One of the trends I’ve noticed when talking to people about management is servant leadership. At many of the organizations I admire and have been a part of, we think of management as a support role in the company. As a manager, it is not your job to tell people what to do or what projects to work on, but rather to remove obstacles and enable your “reports” in the best way possible.
I have my own personal interpretation of what servant leadership in an organization might look like. I call these places that practice servant leadership Empowerment Organizations. The core idea is right in the name: the effectiveness of your management is gauged by how well you empower the people along the organization chart, from the very top all the way out to the leaves at the individual contributor level.
Let me give you an example: say I’m a software engineer. You can imagine there is some arbitrary measure of how productive I can be as an engineer, where I provide +10 value to the company on a regular basis. Now I could focus my energy on leveling up and becoming a better engineer by becoming more proficient in the language I use day-to-day, picking up new skills by watching lectures or reading books, and so forth. Essentially, I could try and increase my regular contribution from +10 value to say something like +30 value. Truly mastering my craft as an engineer would mean that I do everything in my power to continually level up by getting to +50, +100, and so on.
Now let’s switch gears: imagine that I’m now an engineering manager. Say I get to the +50 level, and your first instinct about why I became a manager is simply that a manager is someone who crosses some sufficiently advanced contribution threshold. In an Empowerment Organization, I think this is the wrong way to think about how managers are chosen. I actually think what happens when someone becomes a manager is that their primary responsibility changes: your job as an engineering manager isn’t now to get from +50 value to +60 value and perfect your ability to produce high quality code. At this point, there’s diminishing returns in your ability to level yourself up. Instead, your responsibility is to increase the contributions of your direct reports by, say, 20%. As an engineering manager, VP of Engineering, or CTO, the sum effect of your ability to empower, mentor, and unlock the abilities of those who “report” into you would be far greater than you increasing your individual contribution coding. In other words, what makes you a manager isn’t your skill in a discipline, but your ability to empower people around you.
I believe that bad managers are the ones that don’t understand or practice empowerment. A bad manager will want to do the work for the people they manage because they think they can do the job better, but they shouldn’t: they’re better off spending their time teaching other engineers their skills instead. Possibly worse, a bad manager that just tells the people they manage how to do their work boils down to micromanagement and exhibits some of the worst kind of management behavior. These scenarios commonly happen when organizations promote people who are very good at their “craft” - whether it be engineering, marketing, sales, or any other discipline - but are terrible at empowering other people. These organizations don’t understand that being good at your craft does not imply that someone will be good at managing others. Managing is essentially a discipline of its own which is about empowering people: motivating, enabling, and removing obstacles in people’s way.
Experts, Force Multipliers, and Net Negatives
When you think about an Empowerment Organization, you can generally categorize every person somewhere into three buckets:
- force multipliers
- net negatives.
Here’s how I think about all three:
Get good at hiring individual contributors who are experts; they’re the bread and butter of your organization. Experts are concentrated at the leaves of your organization and typically your individual contributors. They’re the engineers, designers, marketers, and salespeople that are focused on being really good at their discipline. They’re the people that are concerned with being +40 and getting to +50 and getting to +60 and so forth. These are people who find themselves really loving their discipline and are obsessed with mastering it. They’re the ones that do the labor of the organization: writing code, creating designs, making sales calls, launching campaigns, etc. They’re the bread and butter of your organization and the high octane fuel that runs the day-to-day activity as a base.
Use your force multipliers to level up your experts. Force multipliers go up the organization and are focused primarily on increasing the productivity of the people they’re responsible for: they’re your managers. These are the people who are focused on improving their productivity by 10%, 20%, or more. For example, this is the engineering manager who thinks about coding standards, does one-on-ones with the engineers that report to her, and thinks about how to make working as an engineer easier. It is not her responsibility to be coding features that are ultimately part of the product. Instead, she might only code to make engineers’ lives easier, by say, working on local environment setup to make onboarding easier for new engineers.
The important thing here to note is that force multipliers can be managers of managers as well: these are your directors, vice presidents, all the way up to the CEO. Your job as a manager of managers then is to think about how well your reports manage others. Ultimately, this means the job of the CEO is to make sure her own circle is empowered. She is thinking about how the CMO, CFO, and her other direct reports are empowering the entire slice of the organization they are responsible for. As a result, in great Empowerment Organizations, the effect of a force multiplier CEO trickles down and ultimately increases the productivity of the experts at the leaves of the organization exponentially.
Identify your net negatives and neutralize them immediately. These are the most toxic people in your organization and they’re the ones you need to pay attention to as quickly as possible. Net negatives are people who actually lower the productivity of everyone they interact with and they can occur anywhere within the organization. They bring everyone’s productivity around them down by 10%, 20%, or more. These are the people who create more work for everyone, the people others work around instead of with, and the people who are wildly unpredictable.
Net negatives are the most harmful when put in a management position. Contrasting with the force multiplier manager who has an exponentially positive effect that trickles down, net negatives can have the opposite effect and exponentially decrease the productivity everyone that reports into him. The net negative manager who fails to empower his direct reports make it harder for those people to manage their reports, and so forth. This is why bad managers are so bad and makes it very clear why it is so important to identify and address net negatives as quickly as possible.
How do you find these people?
Do the following: think about the people in your organization and put them into each of these buckets by asking some simple questions:
- Who are the great individual contributors in your organization?
- Who are the people that are great and respected in their discipline?
- Who are the people you and others in your organization asks questions to?
- Who makes you and others better at their job?
- Who are the people who best understand other people?
- Who is a great mentor or coach?
- Who are the people you and others work around and avoid?
- Who are the people that if they were removed or replaced, would make everyone more productive?
- Who micromanages, is unpredictable, or misrepresents?
I’ve always thought it might be interesting to take this categorization exercise and make it part of formal anonymous peer reviews in an organization. Imagine giving each person in a team this questionnaire and having them categorize the people they work with, either in a project team, department team, or other working group. It’s been my experience talking individually with each person in a team and asking these questions that patterns will arise: your experts, force multipliers, and especially your net negatives will quickly become apparent. It may get you to think about creating a specialist track for your experts and reward people who master their discipline at different levels even if they don’t want to manage. It will help you figure out who you need to promote into a management track for your force multipliers that are successful at empowering. Most importantly, it will help you diagnose the toxic people you need to help improve or ultimately expel if there are net negatives.
I think servant leadership in management can be manifested more clearly by thinking about what I call Empowerment Organizations. The effectiveness of your management is gauged by how well you enable people across the organization and remedy or weed out people toxic to others they work with. Take a moment and think about the people you work with, and think about how you might classify each person. How do you think your peers would classify you? Perhaps most importantly, think about how you would classify yourself, and what you want to be. Which one are you?
Thanks to David, Alexa, and Hoon for providing feedback on drafts of this essay