What are Bosses Really Good For?

Posted on July 6, 2012.

As a former boss, I was a bit offended by a recent WSJ article on one company's success without bosses.  The article describes Valve Corp, a video game maker that “boasts high-end espresso, free massages, laundry services”, but no bosses. So was my 25+ years a manager a complete waste of time?

I hope not. The bossless company may work for project- oriented businesses like Valve, but even they admit to some chinks in the amour. Here’s what I think is missing at a bossless company like Valve:

  • Inability to adequately hire and fire. Even Valve admits that without a boss, poor performers can go unchecked for too long.  Hiring and firing decisions are done by teams.  While I agree that people need to be a good fit, how much of the decision is based on wanting people like themselves? Are they encouraged to hire diversity? Firing is hard enough when it’s your job, but I can see how poor performers are left too long.  If you’re not getting paid to do it, firing someone will be at the bottom of your to do list.
  • Coaching.  I’m sure that each team is coaching new members on the technical aspects of project completion, but who’s responsible to coaching new or inexperienced employees on the company politics, culture and team dynamics.  If they’re lucky, the new guy might latch onto a mentor, but otherwise, they will sink or swim on their own.
  • Career path.  The company says they look for highly motivated individuals. But most highly motivated people I know are often highly ambitious.  With no promotional opportunities, are they really hiring the best and brightest or the strongly adequate? Maybe wanting to become a manager isn’t that important to technical project workers, but my guess is they’ve lost some strong talent when they see no future.
  • Pay for performance.  At Valve, people are ranked by their peers and paid accordingly.  It’s hard to believe there isn’t some built in bias going on here. Even as a manager, I had to fight my own biases to ensure that pay was based strictly on performance.  Again, if you’re not being paid to be fair, will you be?

Maybe it hit a little too close to home, but I think for most companies, a strong manager and boss will effectively hire, fire, coach, as well as recognize and reward their employees. Plus, do you really want a company full of people that are okay with never wanting to be promoted?