There is a company, not in our industry, that has moved to a new organizational form with no supervisors. We will not name the company, as the information is mostly gathered from the Internet and as with most online information, some may be accurate while some may not. The org chart is basically executive management at the top and underneath are more than 300 people, who report to the executive team. While we are proponents of reasonably broad spans-of-control when configuring an organization, this brings new meaning to the concept of “flat organization.”
On the surface, it seems like a pretty zany idea. The company encourages people to find their niche in whatever department they want, contribute to the department’s success and take ownership for their contributions and mistakes. The Internet offers up no clues regarding how people are hired, let go or measured.
From what we read, the operation has been in place for several years. The environment has evolved to a structure where no one has boss-type titles but the leadership roles have been replaced with alpha-dogs (some teammates call them bullies) who, through some process akin to natural selection, have filled the role that supervisors might have in traditional companies.
The strongest or maybe the loudest people assume quasi-leader roles in the tribe/department. One observer indicated the environment operates much like high school. From the context, we don’t think the high school reference was a compliment. To us, this seems similar to the old-fashioned organizational structure called anarchy. We always try to be open-minded and are interested in new ways of running businesses but this is a real stretch for us.
Leading and following are probably part of our DNA. People seem to be programmed to expect and respect leaders and are probably uncomfortable in situations where none exist. If any wholesaler has or does adopt this new type of organization, we would love to hear from you and then report on your experiences.
Lead, Manage, Coach, Evaluate
The topic this month is supervisors and leaders — why we like them and recommend that you have them. The traditional role and, in our mind, the proper role of a supervisor is to organize, lead, manage, coach, evaluate and build teams of people. The organization mentioned previously seems to assume that, somehow, all these functions will be accomplished as people wander around trying to find their niche. Thousands of years of experience would indicate that good supervisors can optimize the productivity of groups of people through their actions.
• Best practices support the supervisor. In organizations of any size, there is a benefit from creating “best practices” wherein the company determines and develops a “best” way to do a task or process, then codifies the details. With best practices as the foundation, supervisors can build upon the corporate experience of their predecessors vs. a clean reboot.
Best practices provide a framework for the company’s or department’s operation. Supervisors can insist that all who perform a process do it the best way. If someone discovers or develops a better way, there must be a method to evaluate and, as appropriate, improve upon the best practice.
Most executives in the industry seem to agree with the idea, yet we still see many companies where there are few documented best practices. We assume the company’s operational processes are passed down from previous generations of leaders in a fashion similar to the way the cavemen taught their next generation in the ways of the Neanderthal. While most wholesalers no longer gather around a campfire in a dark cave (due to OSHA regulations regarding open fires), they now gather around a PowerPoint projector in a dark conference room instead.
They no longer serve antelope entrails in favor of donuts; otherwise, the process is pretty much the same. Of course, all attendees take copious notes that they have at the ready as they perform their daily duties. The only thing retained from these sessions is probably the donuts, which become a permanent part of the attendees’ waists. Wholesalers seem to have forgotten the practice of writing things down, which can aid in the consistent propagation of information.
• Supervisors fine-tune the organization’s operation. Even the most organized companies cannot codify every process of their operation. If they were able to document them fully, the size of the file would discourage anyone from reading it. Plus, situations vary, requiring on-the-fly interpretation and adaptation of best practices to the current circumstances. The supervisor is the position in the company where organizational knowledge and experience is kept and applied.
• Supervisors must have a process allowing them to evolve the composition of their team. In a consulting assignment, we observed a new supervisor with a small team of people to manage. Along with the specific objective of improving group performance, he also was told he could not change the members of the team. He could not add people or remove people from the team (such as playing poker without the ability to draw).
We don’t believe this is fair in poker or in giving a supervisor a new role. The supervisor should not have the authority to fire people blatantly; however, it needed to be clear that, with oversight, he did impact his team’s compensation and continuation in their jobs. Otherwise, the supervisor’s only leverage was to continually say, “If you don’t do this, I will tell Mom!” — which only works in situations where siblings are involved.
