The world doesn’t need another hero – it needs great managers

Liam Hayes Liam Hayes
Chief People Officer
Samantha Fernando Samantha Fernando
Learning, Talent & Leadership Leader, VIC – Australia
26 April 2022
6 min read

Google's Project Oxygen started out as an experiment to prove that businesses don't need managers. In 2008, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin eliminated managers to break down barriers to rapid idea development and replicate a collegial environment, on the assumption that most engineers want to spend their time designing instead of supervising and communicating. But what Google thought would be a revolutionary change turned out to be a case of misunderstanding. Managers do matter – a lot, in fact.

After only a few months, the tech giant's move to a flat organisation became a disaster, with many of their people experiencing a lack of direction and guidance in the business. Instead of ditching their managers for good, Google realised they were critical to the organisation and to employee satisfaction.

Negative perceptions around managers continue to exist today. Many managerial roles have become saddled with red tape and stifling bureaucracy. The title can suffer from a branding problem associated with the unglamorous daily grind and a penchant for rules, policies and procedures. However, great managers have vision and big picture ideas.

Yet only a finite number of leaders can exist within one organisation – whereas, depending on its size, managers are spread across teams and are what keeps businesses humming.

With the evolution of organisation design, it is becoming more critical for businesses not only to have good leaders – they will need to have great managers. But what does this mean? What role will managers play in modern organisations? And how can businesses help managers realise their full potential to be great in what they do?

Hierarchy or no hierarchy?

Despite the Google experiment, many naysayers against hierarchy still exist. In a rebellion against the corporate pyramid, a movement called 'holacracy' has arisen that claims all forms of management need to be toppled if creativity and innovation are to survive.

Although the idea of everyone in a company being their own president might initially feel empowering, the truth is we need some form of hierarchy or decision-making framework, especially in times of great uncertainty. A flat hierarchy, or pancake organigram, unfortunately goes against the universal law of absolutely everything being subject to rules and decrees. Without any forms of hierarchy, you can expect a fair amount of anarchy, soon to be followed by the rise of informal hierarchies. Someone will inevitably take charge.

Within the safety of confines, we often experience the greatest freedom and creative licence. Great managers know this and know where to draw the parameters for the most fruitful outcomes.

Good management has been compared with good parenting. At the centre of it is a person you deeply care for and want to develop to their full potential.

Enter humanocracy – a hybrid that aims to marry the sweet sixteen love of holacracy and the time-tested matrimony of bureaucracy. Because we do need both. Humanocracy is defined as the design of an organisation to maximise human contribution by cultivating and unleashing human ability. And for this we need personal relationships and communication.

To coach and teach – not to track and evaluate

The word 'manage' is from the Latin manus 'hand' and Italian maneggiare, to handle or train (specifically horses) and embodies the idea of coaching, development and transformation attached to it. Very different from the current picture many have of management.

In daily battles, employees need someone on hand, someone who knows them individually and what makes them tick, not the Instagram legends somewhere on the Mount Olympus of the business universe. Today, more than ever, empathy is critical in our interpersonal relationships. Management is after all, the science of accomplishing work through others and, for that, you need to score high on the social and emotional intelligence scale.

Studies estimate that 46 per cent of the workforce will work in a hybrid work environment, choosing where, when, and how they work. With new AI technologies such as virtual personal assistants and chatbots potentially replacing almost 70 per cent of the tasks historically done by managers, the role of managers is shifting from evaluating performance to serving as coaches and teachers – as they should.

However, according to a Gartner survey, only 47 per cent of managers today are geared for these changes and only 16 per cent of mid-size organisations have redefined the role of manager to reduce the load and allow for actions that drive empathy and cooperation. Unless organisations embrace and acknowledge the need to look at the role of managers differently, it will be difficult for them to lead people especially during times of uncertainty and change.

A manager's true worth

Neuroscience suggests that the limit of human working memory is 7 plus or minus two items, which explains why most phone numbers are seven to eight digits long – so we can easily remember them. This also explains why a manager should ideally have only 7 plus or minus two subordinates to effectively manage them. You cannot form meaningful relationships when you have 50 subordinates.

As managers are often overburdened and trapped in a spider's web of sticky bureaucratic red tape, they are unable to tend to what matters most in any organisation – the people. This poses a big problem. How often have we seen that infamous line 'people don't leave companies (or jobs), they leave managers'?

When discussing talent retention, the focus is mostly on employees and seldom on the managers who need to make sure those employees are happy to stick around. Research shows that managerial competence is far more important than the typical MBA programme would have you believe, and that operational excellence should be treated as the critical counterpart of strategy. To make people stay, organisations need good managers.

Firms with strong managerial processes perform significantly better on high-level metrics such as productivity, profitability, growth, and longevity. Moving a firm from the worst 10 per cent to the best 10 per cent of management practices is associated with 25 per cent faster annual growth, and 75 per cent higher productivity.

Sphere of influence

Rank doesn't reflect value, it merely indicates role. Good managers are some kind of wonderful. They oil both the operational clockwork as well as the emotional wiring, while connecting the two worlds of the upper echelons and those in the trenches. They are indeed big-picture leaders as well as engaged followers. Successful companies will be those who value and support the gifted people who fill the complex and multifaceted roles of middle managers. Without them, there will be a great disconnect between the organisation's vision and execution.

Great leaders can inspire us, but great managers can touch our lives. Not everyone may want to be the next charismatic leader, but everyone should learn how to be a great manager, if not of people then of themselves and the time, resources, and opportunities at their disposal.

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Liam Hayes
Written by
Liam Hayes

Samantha Fernando
Written by
Samantha Fernando

Sam is deeply passionate about challenging the paradigm of traditional organisational life toward enrichment and growth. To balance this, she adores her yoga practice and getting into nature with her family.

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