Move over, CEOs: Small teams are the leadership of the future — here's how to harness bottom-up culture
- Barry Lowenthal is the CEO of global media buying agency Media Kitchen.
- As businesses shift because of the pandemic, it's time to reconsider traditional top-down organizational structures, he writes in this op-ed.
- We're witnessing a slow and natural shift toward Holacracy, which gives decision-making authority to individual teams and in turn raises the bar on service, benefiting both the business and its clients.
- Remote work means senior leaders are less visible at companies, so the strongest emotional connections are happening at the team level — and smaller teams have stronger bonds.
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Like every other part of business, the pandemic has transformed the ways agencies manage their operations and nurture their culture.
The popular organizational structure of top-down decision-making and bottom-up work, with CEOs at the top of the pecking order, has been embraced by many agencies for decades. But this traditional hierarchy is facing some real challenges in today's environment, which warrants a fresh look at alternative ways to organize agencies and businesses.
One such alternative is Holacracy.
Instead of organizing a business around the decisions of senior management and then disseminating those decisions to lower layers of employees to implement, Holacracy gives decision-making authority to individual teams.
These teams are formed around natural areas of the business, such as individual accounts or business units. And rather than lumping all creative employees together or all sales employees together, team members have complementary skill sets, allowing them to make decisions and execute on tasks autonomously, while still organizing around the business' goals or mission.
When we were all working together in an office, CEOs and agency leadership were very visible.
Staff could see them working and hear them talking to clients, vendors and each other, and take cues on acceptable conversation and business etiquette.
In the traditional hierarchical structure, norms, values and even knowledge are shared from leadership to the staff. Staff responds and reacts — and sometimes leadership must course-correct, or staff must be replaced. There is a natural flow up and down the organization.
But like so many other things, this natural flow has been disrupted by COVID-19. Staff can no longer overhear conversations or witness interactions. There aren't hallway discussions that reinforce values or suggest behavioral shifts.
Today, while we're all working from home, the people we talk to the most are our teams.
They're the people we work with to deliver great client service every single day. Our teams share our deadlines, our data, and our mission to deliver to the client. Teams also reinforce good behavior and punish bad behavior, like missed deadlines that compromise the reputation of the team. CEOs and senior leadership are less visible, and fewer people within the organization have an emotional connection with them. The strongest emotional connections happen at the team level — and smaller teams have stronger bonds.
More and more, agency culture starts from the bottom up and is supported, but not dictated, by senior leadership.
A CEO, for example, can articulate what's important — in the world, in the industry and within the agency — but he or she becomes more of a figurehead, responsible for resource allocation, while the soul of the agency lives within the teams.
What we're observing is a slow and natural shift towards Holacracy, which is, in turn, empowering individuals and teams, and raising the bar on service delivery. This not only benefits the business, but also its clients who enjoy more agile and flexible teams that are emboldened and satisfied or find reasons to terminate faster.
In the work-from-home environment, the role of the CEO has shifted — from inspiration to quality control.
Just as the pandemic has accelerated shifts to streaming and e-commerce, it's also shifting organizational structure and the movement to Holacracy, which will speed up decision-making and service as people are organized into smaller and smaller independent teams.
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