Hire Managers of One
“Everyone should manage themselves” has been a core principle at 37signals from day one and has continued to be key as the company has expanded.
Today, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson sit down to discuss why it’s essential to the success of your company to bring on board self-sufficient employees who require minimal supervision in what they refer to as “Managers of One” from their book, Rework.
Listen in as they provide tips on identifying such individuals during the hiring process, using Basecamp’s features to replace what managers do, and the fundamental characteristics of a great “Manager of One.”
[00:42] - “Everyone should manage themselves”: A 37signals mantra from day one.
[02:12] - Establishing a culture where there is no need for managers.
[04:03] - David shares two examples of how using Basecamp’s Automated Check-ins helps replace what managers do.
[05:12] - Jason shares the behind-the-scenes of using the work to find the employees who are “Managers of One.”
[07:26] - David shares how “Drive” by Daniel Pink highlights the three drivers of motivation that they look for in an applicant’s cover letter.
[09:20] - Hiring is not a foolproof process—for anyone—even Google.
[10:59] - The “Manager of One” concept applies before and after the hiring process.
[13:47] - Self-identifying problems and rushing to solutions are not enough; the interactions must also be great.
[14:32] - The ultimate quality of a true “Manager of One.”
[15:47] - Not to dictate but to support: the hallmarks of a great manager at 37signals.
[19:02] - We’re getting ready for a “ask me anything” episode. Do you have a question for Jason and David or anyone at 37signals? Leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850, or send us an email, and we might answer it.
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Do you have a question for Jason and David? Leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 or email us.
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Kimberly (00:00): Welcome to Rework, a podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. I’m your host, Kimberly Rhodes. We mentioned in a previous episode that 37signals has grown and currently has the largest number of employees it’s ever had. And in their book Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinermeier Hansson write about their goal of hiring employees who don’t need heavy direction, a lot of handholding or daily supervision –employees who are essentially Managers of One. Jason and David are here to talk about this concept of Managers of One, why they’re essential for running your business and how to spot them during the hiring process. So let’s jump right in. Tell us this term Managers of O ne. Tell me exactly what you guys mean by that.
Jason (00:42): Yeah, we’ve been saying this for forever, I would guess I would say. Um, and it came down to, you know, way, way, way back when, um, when we had really, really small teams. We had like, you know, eight people in the company, nine, 10, something like that. Um, you know, there were no managers, there was no supervisors, there was no heads of, there was no team leads, there were just people who had to do the job. And uh, but people have to do the jobs, still have to manage their own work. So, you know, you have to kind of be organized. You gotta think about the work that needs to get done and what doesn’t need to get done, that sort of thing. And we had this notion of everybody who works here should manage themselves, basically should be able to take care of all the work that needs to happen, organize it, think about it, see it through, execute on it, uh, independently.
(01:26): Uh, they might be working with somebody else, but that other person would not be the same kind of in, in the same kind of role. So they had no essential help in that way. So that’s where it all started, but it stayed that way. We do have team leads today. We do have managers today. We do have department heads today, but we still expect everybody to be able to do their own work themselves independently, to scope their own work independently, to figure out what needs to be done independently. And it’s still a fundamental hiring criteria for us. We don’t want people who require other people to tell them what to do. Um, and every time we’ve hired somebody who came from an environment where they’re used to getting basically like a to-do list of, you know, 22 points every morning, do this and your job is done for the day, those people don’t work out here. Um, we really need to find people who are self-starters and able to manage it all, uh, themselves.
David (02:12): And I think all of this came in part from the fact that both Jason and I, right from the early days, were not interested in being managers ourselves in the traditional sense of spending the majority of our time checking in with people, checking up on people that we wanted to create a culture and an environment where that was not someone’s full-time job. Now at the size we’re at, at 80 some employees, there is a need for some of that, but far less than what I’ve seen at the majority of, of companies of our size. And I think that’s sort of the echo of that, that even if we need some stuff at this moment with 80 plus employees, it’s far less than than would used to be. And I like to think of it even at our scale, even with the, uh, managerial folks that we have, that they’re still optional in the sense that they’re value add, that they make things run more smoothly, but that they would run nonetheless.
