Manufacturing guy-at-large.

Jason Stirman on management

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Earlier this month, an excellent specimen of hype-work appeared on the "The Review" section of the First Round Capital website. Titled "How Medium is building a new kind of company with no managers," the piece is essentially a profile of the relationship between the management team at Medium and holacracy, a system of management ideas and software which... well, it gets tricky. In fact - maybe it's best just to lay out a few facts:

  • The article focuses on Jason Stirman, who apparently holds two roles at Medium: People Operations Lead; and Word Master. 
  • Holacracy is a system of organizational governance. If you really want the philosophical details, just read the wikipedia page. The extent to which holacracy can be considered separate and apart from HolacracyOne (a Pennsylvania LLC that provides training and distributes management software based on holacracy) is unclear. The article seems to treat them as one and the same. For some context, however, see Oliver Compagne's response to my question about HolacracyOne's management structure on Quora.
  • The article is peppered with pull quotes like "Traditional management just didn't agree with me," which I, for one, have a bit of a hard time taking seriously.  

Nonetheless, I can't help but vibe with Stirman on a few of his points. He describes a shift towards a personal relationship with his teammates, and it's highly compelling:

He started taking his reports out to lunch, to drinks, to coffee to see what was up. How was their wife settling into her new job? Did escrow close on their new house? This is the stuff that people bring into work with them but never talk about, Stirman says. As soon as you ask, the pressure starts to dissipate.

I have had a difficult time knowing the boundaries between my personal life and my interactions with employees. I have made the mistake of trying to be friends (I see this as distinct from trying to relate to their personal life), and accepting their mistakes as a result, and I have made the mistake of not being friendly enough. But I suspect that Stirman's approach is the more effective one, and is likely more enjoyable, too.  

Stirman also discusses the degree to which information is disseminated in an organization: 

Stirman hit another wall trying to shield his team from external drama and politics. “Classic management advice, and all my mentors told me that insulating your team from things so they won’t worry will make them more productive and happier,” he says. “But they just got angry, and confused, and disconnected. I was constantly censoring all this information and they were way happier when they knew everything.”
"Most of the time, you know your manager’s responsible for firing you and how much you get paid. I wish I would have sat down with my reports and said, “You know what, here’s what being a manager at Twitter actually means, and here’s a list of the decisions I have the authority to make.  I wish I would have broken that power dynamic, and been a better leader as a result."
I'm not sure I understand, or really care about, the holacratic approach. But positive feedback and open communication are powerful tools, and I hope to use them to the greatest extent possible in my life and career.

CORRECTION: As originally written, I made the mistake of claiming that First Round was an investor in Medium, which it is not. After posting, Jason Stirman contacted me and very politely noted my error.