A New Leadership Model: What if Managers Could not Publish or Present?

Untitled by Keith Haring

Untitled by Keith Haring

I know. It sounds ridiculous. It also sounds near impossible to implement when first proposed. So instead, let’s first imagine that we completely ignore the “how do we get there?” problem and we instead jump immediately to imagine this state. We will just assume that the years of culture change have been successful.

To be clear, what I am proposing here is a corporate culture where the individuals in the company that are responsible for managing and growing teams are fundamentally not allowed to:

  • internally publish documents
  • develop or deliver presentations (internally or even to customers)
  • assemble reports
  • design dashboards
  • lead training

In this model, how would teams be organized? What would the interactions between peers be? How about the interaction and communication between organizations? Most importantly, could this be a good thing? It would most certainly be a dramatic change.

In this model, the “people manager” role transitions to focus on three elements of leadership:

  1. Owning responsibility for the team’s involvement in organizational strategy (not to be confused with establishing strategy).
  2. Building an environment that empowers the team members to grow, learn, teach and in turn lead.
  3. Enabling communication across teams teams and departments to facilitate the common understanding of shared, unique and complimentary goals.

I had planned to go into greater detail in this posting, but to be fair, I strongly feel that an interactive discussion about the feasibility/benefit of such a model in a specific organization is far more beneficial than a generic description. This would allow individuals to hypothesize with existing business needs, existing organizational relationships and knowledge of specific talented individuals. I will however present some of my thoughts on why this overly simple “no publishing rule” for managers might work.

Being the Coach, Not the Captain

The definition of coach is one that has been far too open to interpretation. Quickly borrowing terminology from team sports, the coach primarily focuses on game preparation. They work with the team to help build the skills/chemistry/knowledge needed to help them succeed on the field where the game is played. The captain on the other hand typically can be counted on to lead the team during the game. They are the player that the team looks to for predictive and reactive guidance. They think fast and  they can act quickly. (A great team has more than one person willing to step up and accept this role when called upon)

With this in mind, in many teams it is often the most creative and effective thinkers that elevate to the level of manager. Extending the sports analogy, they were effectively captains. They shined in time of crisis, and stood out as the clear star within a team. It is only natural then that the very skills that garnered attention would then become the foundation for their mode of operation. They would find it natural to continue applying these skills to identify opportunity, develop strategy, and then present/teach this to their team(s) as a vision.

The learning curve for former captains to become coaches is one that can be quite steep. As an individual contributor, the captain was in much more control of how he or she was evaluated. The temptation is understandable to maintain some of that control.

Now to be fair, for some captains this transition to coach is very natural. They enjoy empowering others. They enjoy building harmony and strength across their teams. But how often are those attributes (coaching), part of what gets the individual noticed and promoted? How do you build teams so that these natural leaders step up to manage? How do you allow captains to continue growing and shining? I believe that it involves breaking the traditional model that depicts the move to “people manager” as a promotion, but rather the natural acceptance of the role for a coach.

Letting the Players Play

I would like to move back away from the team sports analogy, but will finish the thought. No matter what the strategy, it is the team that needs to understand it and be able to execute it on the field of play. They learn, and they practice.

With this in mind, this is the foundation of “the rule” I am suggesting. As long as managers draft, present, teach, report and generally represent strategy, the possibility exists still that they are needed to lead their team in the execution. If we imagine instead the idea that all media had to be authored or presented by the very people asked to execute and perform, it presents a very different relationship for the manager. Suddenly, the need for communication and congruence is immensely important. Trust in the team is a fundamental requirement. Priorities that would likely emerge as being paramount:

  • Training/education for team members beyond technical skills. Development of “soft skills” and collaborative methods become vital to success.
  • Continuous sharing of corporate strategy and direction to ensure that the individuals understand how their involvement contributes and depends on larger objectives
  • Direct communication with supportive, partnering and dependent teams is needed on an ongoing basis.

Asking the team to own the authoring and presenting all methods of communication and education effectively requires that the very people doing the work to the appreciate (or at least understand) the intended value and teach others.

Who is the Next Manager?

In many ways, I have not really presented anything new about organizational dynamics. The only real change is this one rule of no publishing or presenting. (To clarify, my model would more likely imply an accepted and adopted approach rather than a rule, but for the sake of simplicity I have called it a rule) Why do I think this is actually something interesting or of value? What changes?

The idea I am considering  here involves building a framework that helps us move away from the premise that managing teams is a natural career advancement for our star individual performers. Where the role of manager (or leader) now is clearly seen as a role where the team is supported, educated, enriched and encouraged. Organizationally, the size and ratio of teams to manager then gets defined by the agreed upon needs of the teams involved in meeting corporate objectives. The desire to become a team manager would fall to those who instead look to build, support and grow great teams. They would want to find the next great stars, and the next great leaders. They would want to work collaboratively with other team leaders to encourage movement across teams to learn from one another.

But What About the Ugly?

I posted this thought in the form of a question. It is because the idea is really days old. It is not fully thought out. Even while writing this, there are obvious questions worth asking when considering this type of model. If you accept the notion that team managers are required to own responsibility for the performance of their teams, and to account for budget, team growth, team reduction, salaries… then can such a model possibly work? I could easily propose a model where standardized evaluations do not exist and alternate methods of compensation exist, (I would even go so far as to admit that I have some ideas about these) but this takes us into a near infinite series of organizational dynamics.  No matter how you look at it, the model that I proposed here completely ignores the transition that is needed to get there. This very important consideration could very well be the show stopper that allows us to conclude that this model is not feasible.

This is likely why I chose to leave it out. I like dreaming. I like alternate visions. I enjoy imagining how something could work, since this provides me with the ability to decide if the idea is a good and worth exploring. When we find ideas that we like and seem worthwhile, suddenly we find a way to compromise to achieve aspects of the benefits.

So with this in mind, what if this model were adopted? What else would need to change? I have no doubt that it could work, but in the end, would it be better or would it introduce aspects of dysfunction that exceed the benefit?