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Let’s replace the manager model — the old one is broken

"Manager" is a misnomer that's ripe for a change. Replace the manager model to focus less on supervision and more on coaching.

8 min read


replace the manager model; one man overseeing another's work

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In his timely, relevant book, “A New Way To Think,” author, consultant and former Rotman School of Management Dean Roger Martin offers: “It’s extremely difficult — and socially risky — to question an established model that many people believe and to start building a new model from scratch.”

art petty

With the intent of stepping on that “socially risky” tripwire, it’s time to replace the tired, outdated model we have for identifying, developing and tasking managers. Given the complexity of our environment today and the myriad existential issues facing organizations, industries and even humanity, we need to find new ways to harness the creative and productive power of inspired people, not send them running out the door or leave them idling in place. It’s time to replace the manager model.

Why it’s time to update the manager model

From the consistently disheartening data on employee engagement cited by Gallup to everything about what has talent streaming for the doors, we have a flawed system of identifying, equipping, guiding and supporting the people we’re asking to manage.

In my travels, working with hundreds of individuals from the front lines to the C-suite every year, a consistent set of issues emerges in our dialogue:

  • New(er) managers are ill-equipped to navigate the transition from contributor to manager and are uncertain of what to do or how to succeed in this foreign role.
  • Managers in the middle of organizations often operate with spans of control so large that only the accountants smile, while everyone else groans and suffers from lack of attention.
  • A “supervision” mentality pervades many organizations in middle-level management. This often comes off as micromanaging.
  • Individuals describe feeling disconnected from the mission and strategy of the organization and perceive they must change firms to advance and grow in their careers.
  • Individual contributors lack context for the relevance of their work and fail to cultivate a personal connection between their efforts and the outcomes.
  • Toxic working environments are operated as personal fiefdoms by so-called managers who exploit positional power for their benefit.
  • Individuals with the title of manager are receiving a ridiculous volume of demands from the disconnected people above them, breeding frustration and burnout.

If your goal is to solve problems for your customers and find ways to support your stakeholders better while keeping your organization healthy, the system of management that generates the issues described above must be fixed.

3 ideas to help replace the manager model

1. Reevaluate the work — and consider a name change.

While Zappos and a few other firms have experimented with the idea of holacracy — eliminating the role of the manager — I don’t believe this is the correct answer. Instead, we need to truly consider the work of those who occupy the manager role. A name change wouldn’t hurt, either.

The successful individuals I encounter in managerial roles do something different than supervise. They’re not in place to be in charge. Instead, their daily work ranges from coaching to clarifying, guiding, teaching, helping and cheerleading. All these nonsupervisory activities are vital to building groups of engaged, motivated contributors.

The focal point of everyone in a managerial role must be building a healthy working environment that meets the needs of the organization’s situation. If innovation through collaboration is essential, then the manager’s work must focus on helping this environment emerge. Obstacles must be removed, creativity stimulated and experimentation rewarded. If productivity is the issue, then the manager must help team members streamline processes, adopt new technologies and experiment with new approaches to support productivity.

This emphasis on redefining the manager’s role in the context of what the team needs, given the mission, requires throwing away the supervisory mentality and introducing a coaching and sponsoring mentality.

It’s time to change the label of manager

We need individuals to serve as the middleware between strategy and execution and to help us form working cultures that promote collaboration, innovation and growth. Instead of throwing away the role of manager, let’s redefine it and throw away the label and all it implies.

While I can feel the eye rolls in response to the idea of a name change, labels are powerful. Instead of saddling individuals with an industrial revolution moniker that implies a supervisory mentality, let’s consider the work we want and need these individuals to do in support of our team members.

As suggested above, instead of “managing” others, these individuals must work tirelessly to form and frame quality working environments free from toxicity and ripe with opportunities to collaborate, learn, solve and impact their teams, functions and organizations. Their primary role is to engage individuals as … individuals … and then be accountable for helping them succeed.
Instead of driving productivity, they empower it.

Let’s use a title that describes what we need from the people we’re putting in place to help others. We don’t need more people managing or supervising. While I’m notoriously bad at naming products, services and positions, as my team members will tell you, the individuals described above are better called coaches or sponsors, not managers.

2. Rethink new manager identification and development

I’m always excited when I encounter senior leaders and organizations that think deeply and act deliberately for new manager development. There’s a system for exposing individuals to the realities of the role and providing coaching and feedback throughout the mutual exploration process.

In one organization, team members had a say in the potential manager’s next steps. I observed them suggesting one individual spend more time in informal leadership roles and that another remain focused as an expert and contributor.

In a different company, the developing leader was paired with an HR professional tasked with bringing the proper training and resources to bear for the manager candidate.

In all instances, there’s a sense of how important it is to get the right people in the roles responsible for helping others succeed.

In too many environments, new manager development happens as it mostly always has — ad hoc. “You’re good at your job. How would you like to try managing?” I call this Team Member on Friday/Team Manager on Monday, and it’s a mess for all involved.

We need a cure for this flawed process. Here are some ideas to help.

  • Take the time to build a pipeline of future sponsors and coaches. Start by charging senior leaders and human resources with the task of identifying individuals who exhibit coach/sponsor behaviors. Identify low-risk opportunities for these individuals to try the role on for fit and feedback, and keep enlarging the challenges based on the individual’s response to the work.
  • Give the contributors a vote on who serves them as a coach/sponsor. Seriously. Left to their own, individuals will opt for those they trust to help them succeed. Your display of trust in their judgment will translate to improved buy-in and quality performance for the new coach/sponsor.
  • Require new coaches/sponsors to ask their team members what they need for support. Try Angela’s Question: “At the end of our time working together, when you’re — and we’re — successful, what will you say I did?”
  • Hold senior leaders accountable for new coach/sponsor development and success. I want senior leaders (not HR) on the hook for talent development.

3. Amp up development and coaching volume from day one

The real work of developing your coaches/sponsors starts after their selection. In many situations, a token training class is provided, and that’s it. When redefining the manager, the actual investment begins from day one. The topics of human behavior, creative thinking, problem-solving, communication and, eventually, strategy are all mandatory areas for development.

Helping our coaches/sponsors strengthen their ability to support others, engage stakeholders and tackle the challenging issues standing in the way of innovation and progress is essential. This isn’t handled in training alone but via a sustained development program that incorporates education, exploration, quality coaching and a constant flow of new, big goals to promote growth.

None of this is easy. None of it happens automatically. All of it is important.

Whatever you call them, the individuals who function as important middleware in our organizations — translating strategy into execution and guiding and supporting the people doing the work — are critical. It’s time to replace the manager model — to rethink the definition of the role occupied by managers and make the systemic changes essential for them to build teams, groups and cultures fit for people.

Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach, author, speaker and workshop presenter with experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.


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