Will Startups Embrace Management?

The future face of Silicon Valley?

A recent Medium post by Dustin Moskowitz, co-founder of Asana, argues that startups should transition away from distributed, individuated, hierarchy-free management culture — or, better put, anti-management culture — that defines the structure (or lack thereof) of many emerging organizations.

Moskowitz offers counterpoint by way of gaming startup Valve, who in a move of considerable transparency, published a self-critique of their laissez-faire, DIY-ish philosophy:


Asana, and other companies, organize themselves around a culture of “distributed responsibility,” whose details they share generously on their blog. In this culture, domains of expertise fall into the hands of single individuals, where one person is responsible, say, for onboarding, another for CSS, and so on. The approach suggests a peer-to-peer culture of decision-making, rather than that of a traditional, top-down hierarchy.

Dustin’s notion of a good manager, perhaps reflecting a broader perspective shared by many in Silicon Valley, is as follows:

At the end of the day, good management qualities (empathy, attentiveness, honesty, wisdom, among others) trump philosophy, but some thought and planning can go a long way towards creating a culture that best supports your people and the goals of your company.

Interestingly, however, such qualities — while certainly admirable, and indeed desirable — may have little to do with effective leadership, or so suggests empirical research. “In Praise of Dullness,” a widely touted column penned by David Brooks in 2009, suggests that many of these soft-core qualities have little to do with effective leadership:

Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov and Morten Sorensen recently completed a study called “Which C.E.O. Characteristics and Abilities Matter?”

They relied on detailed personality assessments of 316 C.E.O.’s and measured their companies’ performances. They found that strong people skills correlate loosely or not at all with being a good C.E.O. Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague, a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies.

What mattered, it turned out, were execution and organizational skills. The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours.

In other words, warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.

These results are consistent with a lot of work that’s been done over the past few decades.

Granted, Brooks focuses on CEOs, rather than managers, but I think that a similar principle applies in both cases: good leaders are individuals who are organized, consistent, critical, and hard-working, irrespective of their personalities.

The conclusions, while perhaps counter-intuitive, seem to be consistent across a wide body of research. Should this change the way startups organize themselves?

Maybe. I think that both Brooks and Moskowitz have valid points. The research cited by Brooks focuses on leaders of large, traditional, hierarchical organizations, where the qualities that constitute effectiveness may be defined, or at least shaped, by the broader culture of the companies.

Startups like Asana, meanwhile, are smaller, nimbler, flatter, and more collaborative than those highlighted in the cited studies. Given a company where the team evolves quickly, where each member wears numerous hats, where personal growth matters as much as dogged persistence, and where mentorship factors crucially into leadership, is a new kind of manager emerging? Moskowitz writes:

At Asana, we value transparency, balance, working together as peers, and investing in each other, and we try to apply these values to our management culture. We think that good management requires balance. We try to give people the freedom they need to contribute at their full potential, while also providing the support that helps them grow to become even more capable.

Our approach is “distributed responsibility,” exemplified by our AoR (Area of Responsibility) program. Instead of having all decisions flow through the management hierarchy, we go out of our way to distribute them as evenly as possible across all employees. At the same time, our approach emphasizes personal growth, especially through mentorship. I believe the most important contribution of a manager is to serve their reports by unblocking them, mentoring them, and pointing them in a direction that best serves their needs and the priorities of the organization.

Without suggesting too deterministic an outcome, the management culture at Asana certainly seems to be steering the company towards success.



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