Managers Managers Managers
Meta and McKinsey weigh in on managers
Hello, and welcome to this week’s newsletter. Thank you to our new subscribers. If you’re new, drop me a line and tell me what you are working on these days
This Week’s Newsletter:
Managers Managers Managers
What I’m Following
My Work Updates
Managers Managers Managers
It seems like 2023 is going to be the year managers get back in the spotlight. Depending on where you sit and what your organization is like, managers are either your best shot at keeping your people engaged or the reason why they are leaving. I’ve written a few pieces on various topics related to managers (here, here and here) but three pieces came out this week that I think paint a good picture of what’s happening.
#1) Leaner and Faster Means Less Managers
First, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerburg gave an update on his “Year of Efficiency” and managers are front and center. Meta is announcing restructuring plans to ‘flatten' the organization, removing many people managers, shutting down low priority projects and reducing future hiring. They will layoff about 10,000 employees and shut down about 5,000 open roles. Core at this, is the flattening, and either removing managers or sending them back to IC roles.
His rationale for this, in the name of productivity, is two fold: 1) flatter is faster, and 2) leaner is better. By removing layers of managers, teams can go faster, and less people fighting for projects means less potentially projects that shouldn’t be worked on in the first place.
“It’s tempting to think that a project is net positive as long as it generates more value than its direct costs. But that project needs a leader, so maybe we take someone great from another team or maybe we take a great engineer and put them into a management role, which both diffuses talent and creates more management layers. That project team needs space, and maybe it tips its overall product group into splitting across multiple floors or multiple time zones, which now makes communication harder for everyone. Indirect costs compound and it’s easy to underestimate them.”
His post goes more in depth, including some interesting findings of experiments they’ve run around remote work, onboarding and connection between peers and colleagues, including their findings that fully remote work appeared to work better for senior employees and/or those onboard in-person who then went remote. But the critical path is the manager, and in this case, less of them.
In June 2020, Dror Poleg, one of the most astute and thoughtful writers on the future of work tweeted something interesting that caught my attention when he said:
Here’s a thought experiment - take your most recent 3 months of work, and ask yourself, how many things did I work on that were actually value add to delivering on a business outcome, and how many things were useless?
Now consider that experiment for your company - Depending on what you do, your answer might vary but this gets at the core of Dror’s point - In his recap of Mark’s open letter he also noted that in the past, the solution & strategy for many tech companies was to throw human capital at challenges to see what stuck.
This worked in a solid economy and when investor sentiment was focused on growth at all costs. That means all sorts of projects and new initiatives, some of which are good, and others, maybe not so much.
It’s also where you get stories like this (Note: I do think they are real, I don't think they are common) But given the new reality, that is no longer a possibility, which is where we get “The Year of Efficiency” and the cuts to middle managers.
Peter Drucker once said “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”
While Mark’s solution to solving this problem is removing managers, a question that we should be asking is “What are we doing that is useless?”
#2) Conditions and Systems For Managers to Be Successful
The second manager piece comes from Emily Field and Bill Schaninger over at McKinsey. Last week, they released a new research report (a teaser for an upcoming book) with some new research and insights on the role of the middle managers. Some of this is what you’d expect, but the data is always appreciated.
Being squarely in the middle, these managers have to figure out how to manage up and manage down (and struggle with it) and many believe their time is spent mostly on administrative tasks and would love to spend more time on higher value tasks, such as strategy and managing talent. At the core of their article are three core recommendations for how to improve the role of managers:
Give Them more time on talent - Shift them from lower value tasks to higher value needs, like managing talent, which, while strategic, also takes time and effort.
Remove organizational hurdles - So many things get in the way of managers actually managing. Removing excessive bureaucracy can allow them to, well, manage.
Give them better incentives - understand what motivates them (outside of fair compensation) and reward them effectively.
Central to McKinsey’s research is this notion of reallocating the time and resources of managers to ensure that they have both the support and capacity to focus on the activities that add value. While Meta’s focused on removing managers to go faster, McKinsey’s focus is on :
A) making sure managers are focusing on the highest value activities and
B) Enabling conditions + systems (removing bureaucracy, training, incentive structure) to enable managers to do an effective job.
#3)The Manager Isn’t The Scapegoat
The third piece comes from Aki Ito, a reporter at Insider, and a guest on The Edge of Work in Season 1 (Here is our conversation) In response to Meta’s announcement, Aki acknowledges that getting rid of managers is part of a broader trend, noting decades old research on delayering in organizations.
