The upside down manager

In business the majority of people start their career as an individual contributor and work their way up to being a manager of others. It seems like the logical thing to do.

We start out not knowing anything, get educated and then stop doing it to manage other people doing it.

There is somehow a concept in business that being good at doing something automatically ensures being good at managing others doing the same thing.

Business, is the only business, that thinks that way.


In the music business performers don’t “get promoted” to manage other performers. Beyonce isn’t considered less important than her manager. The music industry pays managers to take all the crap off the plate of the artist, and empowers them to do the thing they do best. Perform.

Artists who do try and manage the careers of others typically do a horrible job of it. The skills sets of each role are not complimentary. Being a world class singer doesn’t make you a great manager, and certainly the opposite is true too. After all have you heard Simon Cowell’s latest album? No me neither. He has his skills, he knows how to make a singer successful, but he can’t hold a tune himself.

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The inability of musicians to manage themselves or anything else It’s legendary. Ronnie Woods has been on a salary of $2m a year for over 25 years from the Rolling Stones, they pay him every January, and he freely admits that come September his always run out of money, and has no idea where it went. As an employee his a nightmare. As a world class musician he can fill the world’s biggest arenas every night of the year.

The Military

Senior officers aren’t the best soldiers in the sense at being best at flying a plane, firing a rifle or running up a beach. The military fully understand that successful senior ranks in the military have to have a different set of skills. Ones which are quite different form from those of being a good pilot, sniper or marine. No General ever got the job because he could shoot the eye out of an eagle at 800 yards. The army can’t function without it’s General’s for long, but without the foot soldiers it’s not even an army.


Very few of the world’s best managers in sports are X players. Or if they are they often didn’t play at the top level. There are a few exceptions of course, but the majority of professional sports teams are managed by professional managers, like Lou Holtz or Sir Alex Ferguson who, unsurprisingly, manage the talented players. The role of player and manager is discrete, the success criteria VERY different, the skills and abilities of each measured in completely different ways.

Evidence suggests that the best players often make poor managers because they can’t relate to people less talented than themselves. If you can kick a ball like David Beckham, or take a shot like LeBron James, the idea that others can’t do it, and that they need coaching can be frustrating and hard to understand.


Michael Caine is famous for some great movie performances from ZuluThe Italian JobThe Swarm. Hang on, The Swarm? WTF. When asked about why he had done so many terrible movies he said it was because of the way he picked scripts. If he had dialogue on the first page and the last he took the job. A great actor, but not the best steward of his own career.

Actors know their agents are incredibly important, but ultimately they aren’t more important than the actor. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Run well both can do incredible things. The actor gets to do the thing they love, and the agent looks after all the nitty gritty details, like picking good scripts.

So why does business think it’s different?

So why does business think that a good system is to take the best performing individual contributors and turn them into management? Some people do well as managers, but the skills sets that made them a good individual contributor aren’t necessarily those that make them a good manager. In fact in certain roles, such as sales, the skills that make people good at sales, are often the opposite of that to be good managers.

Part of the reason stems from the idea that the more senior a manager the more important, better paid and respected they should be. Among managers it is sensible that the more senior should be better compensated, but when the distinction is between being a doer, and managing doers, then the consideration should be different.

A top performing individual contributor, should be in a position to have higher status, and make more money than their direct manager. It sometimes happens in sales, but almost never anywhere else. If the idea seems absurd then consider if Beyonce, Michael Caine, or Ronnie out earn their managers?

Increasingly a top flight individual contributor can, through modern tools, make an enormous difference to an organization. The idea that the only way to do well is to turn those over achievers into something else entirely is something that needs to change. Managers as people who support the top performers, getting the minutia out of the way so the individuals can perform at their maximum should be a new way of thinking.

The work of management consultants like Simon Sinek, with his ideas about how leaders eat last is informative. But often these ideas are often thought of as something to be considered by the senior management, not lower and middle managers.

I am not trying to belittle the important work of good middle managers, but businesses should think long and hard about how they value their team. Is the best way to measure someone's value truly how many direct reports they have?

If the only people of value are considered to be the management team then their is a systemic risk to the health of the organization, and the best talent is either “promoted” to their level of failure (see Peter principal), undervalued because they are not managers, or likely to leave for a different organization with a more enlightened view of the role of the individual.

About the Author: Simon Dudley

Simon is a contrarian. He makes a habit of being the guy who questions the orthodoxy, the guy who doesn’t believe it just because the good and the great said it’s true. This has not always been good for his ascent up the corporate greasy pole. However it’s been very good for his employers if they are prepared to listen.

The Book The End of Certainty "How to thrive when playing by the rules is a losing strategy" explains why groupthink and the doing what you’ve always done is no longer the right move.

The Excession Events Podcast is available on iTunes and Google Play

He is also a business speaker specialising in the transformation of business models.

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