Commentary

Who do you report to?

June, 2022

By: Frank Olsson

President New Zealand Europe Business Council

I have come to believe that this question has been given too much relevance and aligns with other words and concepts (like ‘he works for me’) signs of old and unenlightened command and thinking. Answering the question only suggests something about pecking order, and in most instances, this should be irrelevant to the outside world.

A better way of viewing things is to talk about ‘supporting lines’ and reverse the arrows. Any successful organisation nowadays must be market / customer focused, and the most important role of all who are not in customer contact is to support and enthuse those who are.

The traditional organisation chart does little to reflect modern workplaces. As Jan Carlson, then CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, showed in his book ‘Moments of Truth’ or in direct translation “Tear down the Pyramids” argues and shows, hierarchy is out, and engagement and responsibility is in.

When I issued bonds through Morgan Stanley in New York in 1977 as treasurer of The City of Stockholm, I asked ‘who is the Managing Director of Morgan Stanley’. The response was, we don’t talk about that, we are all empowered to deal with and meet customer demands. 

The most important actions in most companies occur between the line and the customer. Smart organisations give as much status, responsibility, and encouragement to the front line as they can. Good front liners are driven by an innate desire to further company strategy, which in most organisations must be to provide the best possible service to the customers.

Jeffrey Immelt, ex CEO of GE, is quoted as saying that good managers will give credit to her / his staff for anything that goes well and take responsibility herself / himself for anything that goes wrong.

The CEO is the ultimate servant. An interesting line in this respect is Matthew 20:27 which says; “I came to serve and not to be served. Anyone among you who wants to be great, must be a servant.” The CEO is the ultimate servant responsible for serving and supporting all staff in such a way that strategic aspirations and goals can be met.

A modern organisation chart should emphasize how customers, existing and potential, are served. When you buy a refrigerator, the wiring at the back is irrelevant to all but the manufacturer. All the customer wants to know is how do I open the door and is the size and shelving adequate. An interesting quote on customers is from Mahatma Gandhi: “Honoured Customers. A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider on our premises. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so. A customer is not a person to argue with. No one ever won an argument with a customer.”

Few would disagree that the customer is the purpose of any business. And if this is so, then the most important staff are those interacting with and serving customers. They need to be made to feel important. They need to be encouraged and empowered. They need to be told that the success or otherwise of the organisation depends on their daily customer interactions. Too many organisations confer too much status and power to the hierarchy and too little to where it really counts. Or as Tom Peters, the management guru, says “it is more important to suck down than to suck up”.

Every opportunity to de-emphasize traditional hierarchical pecking order must be taken. If you identify someone in a group saying she / he is the most important, the corollary is that all others are less important, which of course tends to be de-motivating. Everything the organisation says and does should be tested for its impact on corps d‘esprit – which according to the dictionary means: A common spirit of comradeship, enthusiasm, and devotion to a cause among the members of a group.”

In the book ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy, he points out that orders don’t work unless those on the receiving end want to carry them out. For that reason, the role of a leader is often exaggerated. It is only the sum of what all constituents think and that ultimately will result in strong, unified, action. The best plan won’t work unless those engaged in the implementation internalize it and want to make it work. I found these lines in War and Peace interesting.

“Koutouzow (the top commander fighting Napoleon) knew that it was neither the plans of the commander, nor the placing of the troops, nor the number of guns, nor the amount of slain which decide the victory, but that imponderable force called the Spirit of the Army, which he tried to control and guide as far as possible. This unknown quantity, x, is the spirit of the men, their greater or less eagerness to fight, to face danger; it is quite irrespective of the genius of generals, of a formation in two lines, or in three, or of the number of weapons borne by the men, whether clubs or muskets firing thirty shots a minute. Those who are most eager to fight will always be in the best condition for the struggle. The spirit of the troops is the multiplier, which, taking the mass as the multiplicand, will give the strength as a product. The real problem is to ascertain and formulate its value. The strength of an army depends on the spirit that animates it.”

Other words that belong in the past are superior (suggesting that others are inferior), supervisor, which is outdated as far as knowledge work is concerned, ‘direct reports’ which is just a status description with no indication or commitment as to purpose and results. For maximum results, everyone needs to be fully motivated, and any choice of language or attitude that reduces the importance of the front liners comes at a cost. I also find the title ‘personal assistant’ dubious as it can become a status symbol and impinge on external organisational customer focus. Even groupings like ‘executive committee’ need to be handled with care lest all those who are not on it – often the people who deal with customers – are made to feel less important. We must move away from a feeling that “I only do what other people tell me” and instil a feeling of deep personal desire to influence outcomes and the overall success of the enterprise. This leads to a values-based organisation where desirable behaviour is driven by attitudes and convictions rather than commands and monetary incentives.

Who do I report to? If I look at who I talk most to, I report to my customers, existing and potential, and my team members and colleagues with whom I have daily interactions.

For more information, please email – frank@olsson.co.nz 

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