Holacracy is an organisational structure that encourages employees to ignore ‘traditional’ job descriptions and instead work to their strengths to collaboratively achieve company outcomes.
Embraced by tech and innovation led companies Medium and Valve, it recently rose to public attention after WIRED and Fast Company reported online retailer Zappos, known for their customer centric decision making, were embracing the system to improve their productivity and deliver better outcomes.
Holocracy essentially is an organisational model that lies somewhere between bureaucracy and a flat structure. Could companies here in Australia embracing tech do with some of the cold hard truths gleamed from Holocracy principals?
#1 Are job descriptions limiting what your team thinks they could deliver?
In the Holacracy model, job roles are defined around the deliverables, not the individual. Employees can fill several different roles, depending on their strengths.
There is always scope for an individual to deliver value to other parts of the business, given the opportunity, and it’s this premise Holacracy embraces.
As an employer, you have a responsibility to encourage your team to ‘think bigger’. This is not only for your teams’ professional development, but also to safeguard your investment.
People are complex. Everyone has, regardless of whether they’ve articulated it before, professional and personal goals that motivate them to turn up to work every day.
Not all employees know what it takes to achieve their goals. Consider for example, some of comments we hear from job seekers.
- ‘If I get one years experience in this role, I’ll be able to get a promotion.’
- ‘If I can deliver five projects to add to my portfolio, I’ll be in a good position to get a better job in two years.’
- ‘I really don’t like my workplace. It’s not the right fit. I want to move on, but it won’t look good on my CV moving on so soon.’
Limiting? Yes. But true? Absolutely.
Mentors and leaders need to take the role of coaches, helping their team members identify and then action their professional goals. Help them articulate their internal view towards one that benefits both parties.
It’s as easy as asking a few simple questions and offering your support. Ask your team what drives them to continually learn and grow. Offer to support them in achieving their professional goals. Perhaps your Ruby on Rails Engineer may have a hidden a talent for bringing in new business. Your Digital Producer may also be adept at mentoring junior staff.
People are full of hidden surprises and as an employer it is your duty to develop them. You might even uncover a few who would rather be doing something completely different.
#2 Are your team delivering to their strengths – not just project outcomes?
It can be easy for both employers to put employees in a box, based on their immediate skill set and it’s this premise Holocracy challenges.
We see this a lot in recruitment. Digital specialists that come to us when they are looking for new opportunities say they’re bored, and that their current employer doesn’t challenge them.
As an employer, it can be easy to assume a tech employee is the sum of that one skill set listed on their resume. In fact, digital specialists are some of the most agile and adept at embracing new skill sets due to the speed at which technology develops.
Just like a good wine, our talents only improve with age. As we embrace new technologies, work on projects that stretch our thinking and surround ourselves with people who bring out the best in us, our capacity for learning and adapting grows.
Consider whether your team members have more capacity than immediately meets the eye. Do they have skills that are not being flexed in their current role? Could they be delivering value to others areas of the business outside of their immediate deliverables? Can they contribute to the wider growth of the company?
If they enjoy a skill set, more often than not, they are likely either pretty good at it, or, will have an inclination to learn more about it (to then get really good at it). But you have to give them the option first.
Put it this way. If your team have a proverbial carrot dangled in front of them that ties into achieving, with your support, their personal and professional goals, they’ll more likely be happier at work, be more productive, and most beneficially to you – be loyal to the company that encourages them to grow.
#3 Do you step aside to celebrate successes, or take the credit?
Holacracy advocates decisions made by an empowered individual, rather than bottle necked by managers. Forbes reported Medium embraced this ‘self organised’ style of management, where individuals are encouraged to make decisions around what ‘circle’ they work in.
It poses the question about the role a manager plays in the success of a project or outcome, who should take ‘credit’ and the role office politics plays in actually getting the work done.
Ask any tech employee what role their work plays in making their manager look good to their manager. More often than you’d like to hear, their job can play a larger role than you may think in making their manager’s manager look good. Tech specialists perhaps know this more than anyone, where their work can be used as a ‘proof point’ for managers who have sold in a tech solution to their internal stakeholders and need it to succeed.
Actor Kevin Spacey says this brilliantly. “If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down”. Consider whether your employees successes and concerns are being heard at a senior level, or whether you pocket those for yourself.
#4 As a leader, do you walk the talk, or just talk the talk?
Holocracy encourages all employees to be accountable to the same rules and regulations, regardless of status. This apparently removes any room for emotive office politics and instead, makes people accountable.
Sounds simple, right? Yet so many owners and senior decision makers think they’re exempt from this basic premise. While grand plans to ‘empower the team to achieve their goals’ sounds good; very few leaders, particularly those who are have founded a company based on their ability to develop or monetise a product, actually have the soft skills to coach and develop people.
It’s a little ‘left brain vs right brain’ type scenario. People who develop products have incredible insight around understanding how systems and technology work to create innovation. However, the same doesn’t always apply for ‘soft skills’ – e.g. developing humans, who have needs, emotions and are constantly evolving.
What leaders need to remember, particularly in tech or start up industries, is that leadership shouldn’t be a given – it is earned. And the higher up the pedestal you go, the more accountable you need to be to your team.
Julie Gerberding, M.D, speaking to Bloomberg Business, said it best when describing a piece of paper she had taped to her computer. “Leadership is a privilege”, it reads. Currently the Executive VP for strategic communications, global public policy and population health, and a leading infectious disease expert, she is in a highly influential position where her recommendations can affect outcomes. Leading with empathy, and recognising your privilege, rather than focusing purely on outcomes, is a skill some tech leaders have yet to finesse.
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