Huib van Bockel, founder of energy drinks brand Tenzing, has had mixed experiences with managers. “I was never too keen on having a boss,” he says. His main issue with the principle of being managed is that there was always someone “checking in and telling you what to do”.
The former head of marketing at Red Bull believed that, by working his way up within the company, he would eventually have more freedom and less politics to contend with. The reality, he found, was that there was more.
Van Bockel is not alone in this assertion; one of the most frequently cited causes of workplace stress is management. According to a 2019 survey from Korn Ferry, 35% of respondents stated that their boss was their biggest source of stress at work.
So, when founding his own company in 2016, van Bockel began exploring different flat management structures and methods for creating self-managing teams. While he admits that some of these experiments didn’t go well, van Bockel eventually settled on a novel way of circumventing this issue: letting employees pick their own boss.
Explaining his initial thinking, he says: “Imagine how ground-breaking it would be if everybody in the world could hire and fire their own boss. You would be judged on your actual leadership qualities and on the impact you make on the business and the team around you, not how fast you move upwards or how big your team is.”
Finding a workplace coach
Under Tenzing’s system, new members of staff are given between three and six months to learn their role and get to know others in the organisation before deciding on their coach – the term used internally to differentiate it from the traditional idea of a boss.
While coaches have many of the same responsibilities as a manager, including helping to set targets for professional development and having involvement in salary decisions, there is one key difference: staff can decide who they want their coach to be and can change them at any time.
“Although you can’t fire them from the company, you can let them go as your coach at any point,” van Bockel says. The person someone chooses can also come from anywhere in the business – not just their department – and should be the person they believe they can learn the most from professionally.
As of yet, no one has “fired” their coach at Tenzing and van Bockel recognises that this could be a potential flaw in the system. “We don’t want people to feel bad about moving on from their coach,” he says. “We should encourage people to change coaches if they feel like they’ve learned all they can from one person and would now like to learn something new.”
Although the innovative management structure has come with some “steep learning curves”, he believes it has brought several benefits to the business so far. “Things always have to go through the lines of command in standard hierarchies. People can hide behind the decisions of their managers and bosses can take credit for the work of their team,” van Bockel says. “Letting that go has been a huge game changer for us.”
In other, more hierarchical organisations, someone’s importance within a business is often reflected in the number of staff they manage, meaning that leaders can be competitive about the size of their teams. Van Bockel claims that this concept “feeds into people’s egos” and is something he believes is “at the heart of the rat race”.
There is also a misconception, he suggests, that success at work should be equated to getting to manage. “Just because somebody is really good at their role doesn’t mean that they will be good at managing other people.”
The Tenzing founder acknowledges that he was not immune to these same feelings while working for other companies but has since found that taking that pressure away “can have a really calming effect on your mind because you’re not constantly worried about how far you’ve gone up the ladder”.
New ways to manage career progression
When Tenzing made the switch to this coaching system, there were some initial concerns from within the business. Without a line manager, people who joined the business had no one to tell them what they were working on when they started. Instead, they were given a “rough direction”.
Van Bockel acknowledges that this does create some “uncomfortable” feelings, but says that people shouldn’t need to be taught things they already know how to do because “it’s why they get hired in the first place”.
Younger members of staff in particular also had questions about how career progression would now be handled. “My answer was that if we grow as a company, you will grow automatically because your role will get bigger,” van Bockel says.
Over time, this has “completely changed” people’s ideas of career progression. Where it can often be linked to a title and a person’s place within an organisation, employees at Tenzing are much more concerned about the impact they can have. “People build their careers from within, rather than us having to hire people on top,” he says. “This means that there is an automatic element of progression for people who stay with the business.”
This has meant that the business, which has 20 employees, has seen very little turnover of staff, something which van Bockel says is “testimony to the fact that it works”.
It also allows people to take their development in new directions, rather than simply progressing up the ranks through different management layers. Van Bockel points to a member of staff who was hired for public relations and expanded her role to include HR and sustainability.
“These would normally sit in different departments but because of the way the business is structured, she can do all three,” he adds. “It allows people to work to their strengths and explore interests.”
Tenzing is one of the fastest-growing energy drinks brands in UK supermarkets, according to figures from Nielsen, which van Bockel thinks proves that “keeping people motivated has major implications for your business”.
Yet despite the company’s success, he doesn’t think this system of management is suited to every company. “It would be more difficult to implement if an organisation already has an established way of doing things,” he says “For us, it was helpful that we introduced this way of working from the beginning.”
But for those that are willing to experiment, the key ingredient is trust. As a CEO, van Bockel says: “You need to be willing to let go and dare to trust your team to make the right impact. It’s not all easy and there are some real benefits of other systems, but this gives people true control and is much more empowering as a result.”
This article is part of our Going Against the Grain series, which tells the stories of companies bold enough to break business norms and try out new ideas. To explore the rest of the series, head here.