On my first day in a new, big, corporate role, my new boss taught me what probably is the most important lesson I ever learned in leading organizations forward: the inverted pyramid.
The idea of inverted pyramid leadership mostly is conceptual when you study it, even though many organizations follow its design philosophy. In this management approach, the frontline worker is empowered with higher decision-making authority and the freedom to act.
Supervisors, managers and other leaders take on the roles of coaches and mentors and remove barriers to allow more pathways to success. When this happens, accountability and decision-making are left at the proper level in the organization, thus increasing participation and partnerships between all groups and levels.
Personally, having spent my early career leading paper mills, I can attest that employees never came to work excited about the chance to make bath tissue, but they were excited for an opportunity to be a business partner in paper manufacturing.
“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of a leader." – John Maxwell
A standard pushback I often hear when I mention this leadership approach to others is, “My organization is not designed to support this direction.” To this, I would respond: Does that stop you from working this way as a leader?
A huge lever in this style of leadership is to recognize that everyone has a part in leading the organization; meaning the more you know, the more of yourself you are expected to give. From the perspective of my boss, I was to go out and make mini versions of me, literally giving away as much knowledge, wisdom and skill as I could muster to support my functional concentration.
Since I led the EHS function, my role was to develop environment, health and safety leaders in the organization. It was intimidating being told to work as if I was working myself out of a job, especially on the first day of my new job, but it was an essential idea in moving the organization forward toward better performance.
“Ineffective people live day after day with unused potential.” – Steven Covey
Another criticism is that this type of management structure is designed for organizations that have a direct relationship with external customers. But is that true?
Spending a long career leading EHS programs, I regarded my chief customer as the workers who were between me and the success I desired. Granted, while some of the organizations I worked for cared little how I achieved success, you can be sure they all wanted success. I’m a firm believer in my former boss’ idea: that for most of us, our chief customer is the person that makes something or provides a service directly impacting the customer.
Herb Kelleher, co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, was asked once if he prioritized shareholders or employees. He said, "Employees come first. If our employees are treated right, they treat the outside world right. The outside world uses the company's product again, and the shareholder is happy."
As you can imagine, when you begin performing work in an approach like I have described, so-called “departments” no longer exist in the way they were once defined. Functional support professionals still have a vitally important role but no longer are viewed as cops, the only technical experts on the staff or the sole decision makers.
Since I was leading the EHS function in my organization, my role shifted to a resource function that empowered others through capability development, capacity alignment and a considerable amount of on-going coaching and mentoring. I firmly believe that for most organizations, performance is best delivered at the manufacturing or service line, utilizing the frontline workers on teams to develop and implement safety, environment, quality, asset management, financial control and most every other business discipline valued by the organization.
Development and Capacity - When considering how to begin, the first step that organizations should recognize is the idea of creating career paths that turn employees into leaders within a discipline valued by the organization. These often are referred to as second hat roles. Employees may be highly capable in delivering products or services, but they also develop themselves to be highly competent in another discipline because they are being trained effectively, are acquiring knowledge and skills and are allowed and expected to give what the know back to the organization.
Coaching and Mentoring - It does not mean you are giving away your title. It’s about using your experience and wisdom to give feedback, to support the work within the triangle, transferring knowledge and teaching people in a way that allows the receiver to pull it away from you with enthusiasm and apply it.
Culture - It’s imperative to build and maintain a productive organizational culture that fosters the desired employee behavior. Admittedly, it is easier said than done. Again, referring to my role in safety, if I was asking workers to create and maintain a workplace free of loss, it was prudent to give them the cultural bandwidth to do it. After all, I was asking the workforce to move from dependence and independence to interdependence. I was asking them to care for themselves, me, their co-workers and the organization. Without an active organizational culture, it’s doubtful that would have occurred.
While it is possible to have success in a challenging culture, it requires a lot more work. In one organization I led, the culture did not support my vision of safety success; compliance was my only objective. In this situation, I developed a micro-culture. This approach often is referred to as a subculture and works within another culture, but aligns itself to the values, vision, strategy and the plans of a specific group or department. To be successful at this approach, you must be good at casting your vision and mission and then support it with a great strategy because you can’t force this kind of change when a culture already is embedded within an organization. It must be valued if you want adoption.
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” -John F. Kennedy
Flipping the pyramid, I have learned through practice, has a tremendous advantage in the way I work as a leader. Does it mean I never take situational command or control? It does not. Again, in my role as an EHS professional, there are times when it is warranted, but I have found that as the maturity of the organization grows, partnerships grow alongside, and everyone understands they are integral to success, even in giving away authority. Simply, the workforce knew that I was the chief expert in my discipline and freely gave me the power to act when needed. However, you will find that as organizational maturity grows, emergencies will lessen.
Oh, and that boss I reported to… He was as he described he wanted me to be. He demonstrated “we” daily and on dozens of occasions when his company plane landed at a facility under my responsibility to do his business reviews. He had a distinct and predictable pattern of going to the manufacturing floor first to see that his ideas of employee inclusion were being implemented and more importantly, to ensure that the frontline workers felt supported, trained and empowered to partner in the business. He was validating – up front – what would later be shared by the senior facility staff in a conference room.
In fact, in the years that I worked for him, these business reviews moved out into the manufacturing production areas where the information was presented by the frontline workers using flipcharts and whiteboards. Why? They owned it. They were our partners in the business and proud of it. It was the power of “we.”
Scott Gaddis is vice president and global practice leader for safety and health at Intelex Technologies Inc. He has served in EHS leadership roles at Coveris High Performance Packaging, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Kimberly-Clark Corp.