When my co-founders and I launched SumAll four years ago we decided we didn’t want to work in an evil, miserable environment. When people have crappy managers and deceitful executives, they start to hate life, and things get evil quickly.
So, we came up with a solution: Let employees elect their own leaders and make all managers accountable to the people they manage; if leaders can’t earn respect and loyalty, they shouldn’t be leading a team.
Four years later, I would argue that self-electing teams are the antidote to all the spiteful bosses, petty politicking and bureaucratic inertia that scare away talent and strangle innovation. Whether you run a fresh startup or 50-year-old enterprise, self-electing teams will make your company a better place to work.
How It All Works
SumAll was built to be a petri dish, and self-electing teams is the highest yielding experiment we’ve tried. Our election system was designed and modified over time to maximize democracy without sacrificing business goals.
All teams are capped at 10 people, because in any larger group, communication unravels. Every quarter, teams vote on who should lead the group. Candidates have to opt in, ballots are secret and a simple majority determines the victor. Ties are broken by the ‘Team Mother,’ an individual appointed by the co-founders to safeguard company values and assign people to teams.
Elections scrape away bureaucratic inertia and fear.
The exceptions to quarterly elections are the VP of engineering and C-level executives. The VP of engineering oversees multiple teams, so the whole company had to vote yay or nay before we could hire him. We hold discretionary elections for the C-level and the VP of engineering, meaning at any time, a majority of employees could force a vote. In other words, yes, I could be voted out of the CEO position.
The elected team leads join the company’s executive committee. For strategy meetings or anything stereotypically ‘C-level,’ they’re all present. But their position has no immediate reward; they get all the extra responsibility without a bigger salary. However, if a team lead holds the role several quarters in a row, it is factored into pay. As I’ve discussed previously, salaries at SumAll are open knowledge to all employees and subject to discussion at any time.
The Unambiguously Good Effects
People never leave SumAll because of a crappy boss; they just vote the jerk out. This means that employees have control over the most important variable in their day-to-day working life. Beyond this obvious perk, self-electing teams have had a lot of good effects.
First and foremost, people have immense respect for team leads. At big, impersonal companies, managers are often viewed as paper-pushing windbags. The difference here at SumAll is that tons of people have tried on the role for at least a quarter. They empathize with the challenges of being a manager and consequently respect people who have the necessary skills.
Second, elections eliminate petty politics. In a team with autocratic leadership, at least one person will suck up to the manager to gain favor. Other team members will despise the brownnoser, and both camps will attempt to sabotage each other. When everyone has a vote and a voice, you don’t see these grotesque dynamics.
Third, people who I never would have expected to be effective leaders win the elections and amaze the whole company. Often, managers are just loud, domineering people. The animal instincts in us gravitate to the alpha, but alpha traits aren’t necessarily beneficial in creative and innovative environments. We now have some quiet, introverted team leads who have never had any management experience but produce unbelievable results. In most companies, these all-stars would be missed.
Lastly, elections scrape away bureaucratic inertia and fear. When a manager sits on a throne, expectations set in like a tenacious fog. The royal manager says this project should take six weeks, and no one dares to question the plan. However, when people know that their leadership could change next quarter, they speak up. They don’t have to fear repercussions for speaking their mind. Six weeks could become five days, or an unrealistic five days could become six weeks.
The Unintended Effects
An interesting thing happens when you convert corporate feudalism into democracy: ‘teams’ act like real teams. Purged of the inequalities that grow into ugly deformities, teams become close-knit and form distinct cultures. This can create some difficulties, but I’ve found them pretty easy to counter.
Soon after SumAll established teams and started electing managers, collaboration between teams suffered. Socially and professionally, democratic teams became insulated units. To address this issue, we voted up a VP of engineering to coordinate the technical teams. On top of that, we made it possible to ‘loan’ team members for long-term collaborations.
For instance, our mobile development team once needed several months’ worth of assistance from a back-end developer. The team leads agreed to make the temporary loan, and, for the duration, the back-end developer was treated like a member of the mobile team.
Sometimes teams elect poorer leaders; the problem corrects itself during the next election. Productivity might suffer temporarily, but that leader is going to learn a lot. I’ve seen team leaders bomb epically, leave office and return to the role a few quarters later and nail it. They and the company are better off for it.
In the beginning, I assumed that one person would step up for each election, and most team members would back down. This is not the case. Multiple team members usually run, so there’s a ‘beauty pageant’ component. Thankfully, no one takes this competition to absurd levels; we haven’t had any political attack ads, smear campaigns or bribes (that I know of).
More Struts And High-Beams
Some companies think they can create a healthy culture by hiring the ‘right’ people and posting a list of company values on the Internet. Without a structure that supports those values, they will crumble with scale. For SumAll, teams and elections have been the struts and high-beams that keep the house standing. As we build, we try to leave no attics and closets where evil can spawn.
Make your leaders accountable to the people they lead.
Sometimes, companies introduce half-baked measures to check the power of managers. “360 Reviews” and “Open Feedback” sessions just don’t cut it. Employees will be afraid to speak out against managers who stay in power with or without their approval.
Review sessions are supposedly confidential, but let’s not kid ourselves — when the managers hear the ‘anonymous’ critique, they have a good guess about who disparaged their leadership.
This self-electing team model could work in almost any company. Larger organizations would need more people to play intermediary roles like our VP of engineering, but I would still cap team sizes at 10 for the sake of communication. This model scales nicely because it creates a queue of experienced employees who can rise to the top of new teams and save current managers from becoming overburdened.
Democratic teams unveil the deep camaraderie, trust and generosity people feel for each other when they are free to self-organize. Some teams go out for bourbon; some play paintball; some pay for theatrical performances where the actors lock them all in a room, and they have to find a way out. Some teams operate on a pure SCRUM model; some have standups; some follow management principles I would never use. None harbor the type of evil and misery we all set out to eradicate.
Maybe you have managers who get a lot done, but suck the life out of employees. They may produce short-term results, but they will create churn and siphon value out of the company. The cost in talent and human dignity is not worth it. Make your leaders accountable to the people they lead. The best will rise; the a-holes will fall. Your company will become a place where people want to work.