The flat organization structure is what makes me fall in love with Sweden. At first glance it seems very counter intuitive. How would you make people work if there is no authority?
People who know me personally, are aware of my curious passion for observing and analyzing (indeed that’s how I got into UX). In this post I explain about my experience with this system.
What is “Lagom”?
Let me first get that definition out of the way. You should totally check out this short post about “Lagom” before reading the rest.
I met Martin when I was fresh out of grad school. A head-hunter recruited me for an English-owned international company and Martin was the “middle manager” who interviewed me to join his team.
A muscular bald guy with the soul of a teddy bear.
Yep! He became my “boss” for two years and I absolutely enjoyed working with him until the inevitable passage of life separated us. But those two years shaped my career and character forever! The funny thing is that I'm not the only one. There’s a whole clan of people who have worked with him only to find themselves in Martin’s ever growing fan club.
His team’s performance was the highest in the company and he kept being pushed to take a higher level management position despite his will.
So far I've worked for 14 companies and even more managers but there are 5 reasons Martin was the best of them all:
1. Martin inspired the team
Martin was a hard core Linux kernel developer. He has been working within the telecom industry for 25+ years and has been with the company longer than anyone (even CEO). He knew his shit!
He was very confident and never competed with his directs and when he was asked a question he would gladly share his knowledge knowing that a developer with vision performs much better than a code monkey.
Since he was practically sitting on a table similar and among the rest of the team we, had great communication. This eliminated the need to have long unproductive meetings and gave us more time to punch the keyboard.
But why was he a “middle manager”? Because he enjoyed it and he was good at it. Nevertheless, he was extremely down to earth and that made him even more approachable as a role model. He worked hard and even though he could hide behind his title, he had a hand in the code as well. He browsed hacker news and slash dot every day and shared cool stuff that he knew our geek within would love to hear about. He was a promoter of the latest technology only when it made professional sense.
In many ways he was the “Lagom” leader:
- He was a martial art sportsman, but had a very extremely warm and friendly! I wonder if he ever needed to use his martial art skills outside the ring!
- He was a hard worker and was the biggest contributor to the actual development of the product, yet he found enough time to be a serious reggae fan attending many concerts and going to ski abroad every now and then.
- He was the boss but you could have a bottle of beer with him without feeling uncomfortable. In fact in every company party he attracted people from other departments. He was a cool guy.
- He was a father but never used it as an excuse to dodge the work. In fact he showed up at work earlier than most of us and wasn't lazy when it came to working extra before a release.
- He was a great developer. And despite the fact that our profession attracts many people who prefer dealing with computers instead of human beings, he was genuinely a people person. And that’s why “middle management” was his niche: he got to work with people and computers. Lagom!
He inspired the team without actually telling anyone how to work. He didn’t need to!
2. Martin supported the team
Whether you had a problem with your code or you needed some business advice, Martin was there to help. For us he was more of a friend, a protector, or a support than a boss.
Since the company was owned by the English and they had a hierarchical mentality, he was always under pressure to deliver yesterday. But he never put this pressure on us. This helped us to focus on the work without the stress that kills performance and motivation. In fact some of our English colleagues transferred to Sweden to work with Martin.
Warren Bennies has a great comparison between managers and leaders in his famous book on becoming a leader that is highly recommended to read.
As firm as he was when dealing with upper management bullshit, he was very transparent when it came to giving credit.
If you've done something good you could be certain that Martin is going to bring up you name in the demo. This way he encouraged the employees to do their best and kept them motivated. He never took credit for what others have done even though he was the main reason things happened on the first place. He wasn't insecure. His source of confidence came from within and he didn't need anyone’s approval.
Nevertheless, an ordinary day wasn't like this blog post. Martin was not all over the place. Sure he was at his desk among us but by no means he wasn't bossy. That is probably the number one reason why we had lunch with him on the same table while other managers usually flocked together.
I've heard some “professional” developers saying that they've never been a part of a software project that was delivered on time. Not on Martin’s watch! When doing the planning with our English managers he always resisted their urge to have unrealistic time estimates. Therefore we had enough time to deliver with high quality on time. His decades of experience in the field taught him the practical rules for project estimation. Maybe his managers didn't know the rules, but it was his job to keep things calm.
Martin actually cared about the people he led. He felt responsible for their well being and kept them happy.
- Your dad was at the hospital? Martin was the first to ask about him in the morning.
- You wanted to move to a new place, he asked if you need help (and you knew he meant it).
- You worked too much, he was the one suggesting a couple of days off to refresh your mind.
- He knew everyone’s kids’ name, where they live and what they do in their free time. He really cared about people as genuine human beings rather than replaceable cogs.
And nothing made him more sad to see someone leaving his team. I still feel the pain in my goodbye party and wish I could just disappear so that I can’t see him like that.
3. Martin energized the team
He never missed the opportunity to party whether it was a kick-off for starting a new project, celebrate the release or just a casual after work. What was amazing was that people from other departments preferred to hang out with us and our manager instead of their own. He had this charismatic personality that everyone felt comfortable with. No one was too old or too young to hang out with him. He always had something funny from the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy or the big bang theory or something less geeky to start a talk. He wasn't the awkward party-avoiding type. He wasn't the party animal either. He was Lagom! ;-)
Every now and then he invited us for a beer or snacks — sometimes at his place. But even though he was rather unofficial, people certainly respected him. A respect that if you've worked with him, you knew he deserves it.
4. Martin could bring your best out of you
He knew people are different and even if their job title reads “C programmer”, “Backend developer” or “tester” they all feel motivated by different reasons. He had this curious eye who helped him discover people’s best side, their “passion” if you will, and nurture it to grow.
In fact if you went to him asking for his opinion about something that you are hired to do, he would make it clear that he has trust in your skills and his opinion is secondary to yours. This boosted the self-confidence of the team members as well as giving them some responsibility and making them feel important. This made his job easier since he didn't have to deal with the “kindergarten” that I often hear the bad managers are struggling with. He knew how to motivate people.
I often found myself enjoying his praise for what I did. The best things in life are free and praise is no exception. It is the cheapest and most effective way to motivate people. A great leader defines the tasks and delegates them and he did exactly that. Control wasn't in his leadership toolbox.
It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what do do; we hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do. — Steve Jobs
Martin wasn't Steve Jobs but somehow, by experience he did exactly what one of the greatest visionaries of our time preached. I really liked Martin’s leadership style. He was a service to the team rather than an authority.
Hire driven people who are smarter than you and get the fuck out of their way. — Martijn Verburg
5. Martin managed the managers
Martin’s most important management contribution was to cut the bullshit from the above and let the team work on the project effectively. He turned this picture:
Into this one:
He was one of us. He protected us. We did our best because we enjoyed our environment.
It’s a couple of years since I left Martin’s company but I have always wanted to write this. Just like every human being, Martin wasn't perfect but he wasn't insecure about it. He was in peace with himself and that vibrated through the work-space.
This post is not about one person. It’s about all leaders out there who silently keep the performance of the company at the top by inspiring and motivating people. There are two ways people become managers:
- By being assigned
- By earning it
Martin was certainly a type 2 and since he started from the bottom, he gained experience that’s not taught in the management school. There are many blog posts, videos and books written by great managers (or theorists). But this post is about sharing the experience from the perspective of someone who works with such leaders.
For the pessimist who suspects Martin is a fictional character idealized by the worker class, here is his Linkedin profile. I'm sure he would help if you want a rock-star leader who modestly gets the best out of people.
What is your experience? Have you worked with great leaders? If you could describe the best quality of a great manager what would it be? Write your comments below or on the paragraph that is relevant.