Under New Management: An Interview with David Burkus

Meet the New Bosses: How Leading Companies Are Upending Business As Usual

Reams of research exist on the topic of why employees leave their employers, and the answer is undeniably clear: people do not leave the company, they leave the manager. Perhaps they don’t extend trust. Perhaps he or she doesn’t allow ideas to be heard or acted upon. Perhaps they don’t allow the real potential of the individual to be exercised and developed. Abandoning the idea that it’s a rather inert situation, employees leave, seeking a new manager, in the hopes they will find one they can stick with.

The question is: what exactly are they looking for, and what can every manager learn that would allow them to adopt those qualities?

This is the underlying theme of a new book by Oral Roberts professor and author David Burkus called Under New Management: How Leading Companies Are Upending Business as Usual. Like his previous book The Myths of Creativity, for which I interviewed him as well, Under New Management is a user-friendly, straightforward read that does away with conventionality and conformity, and offers a fresh look at traditional management practice. I caught up David again to ask him a few questions.

David Burkus

Your first chapter is about the evils of email…is it bad that we’re conducting this interview by email?

Well not necessarily….because we’re doing on our terms. But for many employees, email is something their company opted them into and now they have to figure how best to use it. So now we find ourselves CC’d on endless email chains, getting notifications at all hours, and unable to focus in on the deep work that actually produces value. In response to this, many companies have banned or put limits on email for their employees. They’ve realized that, as a collaboration tool, email comes up short and are building tools based on the needs of their people. And they are seeing great results.

Can you explain the “value zone,” and why customers shouldn’t come first?

The “value zone” is a concept pioneered by Vineet Nayar, the CEO of HCL Technologies, when he inverted the organizational chart. He realized that all the value for his firm was created by those who interact with customers and that in order to create customer satisfaction — and hence greater profits — he needed to put the employees in the value zone first, and make the rest of the organization accountable to that front line. Customer satisfaction isn’t a goal, it’s a result of putting value zone employees first and giving them what they need to put customers first.

I worked with a company that tried the Netflix “no vacation policy” policy. People ended up taking less vacation. That can’t be good. Comment?

On average, companies that switch to unlimited vacation see their people take about as much vacation as under their previous policy…but averages mean that other results are experienced outside of the mean. One interesting thing I found in my research was that for most of the companies with truly effective unlimited vacation policies, it wasn’t actually about more or less vacation days. It was about trust. The switch to unlimited or “no vacation policy” was a result of employees feeling untrusted because the company wouldn’t be tracking their time work, but insisted on only dolling out a restricted number of days not worked. They weren’t tracking days on, but wanted to track days off. When employees brought this up, the senior leadership very meaningfully responded with “You’re right…we trust you. So we’ll do away with it.”

I find it telling that shortly after Netflix experienced success with an unlimited vacation policy they modified their expense reporting policy as well. They cut the whole thing down to five words: act in Netflix’s best interest. In other words, “we trust you.”

Are these “new management” concepts and practices truly transportable, or are they more simply a manifestation of something deeper, something closer to a unique leader and culture?

I think they’re transportable and I think it depends less on culture and more on the nature of work. For “knowledge” work, work that requires coming up with ideas, solving problems, and making decisions, these practices represent successful experiments in a better way to manage. Obviously, a company culture were employees deeply distrust their leader and everyone is very siloed and secretive will require a longer transition to these practices. BUT, I see the most talented employees flocking to these companies. So the transitions will likely have to occur. Otherwise, companies will be losing some of their best people.

You surprised me by not mentioning or citing Ricardo Semler who some call the father of radical management…territory too well-covered?

Actually…that’s exactly right. I wrote about Ricardo Semler and Semco in my previous book The Myths of Creativity and am a huge fan of his work and his ideas. But a LOT has been said about it and I wanted to try and shine a spotlight on companies we haven’t talked about as much. I tried to do the same thing with a few other companies and only failed once: Google. I tried to avoid talking about them but, with a few weeks left before my manuscript was due, I ended up reading about Lazlo Bock’s influence on their hiring process and decided that I couldn’t avoid it. In that case, what they’re doing now is too good to not include, and arguably rarely mentioned.

What advice do you have for the manager trying to implement one of the practices you write about?

Know how much influence you have. You may be able to enact lasting change in the organization, or you may have to create a “pocket of excellence” just on your team. For example, in one chapter I discuss ditching performance appraisals and replacing them with informal conversations centered around expectations, feedback, and growth and development. You may not be able to abandon the annual review…but that doesn’t mean you can’t have these ongoing, informal conversations anyway.

What’s the one thing you want readers to take away from Under New Management?

Great leaders don’t innovate the product; they innovate the factory. So often we talk about companies than win because they came up with an innovative new concept. But every innovation in every industry has one thing in common: it was originally an idea inside the mind of a person (or persons). Great leaders don’t focus on driving their people toward more ideas. They focus on innovating their organization to allow their people more freedom to develop, test, and implement those ideas.

You can pick up Under New Management at your favorite retailer, and on Amazon for under $18.