Leaders only flower in the absence of managers

The word manager is now deeply despised in the tech world. Even HR consultants these days prefer to talk about leaders. Often, unfortunately, it is just a different label for the same thing.

Why is managing dangerous?

It is slow. You task someone with building consensus and maintaining it. “It is a great idea, we’ll take it to the next product roadmap meeting“. You move responsibility from people who can deliver … to people who cannot.

It wastes brainwaves. Management overhead is the time, which should be spent on creating, building, recruiting, inspiring.

It kills creativity. I haven’t yet met a creative person, who likes to be told what to create.

It is misleading. The more removed you  are from the place where rubber meets the tarmac – be it product code, sales calls, support emails, the poorer your insights and worse your decisions. You can’t expect managers to make better decisions than team.

How do then leaders emerge?

Our team is 450 people. In our entire history, we have hired only 12 people of the 450 directly into a team lead/manager position. 40% of them didn’t survive.

Today we have 60+ team leads, of them 80% are first-timers, who have never managed a team before. It’s fun.

Why do I think we’ve been successful? Proof is in the pudding. It is a rare occasion for someone to leave our team. Over the course of 5 years there have been ~10 voluntary leavers (2%).

Rule #1 – don’t hire managers

It is a tough rule to believe, because everyone will say that you are crazy. Countless VC blog posts are talking about their startups failing, because they didn’t hire managers quickly enough or promoted too many first-time managers.

What doesn’t get talked about is the root cause – why did they need managers in the first place? If you start digging in, you’ll often find that the missing managers were just a wishful patch for poor hiring, broken culture, uninspiring founders, no product traction, and the like.

There are some nice side effects of this rule. You will interview managers, who apply to an engineer position and are excited they can finally create something. You will also get less candidates, who are fixated on their titles and CV.

Exceptions to the rule:

  • Bring experience and diversity. You can still hire 5-10% of people directly into a lead position. We were lucky to get Wade from Swedbank and Nilan from Housetrip to lead an existing team.
  • You can hire leads, if you commit to spending 6+ months to hire and another 6 months of your own time on onboarding. Our VP Engineering search took me 18 months, 250 candidates, 48 founder interviews. We were lucky to reach Harsh from Paypal.
  • Occasionally, the team will go and hire themselves a lead. So did our finance team. They set up the search, case-studies and interviewing to bring Matt from Google.

Rule #2 – chip in

If you took management courses, you were taught to hire strong lieutenants, who will take care of the team (perhaps a COO?) and so you free up your time for strategic thinking and planning the future. Illusion.

In the early days you are the first one picking up customer service calls. Then you hire a couple of friends and you do it together for a while. Once the team is 3-4 people you can start drifting away slowly – but make no mistake, you are still part of that team. You are the team lead, having weekly 1-1s with everyone, feedback sessions, you sign off holidays and expenses.

Relax and tough it out. At one point I had 13 engineers reporting directly to me along with ~10 other folks in the org. A lot of 1-1s, but it didn’t kill me nor did it slow us down.

If you’ve hired with luck, you will soon see the leader emerge.

Rule #3 – promote early

Leaders emerge. A beautiful fact of nature. Someone in the team is helping others get unstuck, structures the shared tasks, she tells the rest of the org how the team is doing and where they need help. She gets a ton of street cred from her peers. She is the leader. Promotion will just be stating the obvious.

Your job is to make sure that the cultural values are clear, which allow the team to recognise the lead for the value they contribution. You shouldn’t tolerate anything that starts to look political.

When to promote? For sure, “Is she ready?” is the wrong question. The team dynamics should give the clearest trigger. You should still feel uncomfortable, when you announce the promotion. Otherwise you were too late.

Rule #4 – shadow

Promotion is just stating the obvious, just making it official. Remember that it doesn’t change anything. It shouldn’t stop you from having 1-1s with the other team members. Switch from weekly to biweekly, keep shadowing the new lead. You should switch over the official representation, salary reviews and all other admin functions immediately, but shadow the people leadership, culture, tone.

When Harsh joined as a VP Engineering, we blocked out his first two months for coding with teams. He would spend 2 weeks with each team as an engineer, write features, fix bugs, commit code. I was super happy to receive the following from one of our engineers later on.


Is the manager-model being replaced?

Some people think it is happening in sync with the modern jobs becoming more creative.  Managing was a good way to get a lot of repetitive mundane tasks done with large number of people, for example in manufacturing and construction. The future teams will be successful by being fast, adapting, learning and re-configuring.

The shift does not come easy.

  • Cultural inertia is passed down through previous generations  of people we look up to – managing was how they were successful.
  • Startups have a strangling deficit of leadership almost by definition. That is fine and it is better than having poor culture or management.
  • Managers and leaders don’t mix well. You can’t trial this with some parts of the organisation. It is culture. You either have it or not.

Getting a well working organisation to emerge is delicate. It isn’t science nor art. Lot’s of people will have advice for you and there is a temptation to reach for the get-out-of-jail card of implementing an MBA textbook of organisation design. Listen, read, but don’t follow. Focus on the problem you are solving and don’t worry about re-inventing the wheel now and then. For your own sanity, please avoid managers and let leaders emerge.

Tim of Wait-but-why writes: When I asked Musk about his knowledge of business, he scolded me, explaining, “I don’t know what a business is. All a company is is a bunch of people together to create a product or service. There’s no such thing as a business, just pursuit of a goal—a group of people pursuing a goal.”