Falsely Treating Every Jobs as a widget…
In many organizations the reward for performing well is to be promoted. With a promotion comes more money (usually) and a broader sphere of influence. The inference is that the lower position is less valuable to the organization; certainly, this is the impression created.

This inference goes along with organizational theory of scientific management (Frederick Taylor; The Principles of Scientific Management) for developing efficiency, which wittingly or not, is foundational to most organizations. By separating front line or lower rung tasks into routinized, binary decisions (the widget to which you add your piece is there or it is not) your labor does not need to be highly skilled, is relatively easy to replace, and cheap. Only as you go higher up in the organization do you find positions that can impact the profits. Managers who can structure the line to move parts more quickly or operate with fewer people; negotiate better supply costs or expand distribution and sales. By routinizing as much as possible you lower costs, reduce defects and focus your monetary rewards on a smaller and presumably more impact-ful group.

This manufacturing based paradigm has been transferred to the service sector. We take call centers that may be handling 5, 6 and 7 digit life time value customers and move them around the world where English is a second or even a third language, give the operators scripts that are very binary and save some money. And these are the valued customers that made it through the IVR.

Unfortunately, this lower rung compensating structure has been so ingrained that it is now applied to virtually every organization. For years I have argued that I would welcome employees who want to stay at the “lower rungs” but organizations are generally not structured to compensate them accordingly. I am not writing about routinized activities, but those in the new economy where “lower rung” employees can have a multi-million dollar impact. They handle million dollar accounts, are asked to identify opportunities to make and save money and have a direct, and often significant affect on the bottom line.

Today we hear more about ROI than ever. Ironically, I can more easily tie activities to results for these employees than most managers I’ve worked with, including myself. I could take credit for motivating my team or coming up with the big ideas (usually theirs), but that too is part of the old way. To get the kind of results I have seen, individuals must have an inherent motivation, a real desire to do the kinds of things we need them to do… the things they have to stop doing if they want to earn enough to support a family.

Many studies have been done to suggest that money is not a key motivator. But, lack of money, or opportunity to earn it, can be a great de-motivator. You will not make someone good at what they do simply by paying them more. But, if they really like what they do and are good at it, paying them too little can make them perform poorly; lack of desired income will cut their enthusiasm over time.

If we look at the value potential of certain non-managerial positions, and build the compensation structure accordingly, I believe organizations can achieve more with fewer people and have a better work environment because no one feels trapped. But, getting there requires both companies and individuals to do something of a paradigm shift.

The Shift – Companies
Companies must stop viewing those who wish to become experts in “organizationally lower” positions as blocks to organizational development. I believe some of the reasons we have more managers are:

1) People are not monetarily encouraged to view their positions for the long term. To earn more money, they must necessarily seek skills that have less to do with their current role than one, two or three levels above it. This creates a disconnect between company needs and employee career development. To keep employees properly focused, a disproportionate amount of a manager’s is spent keeping them on task.

2) By the time anyone becomes really good at what they are doing, they are promoted (or seek opportunities with other companies), creating an experience gap that needs be managed. On top of constantly filling job openings, managers are simultaneously covering for vacant positions (and not necessarily experts at it), and facilitating very basic training.

In addition to the raw dollar cost of constantly recruiting, this situation has an even bigger impact on time. Because the core group of employees has relatively low average time on the job, more are require to get the job done compared to experienced teams. Additionally, given the recruiting overhead and additional direct oversight needs, there is a higher manager to employee ratio required.

Financial compensation structures encourage either False Delegation or Abdication.

Managers struggle with delegation today because they often feel their teams do not have the experience necessary to do the job. Managers who feel they are not staffed with experts either assume direct control (false delegation), or abdicate responsibility for the results. The former requires more mangers (doing the job of their direct reports) and the latter risks performance. Neither is acceptable, both are often evident.

By encouraging well developed expertise in non-managerial positions, whole organizations can become more effective. Those who concentrate in a single area become superbly adept at it. When this happens, you need fewer people in the non-managerial and managerial rolls. Rather than focusing on how to keep the ‘thing’ going, everyone can focus on improving their area of expertise. But this requires organizations to step up and recognize key players not just with promotions, but with financial models and recognition.

The flip side of this is, perhaps, more challenging. Managers, supported by the company, have to be able to hold their direct reports to very high standards, and be ready to make very difficult decisions. This is true all the way up the organizational chain. If a mid to senior manager is falsely delegating activity, or abdicating responsibility for outcomes, they must be held to task. If they are delegating appropriately, they must, in turn, be able to hold their team to task. In all areas, proper corrective actions ranging from additional training and resources to termination have to not only be available to managers, but expected by all concerned.

The way many organizations have structured their financial compensation models feeds very poor managerial habits. Expectations for current employees are often based on the lowest common denominator – the new employee; is it worth replacing this person with a new employee that we have to train anyway? Many have accepted the need to manage mediocrity, rather than push for excellence. The problem with excellence is that the people who reach it are going to be promoted, or seek advancement elsewhere… where the money is. What if highly valuable individuals, in highly impact-ful positions wanted to, and could afford to stay there for the long haul?

Two Paths
A new paradigm of professional development is needed to provide both the company and the people with what they need. High value, non-managerial positions need one track while there is another track for management. How this breaks out in individual companies will differ. But, if there are front line positions that have highly specialized expertise, direct impact on the profits and a compensation structure geared toward those under 30 (or 25) years old, there is a gap. In theses situations, keeping people focused on what they like to do, if they do it well, is beneficial to all.

By combining two paths into one, we have mixed and blurred our view of very distinct skill sets and fostered an environment which ultimately leads to the Peter Principle. The assumption that because someone is very good at doing something (whatever that is), they should manage others who do it, is a false assumption. The inverse is also true; an individual need not be the best ‘doer’ in order to be a great manager. This is a very hard reality for many to accept in our current paradigm.

If you are the best at what you do, then the expectation is that you should not have to report to someone who gets paid more and is not as good at it as you are. Further, since compensation structures encourage management paths, the best doers are pushed to become managers, despite the fact that these are two very different skill sets. In the current environment, where managers often falsely delegate (essentially remaining doers), it is very easy to accept this reality.

Companies need to clearly identify two paths for careers: managerial and non-managerial. Recognizing these distinctions allow individuals and companies to align people and company needs more effectively, create more stability and align compensation with value. It is a big shift. I have seen what real expertise can do. I have seen what really good managers can do. Fostering both for their distinct value would improve company performance and individual satisfaction.