Listen; learn; score some goals, but never feel like you have a manager

Posted on June 25, 2013

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I’ve always grown up living the maxim “never have a boss.” It’s something I’ve said to my children many a time. Never feel like you have a boss. Always feel like you are your own boss. Carry that feeling with you through work and it will keep you free and happy.

In saying this I’ve never suggested to any of my children that they should not listen, nor that they shouldn’t learn from others more experience or just disregard direction because they didn’t like what they heard. So, because of this, the maxim has always had to be qualified.

So, imagine my delight when Bob Wheller, one of my colleagues at The Team, pointed me in the direction of an address by Henry Stewart, an address where Stewart argues that we should let people choose their own managers: Cue everyone selecting the dude in the corner that disappears down the pub each lunchtime.

The argument holds water though. Henry Strewart is not suggesting that the idea of choosing your own boss will work in every culture, but in progressive organisations it can. Stewart cites Douglas McGregor’s theory X and Y: where theory X assumes that all workers are lazy and so must be compelled to work (authoritarian), whilst theory Y suggests that people are self-motivated and do want to succeed (the participative theory.) Clearly inviting people to choose their own boss in an authoritarian world would be disaster – expect for that dude down the pub – but it can work in the participative model.

And the participative model is not just open to certain creative laidback companies. In the past few years I have worked with a major oil company and been privileged enough to interview a number of that company’s high performers. Time and again they have cited the freedom they have been given by their line manager to explore the work they are doing. They have talked about a partnership with their line manager rather than a parent/child or parent/adult relationship. These have been successful people and the trend has been universal. Successful people are given freedom by quiet heroes that stand beside or behind them and act as guardians. 

Of course the argument can still be leveled that this type of relationship can only work in certain companies and with certain individuals and I’m undecided by that. What about a retailer? What about manufacturer of tinned produce? Surely these companies need command and control structures? What about the lazy employee, the under-performer? Well it begs the question as to what made them lazy in the first place – and who recruited them, but as for different types of company take a look at Morning Star Co.

Morning Start Co produces tinned produce. It has low employee turnover. It doesn’t pay high wages. But at Morning Star Co the vast majority of employees don’t have a manager. In fact, nobody has a manager. Instead every employee sets their own targets according to a Colleague Letter of Understanding. Effectively, every colleague reports to one another.

Or how about John Lewis Partnership, where the business strategy for people is about authenticity, happiness and accountability? That’s an important mix I think. Each of those three plays a vital role in holding the business in check and yet each of them is of value to John Lewis and to each and every colleague that works there.

Henry Stewart opens his BBC address by quoting a statistic: 49% of employees would take a pay cut in exchange for a better manager. Harsh. So what is a better manager, or rather what is a better place of employment? Well, later in his speech Stewart reveals some great insights from Google. Their research with employees begged this very question and the top three levers they identified did not include pay, benefits, hours or conditions, nothing like that. They were showing an interest in employees, empowering employees and having a manager that is a good coach.

So, never have a boss, but find someone you can listen to, learn from and score some goals with.

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