He knew how to work up a sweat for developers, I’ll give him that. But…

This is why we have working managers at Basecamp (and why Microsoft and Apple stumbled when they lost their tech CEOs)

Harvard Business Review studied what makes 35,000 employees from the US and Britain tick and found:

The benefit of having a highly competent boss is easily the largest positive influence on a typical worker’s level of job satisfaction.

Not the pay. Not the perks. Not even coworkers. Managers competent in the work of the worker. Bam.

I hadn’t thought about it in such clear terms before, but the vague hunch is why we designed Basecamp to be managed by people who do the actual work, and are very good at it. We don’t have any managers at Basecamp who just manage. Everyone with managerial responsibilities also do the work, and then they manage on the side.

I explored this approach to management in moonlighting managers ain’t got no time for bullshit, but didn’t appreciate the motivational value of working for someone who truly, deeply understands the work of the people they’re managing.

Consider this at the grand scale as well. Not just our merry band of fifty at Basecamp. Now forgive me for wheeling out the specter of Steve Jobs, but I think this finding helps explain why Apple went awry under John Scully too. Even if it was Jobs himself who recruited him. Scully knew how to sell sugar water and run organizations. He was not a competent technologist. That shit seeps in until it rots out the core.

Microsoft might well have been an evil empire under Gates, but at least there was some serious and formidable technology to underpin that empire with Gates. Once the sales sidekick took over the shop, the earnings might have gone up, but the core of competence started to rot there too.

Perhaps this too is why VCs have retreated from the earlier idea of bringing in “an adult” to run the place once the technologist founders hit a few snags on their INCREDIBLE JOURNEY to 10x returns. Keeping someone in charge who actually knows what the work is about keeps the troops happy. And happy troops are productive troops.

We all strive to do great work. It’s much harder to do that while working under someone who aren’t intimately competent in that work and what makes it great.