The Overlooked Answer – Better Bosses

The author says that the belief that executives are the keys to an organization’s performance is an idea that goes back decades, but he says that middle management is an area that is often overlooked as a crucial element in how employees view their work experience in an organization.

On Wednesday, November 27, Linda Bilmes, a Professor at Harvard and a former CFO at Commerce and William Daley, former Commerce Secretary and President Obama’s chief of staff, had a column in the Washington Post focusing on “a problem that seldom receives [attention] – the absence of good management in the U.S. government.

The belief that executives are the keys to organization performance goes back decades.  No other management topic has triggered as many books and speeches.  It was the reason the Senior Executive Service was created.

In contrast, middle managers in federal agencies have been a step child, until recently taken for granted and largely ignored by scholars.  Agencies employ roughly 260,000 ‘managers’.

After hundreds of Dilbert comic strips, however, recent research shows middle managers “may have a greater impact on company performance than almost any other part of the organization.”

That was the conclusion from a study by a Wharton professor, Ethan Mollick.  He does not include top executives in his analysis although his paper cites an earlier study showing that the impact of CEOs, CFOs and other top-level executives on large firms is limited. “Indeed, these top positions explain less than 5% of the variation in firm performance among Fortune 800.”

Mollick concluded “managers accounted for 22.3% of the variation in revenue . . ., as opposed to just over 7% explained by [technical innovators] and 21.3% explained by the organization itself – including firm strategy, leadership and practices.”  “Far from being interchangeable,” he writes, “individual managers uniquely contribute to the success or failure of a firm . . .”  His key point is that “We tend to think of companies as all about systems and not enough about people.” He suggests that companies pay more attention to filling the middle levels of management, deciding who the best ones are and rewarding them appropriately.  His research is discussed in the paper, “People and Process: Suits and Innovators: Individuals and Firm Performance” and also in September on the HBR Blog Network.

For government the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) published a series of reports, “21st Century Federal Manager Series” in 2003 that called to attention to middle managers.  More recently, in 2010 the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) published a study, “Improving First-Level Supervision of Federal Employees.”  That report argued for a number of changes in federal practices but those recommendations have been largely ignored.

Mollick’s research focuses on knowledge organizations.  It is in those organizations that individual expertise is most highly valued.  Knowledge organizations succeed when workers are empowered and expected to address issues that arise.  Our most successful knowledge organizations are those that create a work environment where workers know they are trusted and feel free to act.  It’s managers who create and sustain that work environment.  The typical federal agency is clearly a knowledge organization.

Google’s Approach to Developing Better Bosses

Federal agencies will never be like Google but their approach to developing more effective managers should be considered by every employer.  Their approach is discussed in an article, “How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management” in the December Harvard Business Review.

The starting point, according to Laszlo Bock, Google’s HR vice president, ”was that our best managers have teams that perform better, are retained better, are happier — they do everything better.  ‘So the biggest controllable factor that we could see was the quality of the manager, and how they sort of made things happen.” The question we then asked was: What if every manager was that good? And then you start saying: Well, what makes them that good?  And how do you do it?

To find the answers, Google turned to its “people analytics” team to develop a data-driven strategy to identify desirable manager behaviors.  They now measure and cultivate those behaviors through communication, training and feedback.

Their approach involves an analysis of exit interviews, performance reviews, interviews, and employee surveys. Analysts gathered more than 10,000 observations about managers — across more than 100 variables.

From their analyses, the Google identified eight behavior traits shared by their best managers, in order of importance:

  1. Is a good coach
  2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  3. Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Is productive and results-oriented
  5. Is a good communicator — listens and shares information
  6. Helps with career development
  7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team

For a company like Google, with thousands of software engineers, the most surprising conclusion is that technical expertise came in last.  It is very clear that employees are looking for an effective coach, someone who is helpful in furthering their careers.

Aside from the low ranking for technical skills, the behaviors were not surprising.  However, as one of the project managers stated, “We hoped the list would resonate because it was based on Google data.  The attributes were about us, by us, and for us.”

They then incorporated what they learned into the process to select new supervisors, manager training programs, the performance management system developed for managers, and the reward system.

The widespread adoption by managers has had a significant positive impact on how employees view their work experience at Google.

The relevance of the behaviors is not limited to organizations like Google; they could be applied in sports, the arts – any field where individual development and problem solving are keys to good performance.  To highlight a key point, the behaviors are consistent with the studies of what Millennial workers are looking for in their job search.

Recipe for Federal Agencies

The general approach developed by Google could be adopted by any employer. That starts with redefining the model for a “better boss” by asking employees.  Inviting feedback from managers and employees involves minimal cost.

The conclusions may not be significantly different than what might be found in books, but the key is ownership and acceptance.  It’s possible the answers turn out to be different from agency to agency.  The ‘better boss’ in a VA hospital, for example, may not be the same as in NASA or State.  Despite the history of standardization, the behaviors that are most effective may not fit a universal model.  There is no practical reason for uniformity.

The payoff will be increased employee engagement and improved results.  As behavioral change is inculcated and reflected in everyday work life, everyone will realize the benefit.  Managers will feel better about their roles and employees should have better relationships with their supervisors.

Government agencies may never rival Google as a place to work, but agencies will benefit from developing ‘Better Bosses.’  The need for effective management has never been higher.

About the Author

Howard Risher is a private consultant who focuses on pay and performance. His career extends over 40 years and includes years managing consulting practices for two national firms. He recently became the editor of the journal Compensation and Benefits Review. He has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.