:  the quick and the dead.  The antidote to bloated organizations is to reduce needless layers, get rid of historic barriers and obstacles to performance, embrace change, and be more agile. 

As a result of  having to act faster, work is now a team sport.  Today, more than 80% of the work done in mid to large sized organizations is accomplished in teams.  These teams have a common goal, are usually comprised of four to nine members, and:  are business and customer focused, enable contribution by all, built for experimentation, embrace transparency,  change as fast as the world around them, and are often self-governing.

“Businesses will be increasingly organized around distributed teams, remote workers and dynamic collectives with a continuous exchange of data and ideas.” 

Klaus Schwab, CEO The World Economic Forum

The Great Uncoupling

In this time or unrelenting change and agile teams, the historic role of manager is becoming an artifact.  It is part of another time when economies of scale mattered, control over employees adhering to strict processes was the norm, organizations held sway over employees, and hierarchies of managers held a lot of power.  Part of the problem was also the fact that managers were expected to do everything.  The job was simply too big and amorphous, and as Jesuthasan and Boudreau (2022) remind us, the solution may be to deconstruct the job of manager and focus on the component parts that add the most value.  This is especially important to do as new technologies and smart systems reform the workplace. 

The solution, as counterintuitive as it seems, is for managers to manage less.  To their credit, Gallup’s Clifton and Harder (2019) recognized this movement as they see the workplace demanding a shift from My Boss to My Coach.  As organizations become more transparent and shift to agile teams, the power role of managers becomes reduced, as presaged by Google.  Power, reliance, and accountability now become centered more on colleagues and oneself, rather than managers.  

Microsoft has been a student of changing workplace dynamics during the pandemic and beyond.  Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, observes that this time has constituted the world’s largest experiment for remote work ever conducted.  His primary reflections:

“Going forward, we are thinking about productivity in an organization as being defined by the combination of three things—collaboration, learning and well-being.”

Microsoft has also redefined their model of management excellence for its world of work and teams.  They have deconstructed the components they deemed most vital, and it consists of three behaviors:  Model, Coach and Care.  

  • Model culture, values, flexible behavior, and wellbeing.
  • Coach employees to unleash their potential and build on strengths.
  • Care by listening, understanding, and making people feel safe and supported.

Notice what’s missing?  The power dynamic is gone, and it is replaced by a developmental and growth mindset that enables talent at all levels to flourish and make contributions.  Command and control gives way to trust, collaboration, transparency, and inclusion.  Given fluid team structures, anyone can be a ‘development leader.’  Great organizations have leaders at all levels, not just in assigned slots.

So, it is odd but true.  Once managers stop managing, they can become a developmental leader who focus on what is truly significant.

Written by: Dave Forman

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