Middle Management

September 16th, 2008
[ Office Gossip ]

Joel’s apparently done some learning on middle management. While Rick Chapman may be right in that a middle management layer is inevitable, the glaring line that jumped out at me in Joel’s article was…

“Michael is our president, and he and I are 50-50 partners, so whenever there was something really important to talk about, you had to get both of us together in a room. But everyone else was a Member of Technical Staff.”

Joel goes on to explain how his people are concerned about career paths and compensation. While I do NOT know all the details, and can only speak to the information in that article, it sounds to me that there’s a glaring mismatch between the structure fogcreek wants and it’s compensation model. He’s created a culture where people are empowered to do what needs to be done for the business to succeed, however, the fruits of that success land in the laps of 2 individuals. Now the people are left having to ask to share in those fruits they feel they were a part of. That sounds like a nightmare for all. I’m pretty sure people will not work their hands for the bone if they aren’t sharing in the rewards the resulting business is generating in a fair fashion.

Middle management may be where we all have to land eventually, however, I’d say it’s also a simple, common answer to a complex problem. There are very few companies alive who’ve strayed from this path. Joel has a history of crafting bold solutions to complex problems instead of taking the worn path. Here, not so much.

Sure I’m relying on business press here but one company that comes to mind is Gore Associates who claim to be a business without bosses. How are they doing it? They work to “get big by staying small” keeping small plants that accentuate a close knit and interpersonal atmosphere. They created a very successful sponsor program aimed at assisting “new people to get started and to follow their progress”.

There are three kinds of sponsorship at Gore:

“1. The sponsor who helps a new associate get started on the job or helps an associate get started on a new job (starting sponsor)
2. The sponsor who sees to it that the associate being sponsored gets credit and recognition for contributions and accomplishments (advocate sponsor)
3. The sponsor who sees to it that the associate being sponsored is fairly paid for his or her contributions to the success of the enterprise (compensation sponsor)
A single sponsor can perform any one or all three kinds of sponsorship”

Along with the sponsor program, their associates are asked to follow 4 principles:

“1. Try to be fair.
2. Use your freedom to grow.
3. Make your own commitments and keep them.
4. Consult with other associates prior to any action that may adversely affect the reputation of financial stability of the company.”

It looks to me like Gore is trying to solve the same problems Joel’s addressing in a different way. I agree there’s an issue that needs to be addressed. I agree adding a layer of management is one potential solution. I don’t agree that it’s the only one. I’m curious to see how it works out for Joel and the gang as I wish them only continued success.

  • http://www.JackZoellner.com Jack Zoellner

    Companies have been creating middle management for the last 100 years to try and solve the communications and authority problems the same way that Joel is delving into at Fog Creek. The problem with that approach is that, while communication is increasing, those new managers are not managers – or may not even be skilled with people. Their backgrounds are all technical, and while the other folks that report to them may seem happier, the managers will be less happy after a while. It is the Peter Principle beginning. We create a “career path” to compensate people – and in the process promote them into a job they are not equipped to handle and do not like. Gore’s system may be closer to a working solution. We, as people, thrive on small teams that have some autonomy and authority. It’s all about close relationships. Fog Creek has just gotten big enough to feel the stretch of distant relationships. Go for small, power teams.

  • James

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