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Do We Need Managers?

I recently read an article about Zappos and their CEO, Tony Hsieh, doing the unthinkable: firing all the bosses and not replacing them. In the October, 2015 issue of the Atlantic, business journalist Jerry Useem described the move as making “all previous moves toward ‘employee empowerment’ look like the mild concessions of an 18th-century monarch.” This form of self-government is called Holacracy and follows a 10,000 word manifesto from entrepreneur Brian Robertson (a la Jerry Maguire).

I will be frank, it takes some effort for me not to be cynical when I see moves like this. It always seems like peyote must have been involved.
“Eureka! Let’s replace supervision with guidance from a spirit guide. We’ll have to spend some money on sage to cleanse the place, but it will be so worth it!”
Or better, over 200 people resigned as a result of this move, so others are asserting that this was Hsieh’s way of downsizing and still looking cool and employee-friendly. Again, forgive my cynicism.

I’m not opposed to empowering the frontline. We all know that this is where the real value is created, but who will keep the frontline aligned with the rest of the company? Zappos doesn’t make shoes, so what if the manufacturers shift and the squad of front line warriors has no idea? No one really wants to be hyper-controlled by someone else or shushed as a whiner when they say what is holding back their productivity. This move belies an important truth – SOMEBODY HAS TO BE IN CHARGE OF ALIGNMENT.

The manager role is about two things: communication up and down, and alignment. They drive execution in weekly meetings, yes, but the genetic code of all that is still communication and alignment. When John Bunch, former technical adviser at Zappos (who is now employed there without a title) declares “we’ve adopted [Robertson’s manifesto] wholesale with zero changes” he is doing it in his current function: heading implementation of Holacracy. After all, somebody has to do it.

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