Tech companies and flat management structures: how ‘coaching skills’ can bring them together

Many associate the small tech organisation with a non-hierarchical leadership structure. Hill Tribe coach, James Leavold, says this can only be achieved if leaders learn to coach instead of manage.

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A few years ago I delivered a training course in coaching skills to a fledging software company based off the M4 corridor. The boss had been sold the concept of coaching and felt it was something his team must have.

In the training room there was the COO, CFO, senior directors, senior managers and managers…but nobody was over the age of 25. The group was evenly mixed in terms of gender and the clothing was more than casual (of the men, nobody wore a shirt, let alone a tie – T-shirts were the order of the day).

Everybody carried a laptop – most had at least 3 mobile devices as well. Even in a break of a minute in the training, for me to retrieve a slide or exercise, all would be on back on their laptops without fail. Lunch prompted the gathering of most of the team to take turns in playing a computer game on a giant screen.

I think you get the picture..

There are many clichés about the small ‘tech’ organisations; the people who work there, the attire, the atmosphere. The one I find most interesting is the idea of the non-hierarchical, flat structure. Often a romantic notion, the belief that this was the way to operate certainly existed in this company. In fact it was what had attracted many of the group I was now facing to be part of this organisation. People at the top claimed to want a company without traditional bosses, a laid back and relaxed environment where everybody got on, all contributed, all shared the rewards. The ’hierarchy’ was just about assigning job titles rather than a rigid chain of command.

But, for some reason, it wasn’t happening.

As I gained the confidence and trust of the training group I had a number of side conversations with various individuals. Some felt the CEO should have also selected himself to be part of the training; it was suggested his choice was typical, and one of many decisions made without consultation with those who might be affected, whether positively or not. A couple of the first-line managers felt that they were expected to work late at the drop of a hat to prepare a pitch, sometimes over a weekend. Some were contemplating going freelance as the only way to gain some control over there working lives and income. Ironically, this had been the way the CEO had started out.

At another point I had a one-to-one with the CEO who came across as an affable and inspirational young man. He aired his frustration that he, and the senior team, felt the front-line staff did not appreciate their efforts to win new business and keep everybody employed.

So why is the ‘flat structure’ difficult to realise?

For a start, none of these leaders (like many others) had had any kind of management development. Just because you’re a tech specialist and/or good at selling does not necessarily mean you’re a great leader. It’s OK not to want hierarchies but all most people have been exposed to, in terms of institutional structure – growing up, school, university, etc – has involved a top down hierarchy. It may be just about possible to imagine something different, but actually making that work remains a mystery.

More out of luck than design, the training in coaching skills provided a practical route to making this flat structure not only attainable but also workable.

What these individuals needed was to be able to coach staff more than manage them in a traditional sense. Instead of using (judgmental) questions such as: “Why has this not worked?” the ‘coach manager’ can ask: “What do we need to make this work?” This type of exchange builds trust. A coach manager can help the staff member formulate visions and goals appropriate to that individual, and better help understand unproductive modes of thinking and behaviour. This is all achieved in the context of providing very little advice or guidance. Good coaching allows the staff member to become truly self-directed.

The reason why people need training in these conversations, is because they’ve rarely had them, rarely witnessed them, and will fall back into old habits if they don’t practise them. It does take a lot of practice, but the results are nothing short of transformational.

To view how a coach manager might deal with a staff problem in a different way to a traditional manager, please watch this 5-minute-video.

If everybody in an organisation learnt these skills, that organisation could become truly flat; front-line staff could even coach directors, new ideas would flourish, rather than courses of action defended. A creative and dynamic organisation would emerge.

If this sounds idealist, I would point out that it was certainly practical and achievable for the company mentioned in this blog, and the results now speak for themselves. I inadvertently planted the seed, but they take the credit for the work needed to embed these skills.

Although the focus of the blog has been ‘tech companies’, I’ve found the same need in many small organisations with young teams. But in the end ‘age’ and ‘organisational size’ does not necessarily matter. The enlightened organisation understands this to be the way forward.

This way of operating is more than just a nod towards the future. Certain trends are giving us a glimpse – Facebook and other social media signal a movement towards more sharing and collaboration in a way that eschews traditional structures.

To emphasis this point, Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society (p380), wrote:

“Today’s youth, connected with one another across virtual and physical space, is quickly eliminating the remaining ideological, cultural, and commercial boundaries.

“When millennials judge political behaviour they have a very different spectrum in mind. They ask whether the institutional behaviour, be it in the form of a government, political party, business or educational system, is centralised, top down, patriarchal, closed and proprietary, or distributed, collaborative, open, transparent, peer-to-peer, and an expression of lateral power.”

Is he right? Certainly about the direction of travel, I feel, but ongoing economic and political uncertainty, means it’s more of a case of two steps forward and one step back.

However, I do believe this kind of business world is just around the corner. An organisation which embraces a coaching culture will get there quicker.

To find out more about how coaching skills could benefit your managers, and receive a free consultation, please visit www.thehilltribe.co.uk/coaching-skills-for-leaders-2  

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