People management is a crucial role, and it is different from leadership.

Two weeks ago I wrote a LinkedIn post in response to a tweet from Simon Sinek. He stated: “Management is the practice of manipulating people for personal gain. Leadership is the responsibility of inspiring people for the good of the group.”

I argued that great management was as important as great leadership and that “most of us have had managers who coached and challenged us, and enabled us to do better than we thought we could do.”

My post received 40,000 views and over 150 comments. While few agreed with Sinek, much of the opinion was divided between those who thought leadership and management were similar (and done by the same people), and those who argued, as Admiral Grace Hopper put it, “You manage things; you lead people.”

Great leaders aren’t always great managers

I disagree with both views. I have led my company for 30 years, but have – for the last 25 – rarely managed anybody. Yes, I interact with people. Yes, I manage tasks. But I am talking about the vital role of people management, of that one-to-one support that can – if done well – help people to perform at their best. It is a different role to leadership.

Take Steve Jobs. Most of us would agree he was a great leader. But few of us would want to have been managed by him with his notorious temper and easy dismissal of people he regarded as “stupid.” The same is true of Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, and many other “inspirational” leaders.

Being a manager is not about being the expert

General Stanley McChrystal, in his excellent Team of Teams, quotes Henri Fayol (a contemporary of Frederick Taylor) who stated the “five functions of management” as “planning, organising, commanding, coordinating, and controlling.” He also quotes Taylor himself, making clear what he expected of his workers: “I have you for your strength and mechanical ability. We have other men paid for thinking.”

Hopefully we have moved on but organisations today are stuck with the legacy of those views. Too often when somebody becomes a manager they see it as a recognition of their expertise and their ability to make the best decisions. That role of the manager might well fit with Sinek’s view but it is time to move beyond it.

The key role of the manager

Twenty five years ago I read Maverick by Brazilian businessman Ricardo Semler. It was a eureka moment and led me to commit Happy to become an empowered self-managing organisation.

A couple of years later I was a bit surprised to find that Cathy, who had been selected by our trainers as their manager, was having one-to-ones with each of her people every two weeks. Surely management in this new culture was about keeping out of the way?

But the trainers were clearly enjoying these sessions, even looking forward to them. And what Cathy was doing, I discovered, was not micro-management but coaching.

At Innocent that coaching role is seen as so important that every member of staff is expected to have a weekly one-to-one session with their manager. After doing the Project Oxygen research, Google discovered the most important role of the manager is to “be a good coach”. And now, at Google a manager cannot hire people, fire people, give them a pay rise or tell them what to do.

If you doubt the importance of managers, read the brilliant Multipliers by Liz Wiseman which outlines the powerful effect a great manager – a liberator, challenger, investor, talent magnet, debate maker – can have. And we all know it. Most of us have had both managers under whom we did less well than we were capable of and managers under whom we did better than we thought we could.

Research from the London Business School has found the person that people least like to spend time with is their manager. Indeed, they’d rather be alone. And that is understandable if your manager is somebody who tells you what to do or “performance manages” you.

People may not like being “managed”. But they do like being coached

But imagine instead that you have a manager who genuinely cares about you and wants you to be the best you can be. A manager who builds your confidence, who challenges you but also provides support – even when you get stuff wrong. A manager who asks you questions, rather than tells, and helps you find your own solutions. Might you actually look forward to seeing your manager?

One problem is the name “manager”. For this role at Happy we call our people “co-ordinators”. And even better would be “coach”, a word that better describes the role in a modern empowered organisation.

So my favourite response on my post (from Martin Baker) was one which made clear the vital role of managers:

“Leaders inspire you to want to go there. Managers help you to get there.”


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