Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Flattening the Org Chart

I learned many years ago in corporate America that I can only manage a handful of people directly. And I don't want the word "manage" to have any kind of negative connotation. If you hire super-good talented people and don't agree on what they're to do, they'll keep busy doing what they think they should do. Sometimes that works, but most times not.

At some level, people need a sense of team work. They need a sense of belonging, a set of common goals, a set of common practices, and a structure so they can support each other. That rarely happens by itself. Maybe the word for this is leadership. Maybe it's culture. Maybe it's vision. Some kind of culture will evolve on its own, but probably not a culture anyone would have chosen.

What won't evolve on its own is training in how YOU operate your organization. How do you work a service request? How do you communicate with clients and each other? How do you choose products, handle the phone, track time, etc.? The best people in the world need guidance and training.

I have learned that I am at my peak of performance when I am managing four or five people. Six is not a problem. It just takes more time. Seven is a problem. Eight is a lost cause. And after that I don't get much done except pushing papers and dealing with little crap. So I need to be in the range of 4-5.

We are just emerging from a major growth-related reorganization at KPE and GLB. My brother stepped out of the daily operations. Then we hired two more techs. That seriously flattened the org chart because I now needed to directly manage the entire tech department. Then we hired a sales guy. Love him, but he needed training and hands-on support in order to be successful. So I also managed him and Jennifer, the office manager.

On the GLB side, Jennifer manages 75% of what people need and I try to do the rest. But Jennifer reduced her hours for about six months. Now, thank God, she's back. In the meantime, the structure at GLB was flatter than the org chart suggests.

The other day someone mentioned that spirits are pretty high in our office on Mondays and that grumpiness settles in by Friday, related in large part to my absence toward the end of the week. I don't walk around with a red wig and a seltzer bottle, but my presence somehow helps people. So I've learned to spend partial days out of the office instead of whole days.

The truth is, just like kids, the staff sometimes loves it when I'm gone. But just like kids they also know it's really best if I'm there most of the time.

And the worst part is that everything in life keeps changing. The staff we have today is not the staff we had a year ago. The interaction and attitude is not the same. The physical office layout is not the same. The goals and the org chart are not the same.

So that makes the learning curve a little bumpy. You can't "figure things out" and then just let it ride. You have to keep working on working on the business.

Today Mike is taking over managing the techs. I'll be hands on while we finish out the quarter and make a smooth transition. But I am greatly relieved of not having to be the direct contact there. Jerry (sales) still reports directly to me, but he spends more and more time out knocking on doors. Jennifer's back to where God intended her to be and that means I can go back to scheming and planning to take over the world.

A few lessons as your company grows/evolves:

1) Learn your limits with regard to management. No human being can be without guidance.

2) Every time someone leaves the company, your org chart flattens a bit. This is true no matter how large your company is.

Someone has to do that work, or the work won't get done.

3) Every time someone is hired into the company your org chart flattens a bit. This is true no matter how large your company is.

Someone has to train and monitor and help the new person learn the culture. That's time taken away from other things.

4) Don't pretend this won't happen. Someone (you or another manager) will have to step into more of a hands-on personnel management role whenever a change is made.

Accept it. Jump in with both feet. Get it done and get it over with. The more you resist jumping back in, the longer it will take to get the training and guidance done to the point where you can jump back out.

5) Get back out of this temporary role in a reasonable amount of time. Don't let your organization flatten and then stay flattened. Force yourself back to your proper role and let the people you've hired do their jobs.

One of the greatest lessons of The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber is the story of when the assistant/lifesaver left and the bakery owner jumped back in to do all the work herself. She had to go through a painful lesson that you can't take back all the work -- at least not for long.

As small business owners, we need people who are willing to do whatever it takes. If someone is above taking out the garbage or helping with a big mailing, they need to get a job in a big corporation. This includes the boss. You need to be willing to jump in and help your team when they need it the most. One of the recurring events where you team needs you is during times of growth.

At the same time, you need to also step back and do YOUR job, which is to run the organization. You can't do that if you've permanently placed yourself at the wrong spot on the org chart, or you've let a temporarily-flat org chart become permanent.


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  1. I agree completely! But as one of the Managers below the person that needs to let stuff go, how do I convince him to let me manage?

    I have the e-myth book on my pile to read, but I don't see him doing that.

    I even have it in writing that he's going to hold me accountable for my tasks, but still won't pause before a knee-jerk reaction to see if I can handle each situation.

  2. I'm sorry I don't have an answer for that Mike. People have to decide for themselves to change.

    It sometimes takes a long time to give things up, for a variety of reasons. But unless a manager gives them up, they become the choke point for the organization.


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