How Medium is building a new kind of company with a new kind of manager

Back in August of 2013 First Round published an article about Medium, told through the eyes of Jason Stirman, a versatile and articulate member of the team who has played an important role in shaping our culture. It’s a flattering profile of the company and how we have been using Holacracy to build a different kind of company.

However, the title of the piece has always bugged me:

“How Medium Is Building a New Kind of Company with No Managers”

No managers?

Now, it may seem pedantic quibbling over semantics, but for people who didn’t actually read the whole story, the title belies the work we have put in to creating a supportive and nurturing workplace, that delivers for our business.

When you think about a company with no managers there’s a good chance your mind drifts to stories of chaotic “meritocracies”, bro-y cultures, and HR disasters. Whereas we value mentorship and coaching, continuous self-improvement, and strive to make sure everyone feels safe and supported. It’s that dissonance that bugs me.

That said, we do think there are problems with traditional management structures that we are trying to address through Holacracy.

One of the common misconceptions about Holacracy is that it’s a flat organization structure. In fact, a holacratic organization is an explicit hierarchy of circles and roles; circles and roles all have clearly articulated purposes — or missions — that flow from the top-most circle and get unpacked on the way down. The authority that traditionally resides in the Executive Team, and other management structures, is distributed down throughout the leaves.

Circles all have a single lead, who is ultimately responsible for the execution and success of the circle. In practice, this starts to look a lot like a traditional manager role, and for some circles the lead is — for all intents and purposes — a manager; they are responsible for the work and for the people.

However, in some cases the person best suited to ensure the circle meets their goals, might not be the best person to fill the other duties of a manager: providing feedback, guiding professional development, or coaching through interpersonal issues. This is most notable in the product organization, where a Product Manager is usually the lead for a cross-functional product initiative.

In the product teams, it is the lead’s responsibility to distill priorities and vision from the parent circle and report back on status. They set the roadmap and goals, and while they should absolutely care about the people on their team, their primary concern is execution. To balance this, the engineers and designers all have someone else who isn’t their lead; someone they have 1:1s with, someone who is there to support them and make sure they are happy and productive, a mentor who advocates for them.

There are both practical and emotional advantages to this approach. It decouples responsibilities usually held by a single person and alleviates some conflicts of interest, it means individuals have multiple people to support them, and it allows the organization to recognize different types of leadership.

So yeah, we’re not building a company with no managers, but we are building a company with a new kind of manager.

Maybe we need a new vocabulary.

Englishman in California. Father, engineer, photographer. Recovering adrenaline junky. Founder @ Previously: Medium, Google.

Englishman in California. Father, engineer, photographer. Recovering adrenaline junky. Founder @ Previously: Medium, Google.