(03:12): If you leave anyone on, on the product teams or the marketing teams or whatever team to their own devices, they will look at the work that needs to be done and they will come up with something great. So let’s say their manager is out, for example, for a month taking a sabbatical perhaps as we do here, um, once every three years, that’s gonna be okay. Um, in fact, I think, um, a good example of this is, is Jason announcing, um, recently internally that he’s gonna take a sabbatical for, for quite some time. And I took one, uh, a couple years ago and it was, I I took two months off actually a couple, a couple years, uh, not quite two months, but almost two months, a couple years ago. And what happened, things just kept going because we are a company mainly consisting of Managers of One who will left to their own devices, figure out what to do.
(04:03): And I think this is also what we built a lot of structures around. So instead of having, um, standup meetings for example, we use Basecamp’s feature of Automated Check-ins and we ask every afternoon, what have you, what have you worked on today? And we ask every Monday morning, what are you gonna work on this week? Those are two examples of questions that replace a lot of what some managers do at some places where there’s a lot of checking up and checking in. Um, Managers of One can self-report what’s going on and kind of get on with it. And I just find as someone who used to work for other people, granted that is now quite some time ago, um, I hated that process. I hated the process of a manager coming to me every few days to check in and check up. Um, and it was actually a demoralizing process. I felt a much better when, like, do you know what I’m left to my own devices to figure out what needs to be done to ship this long-term project that we have. This is the same reason we work in cycles that we try to plan work for six weeks at a time, but then we can have a chat, um, every six to eight weeks, but not like every few days.
Kimberly (05:12): Well, and I also think David, those automatic check-ins kind of force you as an employee to self-manage because you’re saying, this is what I’m gonna work on. And then you’re also saying, this is what I worked on. So it kind of forces that self-management as well, which I think is super helpful. So let me ask you this, how do you guys find these people? I mean, I know in an ideal world, everyone just like manages themselves, but I think for someone listening, they’re like, yeah, it’s, it’s a nice idea. Like how do you find these people?
Jason (05:37): Well, you think you’re a good example of this, right? Um, uh, you had your own business before, so obviously you know what the hell you’re doing. It’s true when it comes to dealing with
Kimberly (05:45): All the managing yourself,
(06:27): And you can get a pretty good sense on how organized they are, how thoughtful they are, what they thought of along the way, um, what they decided to do, how they managed their time. So it’s, it’s very clear when you look at the work. There’s, there’s been cases in the past where we had an candidate who seemed fantastic on paper. They did their one week project and was totally disorganized. They didn’t get it quite done, they rushed. Um, and you could just see that they’re not gonna be able to manage their time well. It’s very clear that they just, that’s not their skill. Other people are just incredibly thorough, thoughtful, great writers, great organizers, um, make a case for themselves, can answer questions on the fly, can riff on the fly, and you just get a much better sense of their sort of executive function. Uh, and I think that’s kind of what you’re looking for when you, when you’re, when you’re hiring people. So part of it is the initial cover letter. Uh, then, then comes the interviews, then comes the work. That really helps a lot. But I think their background is something that plays into it as well.
David (07:26): I’d also say that, um, Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” spells out these three major forces that propel motivation, autonomy, mastery and purpose, and getting a sense of those three factors. When someone is applying and you’re reading through their cover letter, which is what we put the most effort on, we don’t put so much or, or emphasis, we don’t put so much emphasis on on the cv. We put a lot of emphasis on the cover letter. And then as Jason said, we put a lot of emphasis on the, on the work test, pretty much every position we have, bar a few, we have some sort of work test. For programmers, we come up with a, a small sample project that someone can do in, in four to six hours if they make it that late in the hiring stage. And you really do get a sense of the autonomy and the mastery and what someone brings to a project like that.
(08:18): And I have found that there’s usually quite a good correlation between someone who excels in those factors. Um, mastery in particular is the one that sort of stands out. It’s very rare that I see someone who’s exceptionally good at what they do for the level that they’re at, whether they’re a senior or a junior programmer, whatever you the bar you’re measuring them against that they stand out as someone who has great mastery, who don’t also have the capacity to hire themselves. There’s just some connection there when you really know what quality is, what it looks like and how to get there. Um, that is in some ways a self-driving motion machine, but it’s not a foolproof method and neither is spotting Managers of O ne. As Jason says, sometimes you figure it out in the hiring process. Sometimes you figure it out in the test and sometimes you don’t until the person is at the company and they’re working for you and, and you try and you prod and you attempt to, to teach this.
