flat organizations: a flaw & fix

In time, most things evolve—hopefully. Ideally, we learn from those who’ve gone before us, making changes and small improvements based on their experiences. One of the insights I was afforded, having been raised within a family business led by my Dad, is the absolute importance of culture—the attitudes and behavioral characteristics of an organization.

From an early age, I became overly aware of how others from all spheres of life (family, friends, employees, managers, and clients) interacted with my father. For many reasons, to include the enormous amount of energy, passion, and charisma that naturally came from him, many people spent a lot of their time trying to grow the amount of one-on-one time they spent with my Dad, rather than growing their passion or particular responsibility. I didn’t like it but who could blame them? Dad was and still is incredibly talented. By the age of 30, he had taken a business he started from nothing, turned it into something, and soon found himself sitting in the largest boardrooms of the world’s largest businesses.  

I am no better or smarter than my Dad. However, because of the natural order of things, I’ve had opportunities to watch and learn from what did or did not work for him.  

CULTURE

For starters, it’s important to understand that every business, no matter its structure, model, or approach, has a culture—attitudes and behaviors that accurately display who the company is versus who they’re trying to be or wanting to become. 

I have found there to be two primary approaches when it comes to leading a group of people within a business: 

Authoritative Approach: Where a primary personality leads via layers of leadership (hierarchy) with a desired direction and decision(s) rolling downhill. 

Flat Organization: Where everyone within the business, from the janitor to the CEO, are viewed (in spirit) to be more equal when it comes to their voice and potential for contribution—though someone is sill in charge. The idea behind the Flat Organization has more to do with cultivating creativity, potential and opportunity than it does the fear of putting one person in charge. 

The Authoritative Approach has been the primary method used in America over the last 100 years due to World Wars and the corresponding need for a Commander-in-Chief, Generals, and clear channels of authority. This approach isn’t bad, it just tends to be less effective and intelligent because less voices and less experiences are heard or acted upon. 

BACK TO BUSINESS

The Flat Organization is an approach where there are positions, titles, and specific responsibilities, but all people are considered equally valuable in their potential to contribute. Similar to a tribe or village, the Flat Organization tends to be a happier place, if done correctly, because people feel more like participants rather than positions to be filled.

When it came to the intersection of my Dad’s personality and passion and the authoritative business model of the day, I had a front row seat. I learned that charisma can be a wonderful thing until it betrays you. And it is likely to betray you if it’s bigger than the complementing disciplines, procedures, or structure to support and enforce the desired culture. 

In 2005, I took over and became the CEO of the family business. I was 25 and had an idea for what I wanted “work” to be and, maybe more importantly, what I didn’t want work to be. I did not want family [working within the business], employees, managers, department heads, or team leads to be loyal to me. I had learned from years of observation that loyalty to a personality, even if it was mine, ultimately is not what’s best for anyone—myself, my family, the employees, or our customers. So I found the alternative approach: A Flat Organization.

There are many benefits to a Flat Organization, such as energy, excitement, passion, teamwork, commitment, and communication, to name a few. However, a Flat Organization can set an organization up for trouble as the culture transfers from one generation of employees to the next. 

THE FLAW

Oftentimes, once the first generation of employees feels empowered and that empowerment leads to success, growth, and expansion, the organization will find trouble if they do not intentionally and consistently communicate “the why” to the next generation, including the behavioral characteristics that got the company to where it is. Each generation of employees needs to know the behaviors that need to be pursued and prioritized in order for the mission to keep moving forward. 

Recently, there has been a tremendous influx of young professionals and their families joining or waiting to join our team wherever possible. Why? I believe they like the sense of freedom and empowerment they see our employees experience. They seem to like how individuals are given responsibility for things or positions others said they would not be ready for. Who said you have to have decades of experience before being able to contribute or provide insight that even the CEO him/herself did not see or have?

What’s the potential flaw of a Flat Organization? An absence of honor.

By definition, honor means high respect or great esteem for a person or thing that brings credit. In some ways this potential flaw is a good sign because it means you might have a young, growing organization full of passionate and ambitious people. However, a leader can seriously undermine their [flat] organization if they do not keep an eye on or learn how to proactively promote “honor” as a defining behavioral characteristic of their company’s culture. 

I recently had a newer employee who needed to be confronted due to behavior that was less than desired. Though the subpar behavior was approached with honor, respect, and consideration via another tenured employee, the newer employee immediately became defensive, challenging the intentions of the tenured employee who, for the right reasons, wanted to bring the poor behavior of the newer employee to their attention in order to find a partnered and productive resolution. 

The newer employee’s attitude highlighted a potential threat to and weakness of our organization’s culture. At the same time, the employee’s behavior reflected the good things about the culture: An awareness of the power they’d been given and the opportunity to contribute immediately. This employee, however, failed to understand and therefore demonstrate what should be the backbone of every Flat Organization: Honor — an understanding of and great esteem for those who preceded them. 

THE FIX

It is not unusual for any organization to have multiple generations of employees, especially when growing and succeeding at what they do. Because the 1st or 2nd generation of the business can have months, years, or even decades more experience, it’s not difficult to understand why generation 3 or 4 might have an immature response to direction, confrontation, or an immature understanding of their responsibilities in light of their present opportunities and freedoms. 

In other words, just because you’ve been empowered, don’t forget that you are where you are because of others who have gone before you. These people often have much more experience than you do but are smart enough to know that the future of the business depends on creating an environment where young professionals are respected, heard, and get opportunities (before they deserve them), knowing some will rise and run with it while others will fall or freak out.

In this specific case, the new employee had to talk with another level of experience (tenure) to be encouraged and reminded of what a Flat Organization is and what it is not. What it is NOT, is an organization that allows an unwillingness to recognize and appreciate the hard work, dedication, and grace of those who have gone before us and on whose shoulders we stand.

The fix for this potential problem is intentionality in honoring others. One of the ways this can be done is intentionally creating a culture of celebration by actively looking for ways to honor or demonstrate high respect and esteem for the credit(s) another has or is establishing. 

SUGGESTIONS

(a) Take the lead in finding ways to express respect and esteem for the efforts of others. 

(b) Create opportunities to reflect and recall others’ prior sacrifices.

(c) Find the forgotten. Make sure the “middle kids” don’t feel left behind. 

I’ve learned a lot from those who have gone before me and I am grateful for the front row seat I’ve had as my Dad garnered experience that serves me today. I’m encouraged knowing that the experiences I’m facing today may be used to teach my own children, let alone others, and shape a new generation of leaders.