I just returned from a Sunday morning visit to a Staples store. It was 10 a.m., the scheduled opening time, and there was a line outside the shuttered doors. At 10:10 a.m., two Staples employees arrived, unlocked the doors, deactivated the alarm, turned on the lights, and started the cash register. Without any additional help, they hopelessly and inadequately, tried to serve the waiting customers. Their product knowledge was abysmal and their response time was tiresome.
Clearly, in the wake of online shopping, Staples, like other retailers, is cutting down on staff. How can they not recognize that by cutting down on customer-facing staff and training, they are also cutting down on customers? In my eyes (at least), the Staples brand was fatally damaged this morning. So what are companies like Staples to do? Cut down on managers and invest in a new breed of frontline employees? I think not. We don't need armies of managers. We need high-energy employees inspired by a purpose and led by a maestro.
In the October edition of The Atlantic, Jerry Useem writes a piece, "Are Bosses Necessary?" Citing Tony Hsieh's experiments at Zappos with Holocracy and the writings of General Stanley McChrystal in Team of Teams, Mr. Useem cautions critics not to be too hasty in writing off Mr. Hsieh's progressive ideas.
Unquestionably, current organizational structures and management systems were built for the post-Industrial Revolution, Taylorist era and have not been significantly modified since. Hierarchical management by fear (i.e., reward and punishment) is archaic in an era of mostly educated employees with instant access to global information. If this is what we mean by "bosses," then the answer to Mr. Useem's question is an emphatic "No!" This, however, doesn't mean that Tony Hsieh is onto the right solution either.
Let's use the example of a professional symphony. Although expert and self-driven as the members of an orchestra might be, their level of inspirational musical excellence is significantly improved by the presence of a great conductor. The conductor doesn't need to tell them what to do nor does he need to motivate them. His role is different. He brings human energy, alignment, inspiration, synchronization and synthesis to the orchestra in ways they couldn't do without him. If by "boss" we mean "conductor," the answer to Jerry's question is "Yes!"
The ability to inspire people to bring not only their contracted time and skills to a job, but also their discretionary energy, is an art. Leaders, like conductors, are artists, and when they succeed the result is symphonic. Conductors know they cannot lead their orchestras virtually by IM and video- conference. Conductors understand the role played by human energy in the art of inspiring others to movement. They understand that technology, even at its best, can communicate information, but it cannot transmit energy. Like conductors, leaders need to invest in high quality, well-prepared face-time to be impactful and to add value to their teams.