Why you need to dump your hierarchy (and focus on position fit)

TLDR a.k.a. Just the basics

Just because someone is great in their job, particularly an execution-oriented job, doesn’t mean they will do well in a managerial position. Instead of accepting that the next role upward will require management and leadership, look to create roles that fit their strengths. For people interested in taking on managerial roles, spend time watching how they handle the interactions, and look to provide guidance and external training at regular intervals. If you find yourself needing to “throw someone into the fire,” remember that management can be a dangerous role to saddle an untested employee with. If you have maximized the value an individual can create without being a manager, they do not have the skills/desire to manage, and they are bent on having career progression, you should probably encourage them to look for opportunities elsewhere. Losing top talent is never ideal, but it’s better than letting them ruin an effective business unit or drive out other important talent. Finally, look for ways to disentangle upward movement in your organization from management responsibility. You should still teach and encourage teamwork, but the typical, bloated, vertical structure is definitely not an optimal use of talent. Your best case scenario will rely on your ability to build an organization and a culture where talent allocated where it is most valuable.


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Problem?

As organizations get larger, they tend to get more complex, adding roles and components that exist simply to maintain the ever-growing monolith. That’s a pet-peeve of mine but we’ll let it sit for the time because I have a bigger brain-worm at the moment. If you think about it, the way organizations get structured, vertically speaking, makes little sense. Then, little companies try to emulate these large organizations (or hire employees who only know that way of life) and you end up with disastrous results.

My general question is : why is it that the typical pattern for career growth starts with a technical focus, then almost invariably moves toward a management and leadership focus? Why do organizations just assume that this is a natural path? Why is management automatically given some degree of hierarchical priority, throughout the organization? (Especially since managers can only succeed if their team succeeds.)


An Example (to set the scene)

Let’s start at the beginning… of your fake career.

Imagine that it’s your first day and you are starting at Widget Inc. in an entry level role. You’ll do some number crunching, some researching, maybe contribute to a few of your boss’ reports. Hopefully you get along with your peers, but most of your success is probably tied to getting good instruction from management, then meeting (and maybe even exceeding) those demands. The important part is that your job is to execute largely individual tasks.
Eventually you get a promotion (or two), and in many cases, it just means handing you a larger, more complex scope. Some new entry-level employees may report to you nominally, but your boss is still the one really looking after their career; they are more like tools and a support system for your work than actual direct reports. It’s a challenge working with them; they make mistakes you need to deal with, but overall, you’re still doing a tougher version of the same job.
Then that next promotion pops you up to a managerial role. Your KPIs are tied to similar metrics (maybe brand growth and market share for a brand manager), but at a larger scale and scope, and across a variety of people, some of whom are doing jobs or covering portfolios you aren’t as knowledgeable of. What’s more, you probably have more experience in general, and may even be more competent than them — you did get the promotion after all. So now you have to manage a team.

Stop there and ask yourself again: why do we just assume this progression is obvious? For most of us, it’s just a status-quo bias. We just don’t know any other way. Now, back to your job.

Technically you’re in the same area. Sure, your expertise is probably relevant. But now you have an entirely new skillset to use; you’re not the one crunching all of the numbers, you’re supporting others, removing obstacles from their path, evaluating their results, providing guidance. Your success is largely tied to them doing a good job. Your bonus is not tied to their happiness, but it IS tied to them achieving success in their roles.

But seriously, why are we doing it this way?

The management-as-career-path concept is definitely tied to leverage; the idea that you can create the most value by improving a lot of lower-value contributions, rather than making an attempt at a single high-value execution on your own. The more you learn, the greater your perspective, and ideally, the better your strategic thinking. Ideally, your experience alone is valuable because you’ve seen different paths tried, and can make better decisions because of it. How do you best implement these learnings? Well, you share them with others. You provide them the same support you needed

Unfortunately, that’s a bit too rational for my taste. It also ignores natural competencies. It’s all well and good to want to develop a weakness, and organizations should support employee development, but if it’s a bad fit, or you don’t have the aptitude, there needs to be another way. Even though you want to keep top talent in an organization, if someone has maximized their ability to contribute by doing, and has not risen to the challenge of management, you might be better off letting them go.


