HR and Holacracy

A reflection on comments about Github and Julie Horvath

I have been following the recent fallout at Github from Julie Horvath’s departure, as I am the CEO of an organization that is intensely focused on creating a culture and structure that supports women, people of color, LGBT staff, and those who came up the ranks of business from a working class background like myself. I also am one of the champions at my former company, PalominoDB, for Holacracy — or at least, a variant of Holacracy that works for my staff. So when Catherine Bracy wrote about Github’s managerless structure, initially tying its struggles to Holacracy, I read it right away.

Catherine’s main argument seems focused on power and privilege. I recently talked at the Lesbians Who Tech Summit about the fallacy of the meritocracy that is common in the technology industry, and I’d like to reiterate it here. A meritocracy replicates its own power structures. Similarly, self-governance, with a lack of focus on addressing the balance of power, privilege, and diversity, will replicate its own power structures. Using Holacracy does not contribute to a failure in the latter; in fact, when appropriating its intent intelligently for our 55-member (and growing!) organization, it has shown significant promise.

Catherine’s article contains a few misconceptions about Holacracy in general. Holacracy is absolutely hierarchical. The board has a lead link in the general circle, and this person is charged with the accountabilities of the organization. The lead link defines and fills the roles needed to meet those accountabilities. If a role is too big, it becomes a sub-circle, and one member functions as a lead link in that sub-circle, while another member functions as a rep-link back to the super circle. This is explicitly hierarchical.

Holacracy is also not managerless. At PalominoDB, we had no interest in creating such a structure. We wanted Holacracy because it provides a structure for self-governance that can help a distributed organization scale while continuing to support its employees well. We used the structures in Holacracy to create a performance circle that is tasked explicitly with ensuring compliance of our code of conduct, our guidebook, and our cultural goals. Each lead link — the manager specific to one’s role in a circle — feeds up to the performance circle and provides a view of how each contributor, lead link, and executive fits with his or her own individual accountabilities and goals, as well as the company’s expectations of acceptable behaviors.

This performance circle and feedback structure is critical, because without someone ensuring that this is not a “majority rules” world, an artificial meritocracy is created. In that structure, those with power believe they are creating a fair space where anyone can thrive as long as they perform. The reality is that if no one is accountable for and asking questions about the dominant paradigm, those questions will not get asked. We need that role to ensure that the recruiting, hiring, ongoing support, and exits of every person who comes into contact with our organization are handled fairly and equally. We need this to ensure that each person truly feels welcome and that the organization wants them to be successful.

Human Resources as a role, is not going to create the culture of the organization. But, it is there to create the processes, oversight and structures for reinforcement of the acceptable behaviors that build the foundation of culture. And that cannot go away, in a holacratic governance model or in something different or more traditional.

Is Holacracy bullshit? I say absolutely not. Is it something we blindly embrace without considering real world needs? Absolutely not. When my team initially evaluated Holacracy for our organization’s practices — and, admittedly, we are only three young months into our slow evolution to self-governance — we raised questions around performance, management, and human resources immediately. These issues are conspicuously absent from the Holacracy structure as it originally is presented, so we used the opportunity to change the Holacracy model to suit our organization better and make sure these issues weren’t swept aside.

Culture, codes of conduct, performance, and accountability are at the top of my list of what must be considered in any business structure. Any “leader” who isn’t considering these points and ensuring that every individual in the organization is living up to that code of conduct isn’t leading effectively. That has little to do with Holacracy, flat structures, or an old school command and control environment. It’s simply bad managers or leaders.

Every executive, lead link, performance/HR specialist, and individual has a mandate to create space for anyone with talent and drive to succeed in their environment. But no single governance structure will solve the problem of someone who lets harassment, sexism, racism, classism, or bullying exist in their environment for a week, let alone months or even years, without addressing them.

Shame on Github for not building in those checks and balances while striving for a flat organization. But shame on Holacracy? I don’t buy it.

* If you’re interested in Holacracy, I recommend checking out for more information.