(09:20): And sometimes people who don’t have this coming naturally to them or have worked at a much larger organization, whereas Jason says they just get a list of tasks that need to be accomplished, they can, uh, rejigger, they, they can get into this and sometimes they can’t. And then, hey, that that’s what hiring is. Hiring is not a foolproof process neither for the person applying for the job thinking, oh this is my dream job and their find out, oh actually it’s not their dream job or for the person hiring thing, like this candidate is just, it’s gonna be excellent. Like you’re not gonna make 10 hires and get 10 hits. It just doesn’t work like that. The odds aren’t like that. There’s no one who’ve come up with a foolproof method of picking 10 out of 10 in terms of winners. Whether they’re the biggest companies in the world, whether they are like Google and they use all sorts of leaked code coding tasks or, or whatever.
Um, so actually the Google exam is a good one. They used to, for example, you look at the CV a lot and plays a heavy emphasis on, on Ivy League graduates, you’re from Stanford or M.I.T. or whatever. Wow. They’re really counted for a lot of Google. And they did this writeup I think five or six years ago where they actually then tracked it afterwards. Okay, so does Ivy League education predict performance at Google? And the answer was absolutely utterly not
(10:59): You look, is there promise in this work? Um, application just four to six hours if we take the programmers, right? Like that’s barely a day’s worth of work. All it can give you is an indication. It can’t tell you how someone is gonna do over six weeks, but hopefully it’ll, it’ll point you in the right direction. But this is something we can use both when hiring, these are the kinds of people we’re looking for. But then it’s also something we use in performance management. Now we’ve hired someone, are they showing up like this? Are they showing up like managers of one, are they rushing to problems? Um, Kimberly, I think Jason called you out, which is a great example. Why is this podcast happening right now with you as the host? It’s happening because you just put your hand up when we had sort of an opening for this and said like, Hey, I can help out, right?
(11:43): Rushing into um, sort of the need. That’s a great example of Manager of One and those kind of opportunities are all over the business that someone’s not waiting around for their manager to assign them something they see like, hey, this isn’t right. And they take ownership of that, they put themselves forward or they even just dive right in and start fixing it. So Managers of O ne is, is one of those things we refer to both the before the hiring part and then after the hiring part. And, and one of the few principles I’d say we kind of almost put on a pedestal, um, that this is something that you can get recognized for years into doing the job. Like oh man, this and this person is just such a great Manager of One. That is some of the highest praise you can get at 37signals.
Kimberly (12:28): So let me ask you this because David, you mentioned that it doesn’t always work out that you think someone might be a Manager of O ne and they might not be. Yeah. Have you guys ever had the experience on the flip side where someone is too much of a manager, meaning like they are not kind of following the flow. I mean you guys still are the founders and the owners and still have say in every aspect. Have you had situations where someone’s like taking that role too seriously?
David (12:52): Yes, but I think it’s, it’s separated from the manager of one for me, manager of one is about how you approach the problems that exist and then where it can veer into something is when you come up with a solution to a problem, you self-identified and you tie your ego to that specific implementation of that solution. Because even though you see a problem and we might recognize, oh yeah, you saw a great problem, does not mean that the first solution you come up with is the greatest solution for it or is it even the solution for it. You still also have to be a person who can trade concessions. Um, like, hey, you want some of this? I want some of this. Can we meet somewhere in, in the middle of it? And also someone who have the capacity to accept redirecting feedback. Cuz as you say, Jason and I have been here for 20 plus years, sometimes people will see what they perceive to be a problem and I will always cheer that, someone identifying it and then it’s like, I think it should be fixed like this.