Some thinking

As you get more senior, the organization takes more and more training wheels off you (meaning you have more freedom and they have less oversight.) Maybe you get some training, if you are lucky you have a good mentor. The reality is that leadership and management may not be natural skills for you, and while you may even be interested in developing them, you may also be hurting the organization and the people beneath you. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with you not having managerial skills, but your organization needs a plan for handling that.

Let’s remember that situation plays a very large role in individual success. If you are hired into a growing product line, you may stand out easily, relative to your peers. If you get assigned a manager who does not provide support and clashes with you without giving you the tools to succeed, your evaluations (the same ones that often get carried forward for multiple roles) will reflect poorly on you, and they sure won’t be singing your praises to their bosses. (The same can be said for a boss who readily takes credit for your ideas and work.) Plenty of well-known people say something along the lines of “the secret to success if being in the right place at the right time.” But, once we accept that the world isn’t exactly meritocratic, we can start building process to move the needle in that direction.

Almost everyone has a story about a boss that tended to get in their way, second guess all of their judgements and provide less-than-tangible guidance. If you were lucky, you got some clear instructions and expectations, and even then you may have had to deal with denial of those instructions if the boss changed their mind while you were executing on the original task. None of this takes into account bosses who are relatively competent at their job, except that they are terrible at time management and all of that guidance happens the day before your comprehensive analysis is due, you know, the one you only found out about last week. You have to work hard and put yourself through an immense amount stress at work, and at large part of that may be because someone else did not spend the time to realize that your manager just isn’t a good fit for their role.


Reasonable Objections to my Case

“What about people who want to be managers, who want to rise through the ranks, but just don’t have the skillset?” you may ask. “They know what they want!” My reply is: do they really? Do they actually want to be managers? Or is it that we have convinced them that management is an aspirational role, the natural progress. I don’t doubt that many people have some personal desire to lead that may even be evolutionary in nature, but that doesn’t mean we need to just accept it. I think that for a lot of people, the desire to be a manager stems from a desire for success and recognition, and we have built a system that rewards good management. Standard structures are reinforcing a value that is far from optimal.

But then, “what’s the deal? Why does this matter?” I can hear some of you asking. Well. ask yourself how many careers can be slowed or damaged by a bad manager? How often are we delaying, and maybe even preventing a potentially great manager from getting an opportunity? And what about top-quality executional minds that get shuffled into managerial positions when they could be creating value by doing at the biggest scope? At a certain point, you can’t take on a bigger scope or more powerful portfolio without working with others, but there’s also a difference between developing the skills to be a collaborative team player, and being a full-on manager.


The Worst Case

We tend to assume incompetence gets eliminated as you move up the corporate ladder, and so too should managerial ineptitude. That may be the case sometimes, but maybe it isn’t. Here’s an example of that scenario:

Imagine you are a Brand manager for a major consumer brand. One of the products, in your brand is a category killer. It eats its competitors for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and continues to grow. Maybe some of that is due to the product manager, maybe some of it is you just have a great product. You get promoted, and decide to a portfolio management level, and decide to bring your product manager up to brand management, given their success as a product manager. The product continues to do well and out-perform the rest of the portfolio and its competitors. When you get offered a role as director, who do you turn to to taken on the portfolio manager role you vacated? Of course the brand manager who oversaw the product that played a key role in your ascent is likely to get the nod.
Here’s the problem, if you aren’t careful, a successful product can overshadow underperformance in other products that make up a brand or portfolio. That product that built your career, might have no real competitor. It might be the best possible offering in a massive and growing market, and maybe your company has the patent, so nobody can just knock off the product. At a certain point, it may succeed on brand equity alone.
You may have helped build that product’s success, but your management, or the management of your successor, may hinder the development of others and the work they want to do. Maybe they funnelled budget toward the dominant product, or maybe they just didn’t provide the necessary guidance to other managers to help them learn to do the same. Not every product manager will be equally qualified, and even if they are all at a similar level, they can benefit from a variety of experiences and ideas. But a manager who is condescending, who orders people around, who instructs them what they need to do and assumes to know the realities of the situation without listening, and who is more concerned with being in charge than with getting obstacles out of their team’s way so that the team can execute? That’s going to lead to frustration, hampered success, and possibly a talent exodus. How will the manager handle it when less-skilled employees join the team and their performance drops?