• The best supervisors are people people. While this may not be a perfectly accurate statement, in our experience, good supervisors care about people. They respect people and express sympathy and empathy. They demonstrate people skills in a clear way their team recognizes. We don’t believe the bully-leaders from the “no-boss” company probably get high marks for their people skills or their ability to build corporate spirit.
• Not all great “doers” are great supervisors. In our industry, the glaring example seems to be in the area of sales management. Many companies, quite naturally, assume their top salespeople are the proper candidates for the sales manager job when it opens up after the existing sales manager leaves the company, retires or runs screaming from the building (after an episode wherein he has explained to a senior salesperson that the solution to a margin problem is not in selling more jobs at a loss and “making it up in volume” is not possible).
Over the years, we have seen that the skills of a good salesperson are not the skills of a good sales manager. Occasionally, you will find a candidate who will have both sets of skills but in our experience, this is the exception, not the rule. Thus, candidates must be evaluated primarily on their supervisory skills before being promoted to a sales manager job.
• Find supervisors who want to do what supervisors do and are good at it. In many companies, the only way to get promoted is to seek a supervisory job. So, not surprisingly, the upward-interested people start jockeying for the small number of available supervisory jobs. The obvious problem — many people who want the money and the respect given to a supervisory title are not suited to a supervisor role.
Pre-employment testing can help you identify those with potential. Some don’t like people. Some don’t enjoy the administrative duties. Some don’t want the greater responsibility. Some don’t want the added work. Some just stink at being a supervisor. It is critical to promote people prospectively with an eye on their suitability.
• Leaders/manager/supervisors at all levels must walk the talk. Getting your team to do things your way is difficult in all situations, even with well-crafted rules and best practices. The team measures the company’s commitment to your rules and best practices by watching how the management team understands, respects, models and enforces them. Consistency is crucial to making it work. As the management team makes deviations or commits minor infractions, your team will often use those situations as excuses for not following the rules themselves.
• Support your local first-line supervisor. We have long bemoaned the lonely job first-line supervisors have in most organizations. This is often an individual’s first supervisory experience. Most likely he was part of the “doer” group and will have friends in the group he now supervises. To do a good job and be perceived as impartial, he will need to change his relationship with the team. First-line supervisors need “supervisor” friends and support from their bosses. However, few organizations identify this need and provide the support crucial for managers to thrive.
• Coaching is critical to good supervision. We have used the t-ball example in the past as it is a visible example of active coaching. The coaches are on the field when the team is on the field. When a play is happening, they are providing guidance in real-time to their players. As in t-ball, the best supervisors in our industry are on the field with their team while the game is played. Their coaching is immediate, consistent, without emotion (other than enthusiasm) and offered so that all players can benefit from the guidance.
• Good coaches spend time preparing their team for likely events. “So Bobby, if the ball gets hit to you, you are going to throw the ball to Timmy at first base. That’s first base over there.Timmy, if the ball gets hit, whoever gets it will be throwing it to you, so be ready.” The idea is to help the team remember what to do when a batter makes a routine play. Unprepared, inattentive t-ball players have an amazing knack for doing inexplicable things when the batter hits a routine ground ball.
In our industry, the example would be: “So Bobby, if the customer says our price is too high, you are going to ask what price he is getting and who is selling at that price. You need to resist the urge to look up the margin in the computer to see how low you can go.” Unprepared salespeople in our industry have a knack for trashing your margins when the customer asks a question that is equivalent to a routine ground ball.
Our industry is still talent-intensive. Thus far, as in sports, the company with the best team doesn’t always win but the odds are in its favor. Supervisors are a huge part of getting the team all moving in the same direction and creating a successful wholesale distribution company. Take time to identify good candidates for the role, train them, support them with best practices, coaching and moral support and, finally, reward them properly for their contribution.