For years, one of my VPs always got the highest employee-review score of any manager in my company. The second-highest score usually went to one of the direct reports he’d personally trained.
I recently discovered the unexpected reason why, and it all boils down to a relatively simple formula that’s nonetheless easy for managers to miss. Here’s the reason why (plus a handy chart that spells it all out).
A Tale Of Three Managers
From the outside, that popular VP’s process was baffling. His desk was a mess. He’d sometimes wear tank tops and camouflage cargo shorts to work. His meetings were weird (and people actually liked them). His org chart seemed like more of a blob than a diagram. He overshared; everyone knew everything that was going on in his department, and in his head.
Even as our company grew and hired experienced senior managers, his team continued to have the top results, the highest morale, and rich diversity. They built our reputation, grew our blog audience to millions of people, and pioneered research that became a book–all of which elevated the other teams in the company.
A second manager was this VP’s buttoned-up opposite. She was extremely talented and detail-oriented, but somehow her team’s output had slowed to a crawl. Worse, she didn’t have time to focus on higher-order tasks like coordination or training people. Meanwhile a third, also very experienced manager was struggling. His team was young, and he had high standards, so he spent a lot of time jumping in to polish up their work. He stayed late fixing things and took on lower-level tasks himself to make sure things got done just right. Like his equally organized counterpart, this left him little time to zoom out to the bigger picture, and he was soon out of touch on important things in the company.
These two managers fell victim to the trap of good intentions and bad management–and each struggled until they hit a breaking point and moved on. And their departments got better after they left.
While his counterparts dug in deep on their teams’ work, my VP did the opposite. He empowered his reports to make decisions, saying that as long as they kept him apprised, they could do things how they wanted and he’d take any flack that came their way. He hired flexible thinkers and only swooped in when things really went off the rails. He’d often tell me he was okay with a project getting done at 85% of what he’d hoped, knowing that the time and effort to eke out that last 15% would be better spent in training and communicating so everyone improved in the long run.
Why Old-School Management Doesn’t Work Anymore
No, this isn’t just a cautionary tale about micromanagers. You can scrupulously avoid micromanaging and still wind up being a crappy boss or an ineffective leader.
When a task requires teamwork–and most of the higher-value ones do–the main job of managers isn’t to deliver instructions and hold fast to the larger vision (even though that’s important, too). It’s to make sure stuff gets done. General Stanley McChrystal, the former head of coalition forces in Afghanistan and founder of The McChrystal Group, calls the type of leader who excels in this role “The Coaxer.”
“What you want to do is create a bunch of adaptable people who use their best initiative,” he recently told me. The world has changed such that managers can no longer think for their teams. More and more problems require cognitive diversity and lateral thinking, not a single brain and a bunch of soldiers to take orders. “[Managers] have to be able to say, ‘This is the situation. This is what we’re trying to do,'” McChrystal explains. “‘Now, armed with that, you’ve got to make the best decision. You’ve got to figure it out.'”
Ideally, the manager’s job, in other words, is to gather as much information from as many angles as possible, and share it with people so they can make the best decisions possible. McChrystal calls this “eyes on, hands off,” and I think it explains the performance of the three managers I described above. Here it is distilled into a straightforward chart:
My VP was unconventional, sure. While he often made the other VPs in the company scratch their heads (and sometimes complain), we got results–including happy employees–that spoke for themselves.
There’s a persistent business myth that being “professional” means adhering to certain norms and best practices. A professional dresses a certain way, talks a certain way, and manages a certain way. But as history has repeatedly shown, best practices that once worked often depreciate. In the recent past, when access to information was a competitive advantage and assembly lines had just revolutionized economies, hands-on management worked. So we adopted it as a best practice.
Workers today are more educated–and continually self-educating. Technology has wiped out the information asymmetry that once gave power to select companies and people within them. And the most rapid job growth today is happening in sectors where assembly lines don’t make sense at all.
“More and more work [that’s] about putting value in the world requires originality, not just copying,” Keith Yamashita, founder of the consultancy SYPartners, believes. “It requires invention, not just implementation of your own version of what Apple did,” he explained to me recently. “If you accept that premise, you start to see that work then . . . requires different angles, different ideas, different ways of doing it, different backgrounds, different sensitivities, different layers, different slices.”
We no longer live in an era where a single leader or manager can solve all our problems and make every call at work. Perhaps it’s time to start rethinking the job we’re asking managers to do, and start empowering teammates to think for themselves.
Or, put simply: Eyes on, hands off.