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Why Are They Here?

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, noted management scholar Gary Hamel (not completely tongue-in-cheek) declares, “First, let’s fire all the managers.”1 We have written before on Hamel’s faulty premise that managers are passé ( Do We Need New Management Models?). In his latest piece, Hamel tells the story of Morning Star, a $700 million food processing company that has no discernible management hierarchy.

While we disagree with some of his assumptions about management, the story he tells about Morning Star provides insight on a little recognized role of management: bringing purpose to what people do.

Morning Star is a privately held food processor that according to its “management” has enjoyed double-digit growth in revenues and profits over the last 20 years in an industry that has averaged 1% growth. While they reportedly do this without management titles, it is apparent that the roles of management are employed quite well.

Hamel reports that they succeed because of clear accountability (done through both formal and informal processes of peer review), clear and consistent feedback on results, constant planning, and full engagement by permitting employees to take responsibility for action focused on clear targets. While all of these are critical, how Morning Star’s self-management system promotes engagement and allows people to take responsibility is most interesting.

A goal of management should be for people to come to work for more than just a paycheck. Even if common practice is for managers to act as though people need to be told what to do,2 effective managers allow workers to choose — to willingly take on responsibility. The most effective workers are ones who commit to the work voluntarily, not through coercive means such as incentives, rewards, and dictates from on high.

As one plant technician at Morning Star asserts, “I am driven by my mission and my commitments, not by a manager.” In productive work environments, people don’t come to work to make money for their boss or directly increase company earnings. In VERY productive work environments people become self-satisfied by a sense of accomplishment, being part of a winning team and getting good at what they do.

While Morning Star has some exemplary practices, most people work in more structured hierarchies that include bureaucracy. This does not preclude them from creating effective work environments where people will commit and willingly accept responsibility just like those employees at Morning Star. Here are some principles to keep in mind:

Accountabilities must be clear. It is important to note that Morning Star’s 400 full-time workers are structured into 23 business units that have their own P&Ls. They know their targets, and this should be true for any unit in any kind of company structure.

Information must be transparent. At Morning Star, Hamel reports, “Colleagues are encouraged to hold one another accountable for results, so an unexpected uptick in expenses is bound to get noticed. With this sort of transparency, folly and sloth are quickly exposed.” This kind of system can be replicated. You will find that people will take responsibility for mistakes — and do things to correct them — if they have the information telling them where they stand. This can occur even in highly structured companies. Additionally, an effective information system allows the manager to provide autonomy — something Morning Star has infused into the whole company.

Workers are there for good reasons. Morning Star workers seem to have a high purpose for why they are at work. It isn’t for the boss (they do not have such titles) and it isn’t for a paycheck — not while they are working. In some companies, it may be easy to rationalize that the corporate culture has poisoned the well. But creating a “counter-culture” is really not that daunting. In fact, strong cultures developed by mid-level managers “right here, right now” (where the work actually is done) usually trump dysfunctional corporate bureaucracy. The manager could do a lot worse than starting with the question, “Why are they here?” As the person in charge, you may have to give people a higher purpose, one that directs them towards mastery and achievement.

Fundamentally, people have free will choice, and effective managers use this to their advantage because workers who choose to commit to the work (and accomplish the outcomes assigned) ALWAYS produce more than those whose contributions are coerced. In fact, they often accomplish more than the manager expects.

Providing people with higher purpose in their work, and allowing them to self-correct, will not only help them take responsibility, but it will likely lead to the same kind of results-oriented environment enjoyed by Morning Star — and many, many others.

1By Gary Hamel, “First, let’s fire all the managers,” Harvard Business Review, December 2011
2Hamel’s thesis on replacing management hinges on the idea that the typical coercive nature of many if not most management systems are based on current management theory. In fact, effective, non-coercive management principles have been available to managers for well over a half a century but for a variety of reasons are misunderstood, misapplied, or ignored.

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