Frustrated of losing your hierarchical power ? Become a client instead !

Summary : many managers fear that the future evolution of their role will make them lose the control of their team’s work. That’s a situation others experience more positively by turning the hierarchical link into a customer/provider one. Obviously more efficient, the latter raises once again the discussion about trust in the organization.

For many people, the current evolution of organizations raises many questions and make them lose their points of reference, one of the hottest topic being the evolution of the hierarchical link and the increasing autonomy of employees. How can one make sure that the job is properly done without being able to mandate ?

There are many ways to tackle this point.

• Increase trust : in many cases it appears that the the ability to mandate and punish are only a substitute for trust and that a new mix has to be found.

• Adopt a service approach. That can take different forms.

As seen at HCL, it can mean reversing the management line : each level of the organization is committed to serve the one that’s directly below. The logic is to consider that the more one is close to the customer the more he contributes to value creation so the further from the customer the more need to support those who are closer. No easy to manager in terms of change but, at least, managers have a clearly defined role and mission and know their contribution to others’ success will be recognized.

Another approach is the one I started to elaborate a couple of years ago in this post about the Service Oriented Organization. Each person or entity is not locked into a vertical role but becomes a service available for external and internal customers. There again, it’s a big change but makes roles more clearer. Managers’ role is to put and articulate services together.

So it’s easy to see that the question raised by the evolution of the hierarchical link is not that much about the end of power and control but about the vagueness in which the new situation is emerging and the fuzzy definition of roles, powers and responsibilities of everyone.

It’s all summed-up in a discussion I recently had with a manager who explained me his role and challenged.

His staff was to be made of two kinds of employees. “Field performers”, directly in touch with the customer, he was managing through 3 middle-managers and a team of experts that was supposed to support the others and help them find technical solutions to customer’s problems. That’s been the situation for years? Today, he’s not managing the experts team anymore, he lost the hierarchical power, even if this team is still working for him. When he explained it to me, he looked at me with a large smile and told be “now, I’m their client…And it’s even better than before”.

Let’s try on understand why he was that satisfied.

What was his exact need ? The team is question was supposed to make end-of-line employees more successful. In the past, he used to manage the work of both as well as how they worked together. So he was sure that things were done the way he wanted but it implied he had to manage a lot of relationships. Becoming a client did not change anything in terms of committment : the experts are still committed (morally and legally) to customer satisfaction. They even became more accountable, not from and individual standpoint but a collective one : it’s not about how one does his work but the team’s reputation as a whole. As a client he even benefited from an increased specialization of the expert team that had more interest on improving their practice and internal organization. He could manage his own time more effectively because he did not have to perform a dual management (vertical for line employees and horizontal for experts) anymore. More, the same transformation happening in every regional location of the enterprise, the many local teams operating in silos being replaced by a global one, we can even expect the the average expertise will increase overtime because of better knowledge sharing within an experts pool providing expertise to all the business units.

What should we learn ?

Behind the question of the loss of power lies two concerns : making sure the work will be done (quality) and the way it will be done (means).

For what’s about quality, nothing proves that an employee complying with an order is more efficient and delivers better quality than another delivering a service. We can even think than, in terms of personal engagement and committment, it’s the contrary. Moreover, in the above case, the organizational change comes up with a gathering and a mutualization of expertise, a continuous improvement of practices that is obviously a good thing for the internal client.

For what’s about the way things are done there are two options. Either there’s a unique best way of doing things (possible in many industries and activities) and, in this case, nothing will change, either there’s not, what raises the question of the role of the manager. Is he the one we knows of the one who supports others? And even if he’s supposed to be the one who knows, is it enough to be a good manager as it becomes more and more obvious that’s execution and management do not require the same skills at all, that an average performer can be a great manager or leader ?

At first sight, shifting from being a manager to being a client is the right solution in many cases, most of all to focus on one’s goal and don’t care about peripheral jobs. Easier for managers who focus on what matters, better for employees that become more accountable and get more recognition, better in terms of collective efficiency. But, to make the system work, you need managers to trust others…what is not a concern that’s related to the nature of management…but to the personality of the manager.



Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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