A good employee ends up becoming a bad manager, but gets to move up the ladder and harm or stagnate a business unit because surface-level, market-driven metrics make them seem like a star, or because their manager has a soft-spot for them. Is that really what you want to see happen to your business?


A (potential) solution

As is usually the case, I haven’t vetted this idea fully. I do think, however, that it has some merits and would at least be worth exploring. What if we placed managers on an even compensation and seniority level as their direct reports. Managers become facilitators, with the same fundamental goals and responsibilities as before, but we start removing the company stigma of “moving up means taking management responsibility.”

Now we look at compensation. Base rates are similar, and bonuses are tied to the performance of reports’ portfolios. If there are 5 “doers” on the team, then for the performance-based component of the facilitator’s bonus, they would get an amount equal to 1/5 of the performance bonus assigned to each member of their team. There can be other factors that impact a bonus for a facilitator, but this definitely ties them to their team and their team’s success as a whole.

Under a normal pay structure, a manager may have more stress, more strategic awareness and higher expectations, but I have seen cases of them earning 50% to 400% more than their direct reports. Unless they have significant executional responsibilities beyond their team, is the value they are adding really worth that kind of difference?


The Best Case

If you are starting an organization from scratch, you can look to break some of the stigma that ties success to management. The maximum value derived from individual execution may not be very high, and you may run into people who want to progress beyond that. Have conversations with them, get to know their skills, their strengths and weaknesses. Where you can, help your colleagues and employees develop. Try to keep your organizational hierarchy fairly flat, to prevent layers of management that add avoidable complexity.

For established organizations, your org chart isn’t getting thrown out overnight, and even if it was, you have a culture of people who are comfortable operating a certain way. Discuss the realities with other managers. Be thoughtful when you fill a position about the requirements of the role, and the individual’s aptitude, then watch them closely to make sure that they didn’t just politic themselves into the position. Be ready to recognize your mistakes and take action quickly. That means providing training opportunities when you realize your recent placement is not meeting the requirements of the position, and if necessary, move them out of the role. The longer they stay in a bad fit, the greater the stagnation and potential harm. Also, don’t create artificial roles for people just to hand them a job. If there is not a good place for them in the organization, that’s unfortunate but better than paying a bloated salary for moderate (if even positive) value creation. If you do have a high-talent executor, consider using them as a specialist, supporting more junior employees on tough work and projects. You can leverage their knowledge, keep them executing, and provide valuable training opportunities that may prepare them for management roles down the road.

In all cases, if you have a high-talent individual, but you have maxed out their individual value and they want to keep progressing, but the managerial ability isn’t there, let them move on to other opportunities. Fight the urge to “keep top talent at all costs.” As long as you treat employees with respect, you will find more talent. You are better off with a well-functioning team full of B+ and A- employees than a dysfunctional team featuring some A+ stars. Not only is the second team going to underperform, especially as the complexity increases, but the B+ and A- talent you do have will probably start to look for other opportunities to have impact.

Another suggestion is to recognize when people ‘just want to do’ and beware of forcing them into management roles. A trial period may be worth exploring, but if the aptitude isn’t there, don’t push it for the sake of it. If you push people outside their comfort zone, and hold them out there for an extended period even if they don’t appreciate it, you are likely to lose them, on top of the sub-optimal performance that arose when they were in the role.

Don’t risk filling your organization with bad managers. Making smart role-filling decisions and decoupling management from growth and success lets you focus on optimizing value creation across the organization. Develop a reputation for being an organization that develops talent and helps people progress in their careers. Let talent go when it doesn’t fit with your organization; there’s nothing to be gained by being clingy. Prevent a talent exodus and look to fit people into roles that let them create value now and where possible, in the future as well. That’s your best case scenario.


My goal is to help you achieve the best case scenario. Each week, I will identify a pernicious problem I have encountered in the business world, and help to identify ways around it that fit a variety of constraints and organizations.

About me: I am a Strategy and Business Consultant, specializing in small and medium size businesses. I worked for Charles River Associates, before pursuing an MBA in Spain and setting up my own shop to work with a more international client base. In my current role, I am committed to providing value via structure and processes that are normally reserved for Fortune 1000 clients. I currently work with clients in North America, Europe and Africa, and am more than happy to listen to your organization’s needs and provide feedback.

If you think I can help out, or you just have thoughts to share with me, send me an email! You can reach me at aroberts.medium@gmail.com