Management Deification, Executive Pay, Creatives and ICs – Reflections on a Recent Post by Rand Fishkin, CEO of SEOMoz

Rand Fishkin, CEO of Seattle startup SEOmoz, had a great blog post recently, titled “If Management is the Only Way Up, We’re All F’d.” Go read it now if you haven’t already. I’ll chill here and be mindful.


Read it? Okay. First I’m going to expand a bit further on Rand’s point about management being the pinnacle of professional development.  I’ll also critique some of what he said as still bending to that tired philosophy and propose some new ideas on that front. Second, I’m going to compare individual contributors, ICs as Rand calls them, to a post I recently read on HBR about creative people. Then, I’ll bring it all back to the topic of this blog and talk about how lawyers are really ICs and what that means for developing lawyers. Finally, I’ll try in vain to sum it all up.

Ready? Here we go:

First, props to SEOmoz for forgoing the use of “manager” in favor of titles that are actually descriptive of what people do: ICs and “people wranglers” or PWs. Most of corporate America – and maybe even working America – has a serious case of “management deification.” So many titles in corporate America contain the term “manager” because everyone wants to be one. I’m pleased to see Rand and SEOmoz, as he said, “call BS” on this ridiculousness.

I also really liked how Rand put the tool of “influence” in the hands of ICs. The notion of management and what managers do is relatively clear and well understood by most and I was and have been as uncomfortable as Rand with the BS about management. However, until I read Rand’s post, I could not identify a good specific tool that ICs could wield as an alternative to the tool of management wielded by managers or PWs. In talking about one of his employees, Dr. Pete, Rand emphasized the “influence” that Dr. Pete wields and how that that helps SEOmoz: “He [Dr. Pete] lets his influence define his role, rather than the other way around.” I think that this idea of influence is revolutionary. Maybe others are talking about influence in management circles and/or the blogosphere but this seems like a very interesting idea and one that could be central to the emphasizing the importance of ICs.

All that said, I was disappointed by Rand’s “c-suite” comment as it felt like perpetuation of management deification. He said “The highest level ICs should be able to make what the C-suite earns.”  The assumption underlying this statement is that “c-suite” members are at the top of the salary pay scale. Why do we automatically assume that those at the “c-suite” should and/or do make the most money? And, more to the point, why is that almost always the case?

To me, the assumptions and realities about and of c-suite pay perpetuate management deification because, unfortunately, one way that we measure value in our society is by salary.

I’d propose to take Rand’s great ideas about “calling BS” on management deification a step further: Let’s imagine an organization that doesn’t automatically reward c-suite “management” with the greatest financial incentives. To Rand’s point about being an IC-style CEO, let’s think of the CEO not as “management” but, to use a current buzzword, as a “servant leader.” As such, let’s restructure c-suite pay around other metrics: tenure, employee satisfaction, or any number or other factors. As radical as this sounds, let’s “distribute” some of the decision-making responsibilities held by c-suite execs among the broader employees or do other things, just as Rand suggests, to make CEOs feel like they report to their employees and not the other way around.

I know that not all of these ideas are practical and some may be downright naïve, but letting go of the faulty management styles and assumptions that underlie high c-suite salaries is a big step in overcoming “management deification” and, thereby, opening the corporate system acceptance of IC development advancement and influence.

Second, the end of a post that I recently read on the HBR blog about managing creative but difficult people aligns closely with some of Rand’s thoughts: “even when you are able to manage your creative employees, it does not mean that you should let them manage others. In fact, natural innovators are rarely gifted with leadership skills. There is a profile for good leaders, and a profile for creative people — and they are rather different.”

I’m not saying that all ICs are necessarily “creatives” and certainly not suggesting that all ICs and/or creatives are “difficult” but this article lays out some principles for thinking about how to develop people, such as creatives and ICs, who aren’t, necessarily, born managers. As Rand points out the starting point is, just as the HBR blog suggests about creatives, to allow ICs to control their own work lives and have the ability to attain mastery.

Turning to the subject of this blog, Rand’s ideas about ICs and influence and PWs and management hold interesting implications for developing law firm lawyers.

Traditional management training like one might see in the corporate world may not be appropriate for law firm lawyers because law firms are really just a group of ICs sharing costs and giving each other referrals to limit financial risk and lower business development expenses: to wit, direct management of others (PW-type work) is not, necessarily, required to advance at a law firm.

Therefore, a law firm concerned about development of its IC-type lawyers must overcome two significant obstacles: First, it must acknowledge the importance of personnel management and development generally – something that many firms haven’t done to date. Second, it must ignore traditional and ubiquitous PW-type management training in favor of finding or creating in-house new innovative ways to develop and keep interested its IC-type lawyers.

Law firms must also think about how to teach IC lawyers to develop influence and how to use influence both within the firm and outside of it.

In sum, Rand’s PW/management and IC/influence establishes a novel and interesting framework in which management and individual contributors are on equal footing and in which the personal development needs of ICs are given greater attention. Applying these ideas, with an eye to underlying biases and tendencies toward traditional management, could hold significant promise for personnel development not only in the legal industry but in many other industries as well.

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