Redefining the Corporate Ladder – Moving Across vs Moving Up
The Old Rickety Ladder
When we began our careers, we likely envisioned a ladder. We knew it was a right of passage to begin on the bottom rung but there was always the intention of working our way up. With each climb, there would be an increase in salary and benefits, of course. All we had to do was kick ass in the job for which we were hired, impress the boss and the promotion was ours.
Every company had its own ladder – some with many rungs and some with only a few. One thing was certain, however. The ladder was vertical. There was only one way up. The only way to get there was either from corporate expansion or for some poor soul to be let go or quit, opening up the opportunity for someone below to take his or her place.
These organizations were typical hierarchies, structured around functions, products, customers or geographies. There was a clear line of command and everyone knew where they stood in the org chart. My, how things have changed.
No More Ladder. Now It’s The Slide Steel Guitar
While many organizations still function vertically, increasingly more are turning that old ladder onto its side so it’s more like a slide steel guitar. Some of the primary drivers are the current economic and competitive markets, as well as the always-on mobile environment. With this on-demand global economy, organizations must move quickly to solve business challenges, rapidly bring viable products to market, and rethink their org structures. Layers of leadership add layers of complexity, red tape and delays. There are simply too many people up and down the ladder who must be involved in making business decisions. Time is not on their side.
To respond to these dynamics, there is constant pressure for these fast-growing organizations to be more flexible in their structure. Teams must be able to form and re-form quickly as needed to address issues and projects as they come, without the massive amounts of bureaucracy. Employees must be given the opportunity to cross department lines to offer their skills and talents wherever they are needed most. They can move laterally, back and forth, as opportunities arise. Restricting them to a rung on a ladder, a single job in a single department is to the detriment of the company, not to mention the employee.
Newer org structures, such as holacracies and flat organizations, give employees equal footing. Everyone has the opportunity to contribute in various areas of the business and can move on from being pigeon-holed into one position. They don’t fill a position, they add a valuable skillset that can be leveraged by any project at any time.
What’s in It for Them?
Looking at the organization as a lateral entity rather than a vertical one is radical and unorthodox but for many organizations, it works. Not only are companies more agile and responsive, but employees are happier. They don’t get stuck in a rut and are more fulfilled with wider opportunities for growth within their own company. In fact, opportunities for career advancement was found to be the leading factor on morale in one study. Another found the opportunity to gain new skills and experience increases job motivation and job satisfaction.
Another caveat to consider is the fact that the more employees get to work with each other, the closer and more cohesive they become. When they are resigned to doing only one thing, working on one team, sitting in one department, they have little opportunity to collaborate across party lines. They become siloed physically, intellectually and relationally. A lateral organization promotes a cross-team synergy unfounded with many traditionally structured organizations.
The key to employee retention is helping them feel valued. Instead of hiring an employee to fill a position, they should be hired based on the skills they bring to the table for multiple job roles. Those skills can be continually developed as they work on different projects and with different teams. Employees aren’t valued because they fill a position; they are valued because they have something no one else has. They aren’t just a warm body but a contributing member to the corporate good.
When additional resources are needed, recruiters and managers should ask, “What skills are needed and could be shared across departments?” “What strengths are missing from the company as a whole?” Hire people based on these metrics and you’re building a team of teams rather than a team of one that has limited usage. The real value comes when skills can scale.
Building teams of cross-functional resources who can collaborate on the fly helps the organization be more nimble to both external and internal shifts, changes and opportunities. Employees are more challenged and encouraged to solve issues rather than punch a clock.
Where Do We Go from Here?
For new companies just getting off the ground, shifting perspective shouldn’t be too difficult. Much of the beauty of startups is that they exude collaboration and an “all in this together” attitude. As companies grow, however, it’s not so easy. Natural divisions occur and departments are birthed.
How does an established company reorganize without interrupting operations? No one likes re-orgs but if your company is highly structured, with defined rungs on the ladder and identifiable silos, a re-org may be worth vetting. In the past, the organization became highly structured in order to meet the current market demands and remain competitive. This is still a relevant mindset yet our current market has drastically changed since then. In order to remain competitive, companies must be able to be proactive in their product and service development while being immediately responsive to issues.
The new paradigm isn’t conducive for all org structures. Org charts need to change to reflect the current environment but how?
A complete re-org may not be necessary but business leaders must come together to evaluate how well the current structure is responding to the market. Beyond the ability to bring ideas to market, they must ask tough questions about company culture, employee satisfaction, team productivity, resource capacity and competitive market share. If employees could be let out of their virtual cages to work together across departments, form and re-form based on required skills to solve issues – what would that look like for the company in six months, a year and five years down the road?
Just because a company has been structured one way since its inception doesn’t mean it should stay that way for eternity. Step away from the org chart long enough to see it can be molded into anything. It isn’t a rigid document but a living creation that can breathe new life into your organization and your employees. Give them freedom to roam, freedom to explore and you might be surprised at what they produce.