Wherever many people meet, they organize themselves. Some set the tone and others follow. The hierarchy is quickly complete. Agencies have always organized their teamwork according to this principle, but in today’s world everyone wants to make their own decisions. As it turns out, this is also more efficient.
And thus the culture of new work is propagated. Following behind supposed alpha males is out. Every employee is valuable and has his or her own strengths, which are to be promoted. This insight is increasingly becoming accepted. The aim is to establish cooperation at eye level, in which self-determined action becomes possible. Many companies are currently taking this path. And even in those agencies, where comparatively flat hierarchies have always been used, the classic pecking order is being put to the test.
At Pilot, HR Director Judith Scholten is responsible for organizing the new way of working together. To reassess and redefine leadership, she raises two important questions: “What is the purpose of leadership on the whole? And what do we expect from people who take on leadership roles?” One thing is clear for the HR expert: “People who define themselves through their leadership position and their title alone have no place with us now nor in the future”
Instead of assigning them a place in the hierarchy, she focuses the role of the individual employee. With their individual strengths in each case. These roles are entirely independent of the hierarchy. In this way, Scholten wants to ensure more flexible and agile work. “Even an employee without a conventional leadership title can then assume a leadership role in a customer project.”
Personal responsibility accelerates decision making
Florian Haller is also a proponent of the change towards real freedom of action for individual employees. The CEO of the agency group Serviceplan points out the growing complexity of work processes. These processes require collaborative and integrative ways of working. “This automatically leads to flat hierarchies,” says Haller. For him, new work is not just a fad, but a necessity. “We must remain as close as possible to our customers’ challenges and tasks in the future as well.” This does not exclude hierarchy. A paradox?
At first glance, maybe. On closer inspection, however, hierarchical elements find their place in modern leadership culture because they fulfill an important purpose: they provide a certain clarity and structure. This is also how Pilot manager Scholten sees it. Hierarchy, but different. “At the same time, managers should motivate, trust and develop their employees, while actively and tactfully shaping change.” This enables employees to take responsibility for themselves. This ultimately pays off: “Colleagues who, for example, are particularly close to the customer and thus have a high level of decision-making authority, can act more flexibly.”
Employees’ skills and knowledge are becoming increasingly important. The benefit is that everyone can benefit from the exchange in a flat hierarchical structure. New work is therefore a logical consequence of digitalization and the data that must be made freely accessible within the company to drive business. After all, this is exactly what new work makes possible with the individual knowledge and strengths of the employees. Martin Schnaack, CEO and founder of Avantgarde, deliberately focuses on the new work culture as a growth engine. “When I talk about good teamwork today, I mean working in an interdisciplinary and intercultural way, instead of in silos.” People of more than 20 nationalities now work in interdisciplinary teams at Avantgarde. “Our globally active customers appreciate this.”
New work creates competitive advantages
The new principle has already established itself in Silicon Valley. “The Google, Facebook and start-up scene has long since overtaken agencies in terms of transitioning to new work,” observes Schnaack. “Young talents are much more visible in new work structures and the entrepreneurial potential of employees is both challenged and promoted.” The manager at Avantgarde sees agencies as being tasked with creating working conditions that are more relaxed and flexible, and meet the needs of the times. The more comfortable employees feel, the more they can contribute. A good side effect is that the good internal climate radiates outwards. In the struggle to find the talent an agency needs, this is an important competitive factor. In other words, the more modern the working culture, the greater the success.
A lot still has to be done to achieve this: “Employees must be increasingly supported to work in a more self-determined, self-organized and networked way, while at the same time keep the skill level of those involved at the highest possible level,” says Scholten. In the end, the boss is called upon to act as the hierarchical superior. As the head of the agency, he must make it possible for his managers to fulfill this role outside the operative customer business.
The bottom line:
Leaders and (flat) hierarchies will continue to exist. What is changing is ultimately the understanding of leadership. A few alphas ordering a pack of betas around is ultimately not conducive to the goal, because it ignores the strengths but also the needs of each individual. This ultimately damages the agencies themselves. In the new world of work, only those who focus on networked thinking are successful. Agencies must therefore organize themselves in such a way that they can create a space, in which their employees can act autonomously.