Sunday, August 17, 2008

More Staff, Fewer Managers?

When I saw the title of the Wall Street Journal article, "Overseeing More Employees With Fewer Managers," I was sure I'd hate it. To me, more employees and fewer managers means less time spent with each employee — less time to:

  • Mentor
  • Provide and receive feedback
  • Identify strengths and find a way to leverage them
  • Work with a struggling employee to return him to productivity and success

To my mind, those are key reference points in any decision concerning team size. But is there an upside to this philosophy? Are managers able to increase their "span of control" (more on that phrase in a future posting) and still end up with perfectly acceptable, people-centered results?

The article describes a Pepsi subsidiary in which "workers have been briefed on company goals and processes so that they do more themselves to keep production running smoothly." The piece goes on to explain that "[n]ew pay systems reward productivity, quality, service and teamwork while penalizing underperformance."

So, do empowered employees require less personal attention? Empowerment is certainly compatible with — even a requirement of — people-centered leadership. But does empowerment dilute the role of the leader, as the snack-food company would have us believe?

Maybe, but I'm skeptical. Deprived of individual guidance, we will expect employees to use their knowledge of "company goals and processes" to grow, thrive, and make good decisions. Well, I'm in favor of keeping your employees up to speed on those things; I'm just not sure that, in and of itself, acquainting your employees with the corporate mission statement constitutes leadership.

Of course, if the staff aren't as productive as we'd like, there's still no need to resort to manager intervention: the "pay systems" will make things right. That will sure save a lot of time on mentoring, intervention, and personal support.

In technology, we look to our teams to offer creative, practical, and innovative solutions to business problems. Leadership is critical to making that dynamic work. The WSJ article notes that Sun Microsystems - certainly a major technology innovator, notwithstanding its current precarious financial position - prefers to keep teams on the small side.

As long as we, as leaders, have something to offer our employees — as long as we can help them overcome challenges, meet their goals, and realize success in their professional lives — we owe it to them, and to the companies that employ us, to ensure that we have sufficient capacity to do so. Ultimately, employee empowerment, however laudable a goal that may be, is no substitute for the individual support and attention of an effective and dedicated leader.

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