In her article, Aki makes the case for saving the middle manager, redefining the and defining the perception of the manager in the face of increasing weariness of the value of management. She points to decades old research of the impact that a manager has, both on individual employees, and organizational performance. She writes:
Middle managers are actually the ones who make large organizations work. Studies suggest they move the needle on a company's overall performance far more than senior executives do — and also make a bigger difference to the bottom line than the teams they supervise. By eliminating middle managers now, in the midst of an unprecedented shift to hybrid work, businesses are cutting the very people they need most to weather all the economic uncertainty.”
Aki also notes some of Wharton Professor Ethan Mollack’s research in the gaming industry, where he found that producers accounted for 22% of differences in revenue across games, versus designers which accounted for only 7%, noting that “high performing innovations alone are not enough to generate performance variation.”
In the rest of her article, Aki illustrates why even if it’s easy or convenient to make the manager the boogeyman, given the current state of the workplace, the manager is exactly the person who could help improve performance and engagement within an organization. Here’s a quick example:
Let’s say your an individual contributor at a tech company, working on a cross-functional initiative like a product launch. These are complex cross functional projects that require diverse stakeholders, all with different communication styles, preferences, and ideas for how to work and get things done.
Throw in hybrid and distributed work, and you have a meaty challenge! But a project like this is hard for two reasons. First, it’s a sheer amount of work, and second, it’s complex. Capacity and cycles can solve part 1 (mostly) but part is solved by gaining context, getting coaching and feedback, and being able to connect the dots between all your diverse teams you are working with. All of those are things that innately a seasoned manager is capable of providing. If you want an example of this, talk to any Product Marketer or Product Manager who tried launching a new feature or product from March 2020 on, and they can tell you exactly how a good manager can help navigate the complexities of these projects.
The challenge is that the type of skills that are needed to manage properly, are not always valued in the same way that “doing the work” is valued. An example of this stems from the fact that in many organizations, management is a responsibility that often gets dumped on someone on top of their “real work.”
A Chance to Redefine The Role of the Manager
So where does that leave us with managers? Do we need them? Are they doing the right things? I would suggest that it’s actually a great time to really redefine what the role of the manager is.
Given how much work has changed and evolved, leaders and organizations have an opportunity now to redefine for themselves what a manager is, what they should be doing, and why they matter to their organization.
While some aspects of being a manager today are probably the same as they have always been, given the interconnected and cross-functional nature of work, remote and hybrid styles of work, and the specialization of niches, roles and functions, the way in which we work is much different in knowledge worker environments than in the past.
As I see it, I would say a starting point for a manager comes down to three core things:
Enable Conditions For Collective High Performance - Managers are facilitators and enablers of performance of their team. They create conditions, context, and spaces for their people to perform at the highest level
Get Your Team To Business Outcomes - Managers are responsible for leading their team to achieve an agreed upon objective for the business.
Unleash the potential of your employees - Managers have a responsibility to help their employees grow in the direction their employees wish to develop in.
While this may look different at each company, I would suggest that this would serve as a time to re-think what the role of the manager should be, and to use that as a starting point for evaluating what Meta, McKinsey, and Aki are advocating. What do you think?
What I’m Following
Here are some articles and podcasts to dive deeper into what good management can look like for today’s workplace
Article: Managers Can’t Do it All (HBR) - A good read on how the workplace has changed, but how we use manager’s hasn’t, and why that’s a challenge.
Article: Are Managers Moot (Gartner) - The short answer is no, but research from Gartner shows just how challenged managers are based on research and survey data from HR leaders across the globe
Podcast: How to Build Systems That Enhance The Manager Experience (Redthread Research) - Good management is not just manager training, but holistically building a system to enable success. This episode demonstrates how Morningstar reinvented management to improve the employee experience
Podcast: Building Connection and Community Through Leadership (Redthread Research) - Managers have to manage, but they also need support. This episode talks about how at Western Governors University they have made supporting managers to be great managers a priority, and how it’s paying off.
The Edge of Work Podcast Update - I’m joining the first ever LinkedIn Podcast Academy. TLDR: the podcast remains the same, but this is an exciting opportunity to grow the audience
Unleashing Your Culture To Improve Retention - Here is my latest piece in Fast Company on how leaders can continuously invest in their company culture to improve retention
What Are Talent Academies? - Here is my latest interview with Jen Collins, a talent and learning expert who is helping companies upskill employees at scale through talent academies.
Thanks For Reading, and before you go - If you’re company is looking for help in developing and retaining talent, or a speaker for your conference, I’d love to work with you: Here is how I might be able to assist:
Team Trainings & Professional Development
Support Your Offsites & Meetings
Leadership & Learning Programs
Future of Work and Talent Speaking Opportunities
Feel free to contact me directly for more details!
That’s all for this week. Have a great week!
Thanks for reading Work In Progress! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.