Spreading the leadership wealth

Shuffling boxes on an organizational chart is a lot like succumbing to our favorite comfort food – it may prove initially satisfying, but as a long-term strategy might lead to more harm than good.This month’s Future of Everything panel was entrusted with the weighty task of considering organizational structures, the capacity they carry and the culture that energizes them. Composed of human resource and organizational development practitioners, this panel was a “who’s who” of professionals on the front line of constructing new organizations.What they quickly discovered is that regardless of the improving economy, our future organization might not really look much different than it does today.Faced with rapid changes in technology, the workforce and the economy, there might not be a physical change in our organizations as much as a cultural one.How we organize may be less important than how we engage and connect with one another.

A standard default activity when things aren’t going well in a company is to take out the org chart and rearrange the boxes. This logical act might lead to some initial efficiency, but the real improvements won’t be found in the boxes, they will be found in the communication and culture around the boxes.

Org charts are usually designed around power and authority, and allow us to know who we should be paying attention to for our own sake. The higher the box, the more weight the position carries.

Today, however, power and authority may undermine and distract the real work of collaboration, honest and direct communication and the ability for people to work in productive teams. Therefore, the future organizational chart may look as it does today, but the protocols will be more open, communication will be freer, employees will act empowered and each box on the chart will be operating independently, with authority and power of its own for the good of the entire organization.

The concept of leadership is born from, and closely linked to, traditional thinking about how we structurally organize. So while we emphasize leadership, mentoring and coaching in our organizations, we typically do so in a very traditional way that is based on honoring hierarchical authority. Our panel believed that as we see a shift in organizational behavior that is more open and empowered, we also may see shifts toward distributed leadership and mentoring models.

For example, consider employees who fit very neatly in the engineering org chart box, they also may be contributing to marketing and R&D projects. Therefore, they may be led or be leading people outside their formal organization. In addition, the same engineers may be mentoring a recent grad in marketing and be mentored by the executive in another division. As we become freer in our organizations, and the protocol changes to merit the rewards of collaboration and organizational freedom, professional horizons change and who we will learn from and teach will expand.

In short, formal structure will not go away because we need it to stay on task, measure our results, and ensure that our work stays close to our mission and purpose. The org chart will always exist and tell us much about what we need to focus our efforts on. But the culture and behavior around that chart may shift.

Like anything in life, there are no absolute answers. We can create the perfect mousetrap by tightly structuring an organization to operate a certain way, but that won’t automatically guarantee productivity. The real answer lies not in juggling boxes on an org chart, but in promoting communication that allow all workers to express their creativity and leadership. To move boldly into the future, we need to quickly move beyond the rigid thinking of the past.
Dr. Russ Ouellette, managing partner of Sojourn Partners, a Bedford-based executive leadership coaching firm, is project manager of the Future of Everything. Core project participants on this topic included Rick Gallin, human resources director at Veeco Solar, Morgan Smith, director of organizational development at Catholic Medical Center, and Fran Allain, employee retention manager for the New Hampshire Division of Economic Development. For more information, contact 603-472-8103 orruss@sojournpartners.com.