And we go like, yeah, do you know what? I could see how you arrived at that, but here’s uh, perhaps a couple of reasons why that wouldn’t quite work or, or I have a different take on it. And that interaction still has to also be great, right? Like it’s not enough just to self-identify problems, not enough just to rush to a solution to them. If you’re then stuck in like, well the thing I just came up with here, and this goes for me too, this goes for Jason as well, right? Like we are obviously highly ranking on Managers of One and I will frequently come up with something I think is a total shoe in solution. I’ll show it to Jason and he’ll go like, eh, no
(14:32): And like Jason just sits with a bunch of other observations and see things from different angles because he’s looking at things. In fact, I was just looking at something in base cam this morning that came through the daily recap where, where someone was exhibiting exemplary Manager of One skills, identified a problem, jumped straight to proposing a solution, which is another key of this Manager of One thing I should say. It’s one thing that someone can point out a problem and say like, Hey, there’s a problem over here. Yeah, that’s, that’s nice. But 10 times better is someone who sees a problem and goes like, Hey, here’s my proposed solution and, and perhaps here’s a, here’s a stab at that solution. Not even a proposal for it, but I’ve actually gone back and done some work on it and, and this person had, and the feedback when I first saw it, I saw like, yeah, that’s exactly what I would’ve done.
(15:16): And then I think it was Brian chimed in and said like, actually, here’s a couple of considerations you might not have made where perhaps what you think is better isn’t from the user’s perspective. And then went like, oh yeah, I would totally have, I would totally have stepped into that one and, and have just take a step back. So as long as you can take that step back, as long as you can accept that even if you try to solve something and do a great job at it, it might still not ship. That’s, that’s, it’s really good to have both that, that drive and that humility.
Kimberly (15:47): So let me ask you this because I feel like I would imagine, because now 37signals does have managers of one that that’s a tough role managing people who are highly independent and decision makers and used to making those kinda decisions on their own and moving things forward. But now they have a manager, like do you have any guidance or tips or am I just assuming that it’s harder than it is? It sounds hard to me.
Jason (16:12): It’s probably hard for both sides, the manager and the, and the managed perhaps. But I think in our case it’s not so much a traditional management uh, relationship, it’s more about coordinating, it’s more about getting things outta the way for people. It’s more about helping, uh, being a second opinion than it is asking what people, what they did every day, giving them a list of things they need to do and like laying out people’s days for them. That’s not how we do it. So they’re really, they’re really more of a facilitator. I would say that’s the role for managers here and uh, that’s I think what works best for, for our setup.
David (16:47): Yeah, one way of thinking of it is, is someone to remove roadblocks, to make it easier for the employees to get these long stretches of uninterrupted time. Can you remove distractions? Can you remove interruptions? Those are hallmarks of a great manager of managers of one at 37signals. And in fact, um, we had a, a new engineering manager join us, um, recently to to manage the SIP team and we’re very explicit in defining that role. Like what’s your success criteria for that role? It is that the individuals on that team feel like the work is easier. If you come in as a manager and you, you inject a bunch of new obligations and responsibilities that the managed can’t quite see the purpose of or do not feel like their days getting easier. No, I I don’t care what you otherwise bring to the table that isn’t helping versus if you come in as a manager and you take stuff off you, oh, I used to have to do this like every Friday, but now someone else kind of serving as a, as a bumper, uh, or as a bumprubber on that, right?
(17:54): Like smoothing out the ride. Like that’s a good example of, of a managers that’s, that’s helping. So facilitator remover of roadblocks, um, smoothing out the path such that someone who’s um, I was about to say doing the work, which is a trap we occasionally fall into at 37singles where we don’t consider management the work, which is a two-edged sword. Like sometimes I think that’s actually, it’s a healthy skepticism to have towards management, but it can also, it can tip over into cynicism, um, against management that there’s nothing good management can ever do. And I think, I mean we certainly dance that line sometimes, which is then difficult when you’re trying to hire managers who’s like, Hey, you’re coming in here, but I just read that you’ve said the managers were not needed at all. Well what do you need managers for when, when all you have is a bunch of Managers of One? So I think that dance is more difficult here than it would be in a lot of places. But I think it also helps repel the kind of managers who think, do you know what I’m showing up here to tell people what to do and for them to tell me what they’ve done. Yeah. That’s just not the job here.
Kimberly (19:02): I love that. Well, with that we’re gonna wrap it up and as a reminder, I’m having notions that we are going to do an Ask Me Anything in 2023 when Jason’s back from a sabbatical. If you have a specific question for Jason or David, just leave us a voicemail message at 708-628-7850. We just might answer it on the podcast. You can also send us an email at email@example.com if that is easier. Rework is a production of 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website at 37signals.com/podcast.