Holacracy Community of Practice Archive, 2015-2019 Community Holacracy Web Site

Fate of old manager (as a human being) in the new scheme of things

As you all know,  a transition to Holacracy implies the erasure of the role of the traditional manager as many of the tasks he performs will become more or less useless.

Now in many traditionally  hierarchical companies people have been promoted to higher positions on the basis of a wrong assumption which ironically is clearly reflected in Murphy’s law: “if you are good at doing something you will be promoted until you allocate yourself to the correct level of incompetence”

Historically this means that in many cases current managers are now simply “used-to-be-awesome-technical-people” who have been buried in paperwork for years and have lost their competence in the old job.

I have an open question to both those of you who have migrated to Holacracy a traditional company , and to H1 for their experience in consulting.

Yes maybe these people will have to leave in the long run  (Zappos handled this in a smart way:" take some money and leave, or stay and accept the future",  very few companies have CEOs of such standing and braveness) . In the short term how would you help them from both a human and a professional point of view? In the end they do represent a part of the knowledge of the company, they have contributed to making it what it is now and they might also fight back if they don’t feel that the new scheme of things can still make use of what’s left of their skills, this fight could slow down adoption especially in the beginning when their colleagues do not yet feel that the original power has been distributed and is not there anymore in its previous form.

The problem may especially arise when you turn such managers into lead links,  they may not be able to perform any job in vacant roles, which would just remind them of how dangerous the loss of power turned out to be for them...

I foresee this as a problem that must be tackled with the appropriate strategy, especially in bigger or older companies.

Curious about your opinion on what that strategy might be.



5 Replies
Mike Williams


Excellent series of questions.  Here are some thoughts from my perspective.

First, let me paint my context.  I came from a lineage of traditional companies.  My final stint was with General Electric.  During this part of my career I had the opportunity to experience the transition from a small private company, to a large private company to going public to acquiring companies and then being acquired by a company.  From there I transitioned back to a small private company that just started their transition from a traditional company to Holacracy in 2011.

The transition of this company from a traditional company to a Holacracy company felt familiar to me.  It felt like the company had been acquired by a new company - which I had the opportunity to experience many times.  When you choose to leave a company and go to work for another company you somewhat expect a shift of rules and expectations.  It is a clean brake between the old and the new.  When you get acquired by a new company, it feels a bit different - at least it did for me.  You are in the same chair and you are surrounded by the same people yet the overall rules and power structure shifted.  As a manager in the traditional company I encouraged my direct reports and colleagues to treat the change like a move to a new company.  Is this new situation a game you *choose* to sign up for?  If yes, wonderful.  Embrace the new.  If no, then it will serve you best to find a situation that is a better match for you.  Many people select out, even in “traditional” companies.

You asked the brillant question, "In the short term how would you help them from both a human and a professional point of view?

I feel the most human thing to do is put the locus of the choice right back into the lap of the individual.  Is this new situation a game you *choose* to sign up for?

This will help the individual (individual space) choose into the organization (organization space) and choose into roles (role space) and the Practice of Holacracy (capital P is intentional, practicing Holacracy is like practicing a sport or a martial art).  Once you choose into this new context the focus is different.  It becomes how do I support the evolutionary purpose of the company.  Evolution does not necessarily support the strongest and most powerful.  It does support and favor the individuals and organisms that are most adaptable to the current conditions for their context.

For some, this will feel like a breath of fresh air or a welcome wake up call.  For others, it may not.

I hope this adds to the conversation,


Brian Robertson

Awesome Mike, that analogy and your approach to supporting people through it really resonates with me too!

Gerald Mitterer

Andrea, I think the questions you are putting forward are pointing to the major challenge of implementing Holacracy in old orgs. 

I am very much in favor of Mike's approach to put the locus of the choice right back. However, this ultimately is the same thing Tony did at Zappos with his take it or leave it approach and for some organizations a too big leap. Facing the threat of losing loads of experience and know-how at the same time.

Let me add one example on your question of strategies.  

What worked well in one case we faced was intensive coaching in two ways: (1) the logical approach in Holacracy to differentiate his leadership role out into the bundles of work he is doing for the organization. And afterwards creating more clarity on what "functions" of leadership do now reside within the system (typically people management aspects) and which elements of the work are still needed (typically a set of smaller roles - such as investor management, spokesperson, etc.). That helped to move away from the impression "he (as a leader) is not needed anymore". (2) to dig deeper in what are the passions, resources and talents of the respective leader in a coaching session. Many of them have still a yearning for meaningful work - often hands-on. I observed the switch of a CEO who got used to focus his job on delegating and asking the question "who takes care of that?". When he recognized that this is operational work to be done, where actually he is the best fit, it was a big thing for him. He came back with the work done by next morning and felt really proud of what he brought forward. At that point he learned to take on roles that do real work for the organization and he was very happy about that.

- Gerald


Andrea Faré

Thanks Mike and Gerald your approaches are synergistic,  one is more philosophical  and the other one is more  practical but they are both needed

I think these answers give  a great starting point!



Christel Hofman

I think both ways can work depending on the organization and its culture. For some "old" organizations the holacracy way of working is so different for people that they really don't understand the "choice" they have. They only know the old way of working. It causes anxiety for people. In my opinion it is more elegant if the organization takes the anxiety for change seriously and learn from that. If this anxiety comes from a negative thought, we can test if the thought gets confirmed when brought into relation; Is this anxiety caused by a negative prediction, we can test if the prediction is based on facts, etc.

You will see that taking the anxiety seriously already gives space to people to open up for changes.

So my advice would be: slow down when you encounter a lot of anxiety.