Levels, Roles, and Leadership Throughout

Something I’ve been chewing on recently is the notion that hierarchy and titles are antiquated concepts, especially for organizations looking to keep pace in (as Thomas L. Friedman has termed it) the age of accelerations. From my perspective, structuring a work force according to a hierarchy impedes the movement of people. A hierarchy implies that you work in one area for someone on certain things and need to take a new job in a different area for someone else to work on other things. When it comes to title, they tend to be¬†narrow or skill-oriented (like “project manager, “customer service representative,” or “accountant”) and rarely reflect the reality of what a person really brings to the table. These sorts of titles lead to assumptions about a person’s ability to contribute and can limit the type of assignments or activities they’re involved in. And looking to traditional leadership in an organization, it tends to be associated with hierarchy and title. For someone coming in at entry- or mid-level, they may have to wait to “get there” before even being able to develop their leadership skills. That’s way too late in my opinion.

A real life example is a colleague of mine was in a meeting when someone said to her, “So, your title is ‘project manager.’ Can I ask why you’re here?” She was representing our department, was (and is) a leader that people look to, and was one of a handful of people who understood everything that led up to that meeting. But because someone assumed she was “just a project manager,” that person very nearly missed out on her wealth of knowledge and experience. Remembering that story makes me shake my head.

If you look at traditional org charts, hierarchies and titles are the primary components. Org charts are static and become outdated as priorities shift, people move, or the company re-organizes. Org charts also tend to imply that a person has one job with one boss which just isn’t reality in today’s world. We have different types of “bosses” these days: from those who provide direction on a set of tasks (you may have several) to those who have performance conversations to those who discuss your career and development. To try to capture all of this complexity in an org chart would be nearly impossible and a nightmare to maintain.

So here’s a different slant on all of it: levels, roles, and leadership throughout. Let me start by saying I am not the first to have this idea. This is inspired by what I’ve read of Holocracy (a self-management practice for organizations used by companies like Zappos and Precision Nutrition), a conversation with our former Chief People Officer a year or two ago, and my recent experience and observations. I’m writing about this today because now feels like the time to make the shift.

In my mind:

  • Levels – The decision-making authority you have and your accountability within the organization. Everyone in the organization is a decision-maker and the bounds of your decision-making authority depends on your level in your organization.
  • Roles – The contributions and impact you and others expect you to have in a particular area. Your role may be different depending on the area. Roles emerge at all levels and in all areas required to deliver on the organization’s goals.
  • Leadership Throughout – Leadership starts at the top; the highest level in the organization where the roles are responsible to set the strategic direction. Leadership naturally emerges where required as part of a role. To foster leadership throughout, organizations recognize team members who exhibit the desired behaviours, invest in developing the skills, and create opportunities for them to lead (especially in a safe way for new/emerging leaders such as leading an internal project or committee, engaging in peer-to-peer coaching, or facilitating a discussion).

Here’s an example: a team member walks into a room in the role of Chief People Officer. She sets the vision for advancing the organization’s people practices, fosters a lively discussion, and delegates responsibility to her team to make it happen. Forty-five minutes later, she walks into another room to write code with a team working on an internal app. This example may seem extreme but it illustrates the idea that levels and roles promote fluidity, allow an organization to better utilize everyone’s abilities, and enable¬†people to contribute in a way that is meaningful both to them and the organization. In this example, leadership occurs throughout because great leaders know when to lead and when to follow.

The journey from “Hierarchies and Titles” to “Levels, Roles, and Leadership Throughout” will be tough. Understanding how we agree on work and govern ourselves will play a big part in our conversations. There’s no doubt that we’ll scrape our knees and have to pick ourselves up a lot. But if we agree this is the change we need, then we’ll get there together. And the time to lead, no matter your role, is now.

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2 thoughts on “Levels, Roles, and Leadership Throughout

  1. Bwaaahaaaahahaaaa … spoken like an advocate of a results-oriented-workplace.

    Actually, like ROWE, holacracy brings a number of real and valid issues to light a Long with possible solutions … but it is also not a panacea. At least, not according to HBR in their August 2916 article ‘Beyond the Holacracy Hype.

    1. I agree, Holocracy is not a panacea but a step in the right direction. As with anything (such as a results-only work environment), an idea taken to an extreme or implemented without the ability to flex can result in a less-than-desirable outcome. For instance, the overarching theme of ROWE – work where you want when you want that allows you to be most effective – let people choose to work in an office, mobile, and/or at home. The extreme was everyone thought that working from home was the best choice. What we’re seeing now is a trend of people coming back into the workplace because working alongside your team increases productivity (I’m not too surprised by that actually).

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