“Tell me about your leadership,” I asked the division manager in front of me.
“Well, a typical day starts with scanning my environment for relevant information and dispatch it in my organization. I also check on the numbers and answer urgent questions or complaints. I am responsible for 4 units with a total of +/- 50 people. I spend a lot of time being available for them, solving day-to-day problems. I manage by walking around. I also have one-on-one meetings with each unit leader every week and we have a team meeting every two weeks.”
The manager estimates that he spends more or less 80 % of his time with his people. The rest he spends in management team meetings, representing his division, or in informal contacts with colleagues. In this particular case, the role of the manager is clearly to ensure the good functioning of his own division without a lot of collaboration with other parts of the organisation. It’s the typical situation of most managers in bureaucratic, hierarchical organisations: leadership as top-down management.
This kind of organizations misses out on potential advantages of collaboration: innovation, cross-selling, coordinated customer service, best-practice sharing, better decisions (Hansen, 2009). Hansen makes a case in his book on collaboration for T-shaped managers. They are effective bosses of their own business unit and engage in cross-unit activities. T-shaped management became the norm in the nineties to enable multi-focal strategies and create cross-country and cross-business line synergies.
Another manager I interviewed in the same organization fits the profile: “I spend about 50 % of my time with my people. I’m responsible for more or less 150 people. I see my role more as a coach. I make sure that people understand the objectives in a very clear way and spend a lot of time empowering them. I also emphasize collaboration between my departments. The other 50 % of my time I spend in the organizational change project and solving hands-on issues with the other divisions.”
T-shaped management in large organizations didn’t always pay-off. Barriers of collaboration can be manifold: rewarding individual performance, insular culture, power struggle, physical distance, weak ties… (Hansen, 2009). As the need for collaboration continues to grow in today’s business environment, one of the main barriers is addressed more and more: tear down the hierarchy and work as a disciplined network.
When organizations become flatter, leaders need also to engage actively in strategy making and unifying the organization. Their top-down management role becomes substituted by shared leadership with strong team practices and systems. Their horizontal role becomes even more important in order to connect people and teams, and solve conflicts of interest. On top of that they become organizational entrepreneurs. They define the organization actively by engaging directly with outside stakeholders, taking organizational initiatives and co-creating the organizational context and strategy as sense-makers and sense-givers. They become 360° leaders.
“I don’t know how my future will look like, once the integrated teams become autonomous,” said a third manager to me. The organization decided to empower multifunctional teams and abandon leadership by positional power. “I expect I’ll have more time to develop in depth knowledge and vision about my domain. I will probably spend more time in my environment, lobbying, connecting with other organisations in other countries. I’m looking forward to that. I will no longer be the boss, but more of an active linking pin.”