Let Your People Choose Their Manager

In: BlogDate: May 20, 2015By: Henry Stewart

Henry gave a speech at WorldBlu's Freedom at Work Conference in Miami in 2015. He discusses why you should let your people choose their manager.

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I am Henry Stewart and I run a training business based in London, England. It's called Happy, and we help companies create happy workplaces. To explain what we won a WorldBlu award for, let me put a scenario to you.

Say 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.” How many people here have experienced that situation? Yes, just about everybody.

What generally happens next? Sooner or later, the person leaves. Hands up if you have – at any time – left a job because of your manager. That is well over half of the audience.

We know that people join companies and, all too often, leave managers.

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

So how does it work? There are two key structures that need to be in place. First, we’ve separated strategy and decision making from people management. Happy is a training business and our biggest department is the training department. We have a Head of Training, who is elected by the trainers, but elected to do the big picture strategy stuff. She has no direct or indirect line management relation to most of the trainers.

Each trainer 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. And, yes, that means they don’t even have to be a trainer – though most choose somebody who is.

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, and its like that.

The most common question 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. The key concern is what happens to those people who nobody wants to have as their manager. Once I was even asked if the managers who didn’t get chosen, got disciplined. Mind you the question was from somebody who worked in the prison service.

What happens to those who don’t get chosen? I’ll tell you what happens. They get to do something else.

We worked with one company who had a brilliant marketing director, who I will call Mary. Brilliant at marketing that is, 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 they 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. Its 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 back in England. At the end of an awayday 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 the new company. He said “Woz, you will be a key part as we grow. You will be able to 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 early investor Mike Markkula took Steve Jobs aside and said “you do realise Woz just wants to be an engineer. He really doesn’t want to be responsible for other people”. Jobs changed his approach. “Woz”, he said, “come to Apple and you will have fantastic kit and all the resources you need, and we will involve you in key technical decisions. And I promise, you will never have to manager anybody.” That sounded good to Woz and he made the move. The rest is history.

And that is the second structural change you need. There will be people in your business, they might be 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.

How many of you do already work for companies where it is possible to senior become and well-paid without having to manage anybody? Surprisingly few.

If you take this simple step of letting people chose their manager, I reckon you will have a happier workforce, I reckon you will have a more successful company and I can guarantee you will have less staff turnover.

I’m Henry. I’m Happy. I hope you are too!


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Henry Stewart, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer

Henry is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd, originally set up as Happy Computers in 1987. Inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick, he has built a company which has won multiple awards for some of the best customer service in the country and being one of the UK’s best places to work.

Henry was listed in the Guru Radar of the Thinkers 50 list of the most influential management thinkers in the world. "He is one of the thinkers who we believe will shape the future of business," explained list compiler Stuart Crainer.

His first book, Relax, was published in 2009. His second book, the Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 and was short-listed for Business Book of the Year.

You can find Henry on LinkedIn and follow @happyhenry on Twitter.

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