This hack proposes to create leadership/management teams in which power, tasks and responsibilities are not distributed across people on the same hierarchical level, but are held by a team representing a number of hierarchical levels within the organization. The team acts as a single leadership entity.
Hierarchies - whether we like them or not – still play a crucial role in the coordination structure and mechanisms of organizations. Whether organizations use flatter or matrix or other designs the basic problems inherent in the existence of hierarchies still exist.
This hack could generally be used to “soften up” the drawbacks of hierarchies, however it is intended to deal with a the following problems.
- Management capacity is always a scarce resource in any organization. Capacity to collect information for decisions and to build commitment for decisions or to provide personalized support is limited, thus strategies developed at the top of the managerial chain tend to distort and to change as they are executed at the lower levels of the organization.
- The different mindsets (we can call them operational foci) are usually present as leaders on the higher level tend to focus on strategic, managers on the lower levels of organization tend to focus on operational issues. This different mindset – regardless of its origins – frequently creates a barrier between different levels of leadership, resulting in reduced organizational flexibility, negative emotions (e.g. anger and anxiety) in participants and miscommunication as well.
- In fast growing organizations where it’s common to recruit and hire management team members from internal human resource pool the expected experience is missing on higher hierarchical levels (short period hierarchical evolution), there is no time to improve certain special skills like experience based intuitive decision making.
- The more and more recognisable split between the management style and in general the work ethics and methods of different generations (Baby-boom, X, Y, Z)…….
I believe that by addressing some basic features of the hierarchic design a number of barriers could be treated in a single step.
Organizations should split leadership roles along the vertical dimension of the hierarchy, by creating small VLTs (Vertical Leadership Teams) Such teams should operate as a single leadership entity.
Such teams are advised to consist of (depending on the size of the organization) around 2-4 members, coming from the interrelated levels of the hierarchy. It minimizing direct-report contacts seems to be a good idea here (however obviously this might not be done easily). In a matrix organization VLTs should not mix the different legs of the matrix!
The VLTs should act as a single leadership entity while interacting with others in the organization.
The real difference of VLTs is that they mix the strengths of the direct report teams (boss sitting together with direct reports regularly) and of the project teams (sitting together from different hierarchical levels around a certain project).
It is obvious that 2-4 people can not live hand-in-hand all the time, so VLTs should meet quite regularly (one or two times a week) and focus their work on non-immediate decisions.
- The time spent together by the VLT should focus on creating the shared understanding. Members from the higher levels should bring in the strategic perspectives, and members from the lower levels should bring in operational perspectives and insights on the current state of affairs at the organization. (Sharing information, bringing in different understandings from the organization..)
- Internally the team has to work on a “weighted” democratic way. They should act as representatives of their respective levels, and in the final decisions the member with the strongest involvement (e.g. in a strategic issue the member on the highest level) has priority.
- How should the members work when they are ‘alone’? Ideally immediate decisions made by members of the VLT while ‘alone’ should be based on the shared understanding of priorities and current realities of the organization. Like in a change management process, the members of the VLT act as “change agents” of the joint leadership decisions in their respective environments. If an immediate issue stretches over the boundaries of the current understanding, then they are of course suggested to consult with each other. However this is not an invitation for the team members to abandon personal responsibility taking.
- Operational distribution of the execution of the shared decisions should be clear among the members, at least on the level of princinples.
- Roles among the members should be kept clear as they work ‘alone’. VLT members act as information managers (collecting and sharing information, helping the creation of shared understanding of managerial decisions etc.) and “managerial access points” on their respective levels. They do take direct roles in exercising control, assigning tasks, allocating resources or appointing authority on their own respective level. They take these roles when dealing with those colleagues who are under them in the hierarchy, and they base these activities on the shared understanding of the VLT.
- The VLT should have a joint and shared responsibility for the (broadly defined) performance of the unit under the highest ranking member of the VLT. Thus the VLT is technically the leader him/herself extended.
Membership in the VLTs can be organized as a part of the internal talent management program. E.g. a high potential can receive a „seat” as the representative of his/her respective hierarchical level in the VLT. Then he/she can move a step up in the hierarchy, assuming a non-VLT membership position, then a VLT membership position on that level and so on… in this sense a VLT can be used as a talent management tool as well.
- Increased amount of information available for leadership decision. As the VLT members are not “just asked about an issue”, but collecting and interpreting and providing information is the key part of their role the information and understanding delivered by them would be more accurate and useful than just asking “simple” team members.
- Increased quality of decisions, as more information and insight is taken into consideration.
- Increased management capacity to manage and support the execution of decisions on the different levels of the hierarchy as the VLT – in a dispersed way – is capable of being present at the various levels of the organization.
- Increased visibility of the management
- Increased learning capacity, as the VLT members face the problems arising from each activity at their own respective environment.
- Stronger shared understanding of management decisions and employee concerns – more fruitful discussions.
Test the idea at a single department/unit just by asking around (stakeholder management :-)).
Set up a VLT team of 2-3 and assign people with strong social background/acceptance to the positions. Experiment with the set-up! The experimentation itself should bring ideas for the next steps