Rethinking roles – invert your hierarchy?

Richard Martin




Every organisation exists for a purpose, to do something. The simplest example I can think of is a school. A school exists to provide the best possible learning experience for its children. Who are the people directly responsible for that? It is of course the teachers and teaching assistants. They are the ones with the daily interaction with the pupils and who will define whether those pupils get what they want/need from the school. Without the teachers and teaching assistants the school does not function. In many ways, therefore, the teachers are the most important people employed by the school.

Who helps the teachers and the teaching assistants to deliver their best work – who supports them in performing the most important activity of the school? It will be their line managers – typically year heads in senior schools or deputy/assistant heads in primary schools. They are the ones who ensure that teachers are best equipped to do their work, who monitor that work, provide feedback and training, and do the planning to ensure that the teaching, and resulting learning, is of the highest level possible. But, crucially, they are a support to the teachers. They may also teach, whether regularly or to fill gaps in the timetable, and they may be the people to whom problems are addressed, but their primary function is to support the best possible work of the teachers.

Who supports the line managers? In our school example it would be the head teacher. S/he is there to help the middle managers do their best possible work, to support them and to make the decisions that will enable them to do their best work. As with the middle managers they too may have some teaching responsibilities and will be required to intervene when problems arise, but their primary role is as a support, enabling other managers to enable the teachers to do their best work. Setting the tone, guiding overall direction, maintaining standards, all crucial aspects of the head’s role, are all fundamentally about helping the teachers do their job.

Seen in this way, a school staffing structure would have the teachers at the top, with middle management below them and the head teacher at the bottom.

Which of course is the exact opposite of how we traditionally think of an org chart or staff structure. We always put the CEO, in this case the head teacher, at the top. It seems to me to be unhelpful (inaccurate perhaps) and also to place unrealistic expectations on the CEO. It also disguises from everyone in the structure their role – the CEO becomes someone to direct and control rather than support and enable. The key relationship for the middle managers becomes the one above them – the CEO – rather than the crucial focus for them which should be their team, the teachers. It also encourages people who are looking for advancement to move away from the very thing that the school is there to do.

Obviously, where I am going with this is that the same applies to any enterprise, any business. What does the organisation exist to do, and who does that? Everyone else is there to support them in doing that to their best ability. Businesses are complex of course. There will often not be a neatly definable group of people who deliver the product or service in the same way teachers do in a school. But what you can do in most organisations is look at individual teams or departments. Anyone with the word “manager” or its equivalent in their job title is almost by definition there to support the other people in the team to do the best possible work they can. They in their turn are supported by the next layer of management until one ends up (or down) with the CEO.

On one level, inverting your hierarchy may well seem superficial and artificial. I am not suggesting revolution, that the workers be in charge. What it may do, however, is help people at all levels reflect on their role and function. It might help clarify the need for different layers of management and might also dispel the idea that to progress in the organisation, to be important, to have purpose and status perhaps, you need to gain promotion away from doing the very thing the organisation is there to do, and which for many people, particularly professionals, is what brought them to the organisation in the first place.

In many partnerships in the past, and for some smaller partnerships still today, the job of managing partner was one that needed to be done, but which took the partners away from what they wanted to be doing, serving their clients. The role therefore was one that rotated, with each partner being required to serve their turn as managing partner before being allowed back to do the work they wanted to do. Such an approach, of course, does not tend to lead to the best managers being in that role but it underlines the point. It also underscores the view of one managing partner who inspired me several years back by saying his approach to 99% of his interactions with other partners was “How can I best help you to do your job today?”

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