I was honoured to be asked by Thinkers50 to contribute a letter to their Dear CEO book, published in July 2017. Here is my contribution.

Dear CEO

Let me paint a common scenario. One of your people comes to you and says “I love my job. I love the people I work with. I’m even happy with what I’m being paid. But… I can’t stand my manager.”

What generally happens next? Sooner or later, the person leaves. We know that people join companies and, all too often, leave managers.

There is a solution to this. At my company, Happy Ltd, it takes just a few minutes to deal with. We simply ask “Who would you like instead?”. Yes, this is our simple concept: Let people choose their managers.

According to one survey, 48% of the working population would take a pay cut to be able to change their managers. That’s how bad things are.

This approach does sometimes need a little adjustment to structures. Companies who adopt this approach go on to separate people management from strategy. Because why do we assume people are going to be good at both?

Each member of staff gets to choose their manager, the person who provides support and challenge, who meets them regularly and coaches them to set their own ambitious targets. A separate person, with no line management connection, may be responsible for strategy for the department.

If this sounds odd, think of projects. In many organisations people work for weeks or months on a project. And their project manager is often not their line manager. But it works.

The most common response I get, and you may be thinking it, is “what happens to those that don’t get chosen?”. Never mind those who live lives of misery under managers who should not be in that role. Never mind the low productivity from demotivated staff under managers who diminish them. People’s key concern is all too often what happens to those people who nobody wants to have as their manager.

What happens to those who don’t get chosen? They get to do something else.

We worked with one company who had a brilliant marketing director, who I will call Mary. She was brilliant at marketing, but she was not a great people manager and half her staff left every year. The company came to us to help them solve it. They had to keep her marketing skills but they had to stop that staff turnover, it was costing them a fortune.

The answer was, of course, simple. Mary was moved to a position where she spent all her time doing marketing. We consulted the team and found out who they wanted to be managed by. And we made the switch.

And guess who was happiest at that change? Yes, Mary was over the moon. She got to spend all her time doing what she was great at.

Don’t get me wrong. For many many people, the managing of people is what they love. It is what gets them up in the morning and what they remember long after they finish a job. But for others, it just isn’t – even after lots of training – one of their strengths.

Another example. We worked with a software company called Cougar. At the end of an away day with all the project managers, several of them came to us and said “We don’t want to be managers any more. We’re going to go back and tell Clive (the MD).”

How did Clive react? He was delighted, he’d been wondering how to tackle the issue. So they put in place a judo belt system, where coders start at yellow and move up all the way to brown and black. You can imagine that the prestige of being a black belt coder is every bit as good, probably better, than being a top manager.

Or take Apple. You will know that Apple was founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. But do you know the difficulty Steve Jobs had getting Woz to leave Hewlett Packard to set up Apple? He explained that he would no longer be a small cog, but would manage a whole team of engineers. Woz said no, he reckoned he’d stay at HP. Jobs kept trying to persuade him, emphasising his importance and how many people he’d be in charge of.

Then Apple investor Mike Markulla took Steve Jobs aside and explained that Woz just wanted to be an engineer. He didn’t want to be responsible for other people. Jobs changed his approach: he offered Woz great kit, all the resources he needed and promised “Woz, you will never have to manager anybody.” That sounded good to Woz and he made the move. The rest is history.

There will be people in your business who are great engineers or great sales people or great accountants or great strategists, but whose strength is not the people bit. You need a promotion path for them that doesn’t involve managing others.

If you take this simple step of letting people chose their manager, it will lead not just to a happier workforce, but probably a more productive workforce and certainly to a lower staff turnover.


Henry Stewart

Chief Happiness Officer, Happy Ltd

Dear CEO by Thinkers50

Dear CEO: 50 Personal Letters from the World’s Leading Business Thinkers is available to buy in hardback and eBook formats from Bloomsbury. Learn more about Happy, our values and our leadership and management training on Happy’s website.

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