Line manager

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The Human Resources military-industrial complex

The instrument (the “telescreen”, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.

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A modern corporation is organised like an inverted, multilayer family tree, tracing back to great, great, great, great grandfather Hank. In lieu of parents we have line managers. Everyone, bar Grandad Hank himself, has at least one line manager: fortunate staff have only one — it ought to be plenty — les miserables further up in the stratosphere may also acquire a “dotted line” responsibility into someone else altogether. To continue the family tree analogy, this is a bit like having an open relationship with a distant uncle, and just as uncomfortable at family gatherings. But we digress.

The basic job of line management is to supervise direct reports. Employees all have things to do besides supervising their direct reports, though a given worker’s proportion of line management to other stuff depends on that employee’s seniority.

The peril of supervising depends an awful lot on who you are supervising: if it is a novice, you feel the same terror Grandma Contrarian did when teaching the young JC to drive: right leg braced and jammed in the floor-well where she wished a brake pedal would be; right hand loosely gripping the hand-brake and ready to yank; left hand feeling anxiously for the door-handle, ready to judo-roll to safety at any moment, while her cretinous lad bunny-hopped his way around an empty carpark.

With experienced staff, by contrast, line management is — well, should be — a dream; like sitting back with a cocktail under full spinnaker as a well-drilled crew of professional yacht racers nimbly clamber about minutely trimming hydrofoils. Line management should become more like the latter and less like the former the more senior your team.

Thus, roles change the higher up the multi-level marketing scheme you go:

You get paid more: The more senior you are, the more lolly you take home. This news should not rock anyone’s world. Nor should it that the rate of increase in lolly is not linear, but exponential, in an insane and impossible-to-rationalise kind of way. How much more is a matter of deep conjecture and utter secrecy: no-one knows, so everyone assumes the worst, regardless of where they are on the curve. It would be fun,[1] as we have heard it proposed,[2] if firms issued a “Lorenz curve” demonstrating the Gini coefficient in their departmental pay-scales. But running a multinational is not meant to be “fun”, so there is as much chance of this happening as there is of a turkey voting for Christmas.[3]

There are fewer of you: This stands to reason: there are lots of fungible Bucharestian minions at the bottom taking home RON30,000 a year for carting around huge hunks of stone and occasionally getting squished — but hey, hose down the rock-face and get a new one, you know? — but only one Hank, taking home twenty-five mill for the inconvenience of having to flit around the world in a corporate jet and moralise at Davos. Generally, the more units cost, the fewer you can afford, but the irresistibility of this logic runs into the immovability of fat birds who, having made it to the thin branches, find themselves disinclined to make way meaning that, over time the poor old tree gets rather top-heavy. As a result, when you multiply take-home comp by rank title, it looks a bit like the snake who ate the elephant in Le Petit Prince.

You spend more time managing other people: We take this to be a trivial observation: the contractor at the call-centre in Belarus has no direct reports, so spends no time line-managing; Hank ultimately has every direct report, so spends almost all his time line-managing.

The gradations between are not inevitable — every firm has those grand, gnomic elders who float about sprinkling their ineffable magic on things without having any portfolio in particular or any direct reports — but as a rule, the further up the chain you go, the more time you spend managing other people. Especially given fat-bird syndrome: the porky tweeters on the upper branches don’t really have anything else to do but manage their lines (and dotted-lines!)

The more homogenous you become: A multinational corporation is basically a machine for systematically eliminating cognitive diversity. This is how survival of the fittest works. What, after all, is “fitness” if it is not conforming oneself to the expectations of the management ouija?

Life as a corporate grunt is not for everyone: a large portion of the population self-selects by not applying for employment in the financial services sector from the get-go. Those who inadvertently fall into it — perhaps by misapprehension, inattention or cruel accident of fate — make it their business to exit via the first available gift shop and, we are given to understand, thereafter live fulfilled lives as actors, restaurateurs, HGV drivers and whatever else the hoi polloi get up to by way of making ends meet.

Those aspiring bankers who stay on — who grasp the survival techniques quickly enough to hang on — are already homogenous enough, and that is before they are rigorously chiseled, sanded, polished and buffed to a high sheen by the ebbs, flows and microclimates of their organisation.

The longer you stay the smoother you become, and the more a functional part of the organisation as it currently is: the firm domesticates you. You grow fitter; ever more perfectly adapted to the organisation’s prevailing ecosystem. Just as you don’t bite the hand that feeds, nor do you seek to change an environment which already lets you live your best life.

The graduate intake might have all kinds of pink-haired, wild-eyed loons on induction day: by the end of the year most of the weirdoes will be gone. The class of senior administrators, by contrast, will be interchangeable; rendered thoroughly in the corporation’s image. You may have difficulty telling them apart.

The people you manage need less management: It is equally trivial that the Romanian contractor, fresh off the bus from the job-centre, knows nothing but what he is told: his reliance upon his manager for practical guidance and the dispensation of wisdom and experience is total.

By contrast, the forty-year industry veteran chief financial officer, who narrowly missed out on the CEO job herself, knows exactly what is expected of her, what to do, how to react to any crisis and has little need of guidance and instruction from the jammy sod who did get the big job. Or damn well should do.

Thus, note the shift in line management content as we ascend into the Gods: substance drops off, and form takes over. Line management becomes progressively performative: more about the appearance of good governance than its actual delivery. Were the CEO to be accidentally run over by his Lear Jet, the organisation would not skip a beat. Take out an equivalent portion of the cost base in associate directors, on the other hand — in other words, about seventy — and it will grind to a halt. The challenge, therefore is selecting the right portion of associate directors to excise so that you trim mainly fat and do not “cut into the muscle”.

The more say you get over redundancy rounds: It should be no more flabbergasting to hear that those dodging rockfall at the base of the pyramid have zero influence on when, whether, how or by the removal of whose person the workforce should be rationalised, whereas those in the executive suite have total influence, albeit often exercised through the medium of their direct and indirect reports. Here, though, there is no straight-line extrapolation from 0 to 100 percent: A small cadre in the top three echelons are privy to these decisions, the vast majority of the rest of the workforce is not.

See also


  1. for everyone but those at the top, which means it will nevver happen.
  2. Hat-tip to our regular correspondent Graeme Johnson.
  3. Because it would be a turkey voting for Christmas, in many cases.