After finishing school, I worked in several small and privately-owned companies. The hierarchy there is simple—the founder is usually the CEO, and everyone else reports to him or her. Small companies often specialize and work in a niche.
It took me four years of working in a big company to figure out its structure and social dynamics of different groups of employees. Below is my current understanding.
Most employees in a big company can be grouped into:
- Middle managers
The groups are often drawn as a pyramid with executives at the top, probably mimicking the organizational chart and visualizing the relative number of people in each group. However, I find that three pillars supporting a roof is a more apt metaphor because all three groups must perform well to run a successful company.
Experts are the workers that have the necessary skills and knowledge to deliver a service or create an artifact, be it preparing a meal in a restaurant, teaching a foreign language, or assembling a financial report. The type of work is vastly different by industries, but the output of experts is what the company delivers to the market and the main reason for the company’s existence. Customers don’t care about the vision of any company or what the goals for next year are; customers care if a service or a product satisfies their needs.
Experts usually desire stability. Of those who strive to improve their craft, a stable environment allows them to take the necessary time to hone their skills. Steady improvements make experts satisfied and their company better off in the end.
Executives are at the opposite end from experts. Executives are working entirely strategically, often with no direct connection to the output of the company or the experts that make it happen. Executives set company goals, manage resources, handle external stakeholder relationships, and generally make sure a company is running well. Executives hold a lot of power but also most of the responsibility. If a company is not performing well, they are held accountable.
Executives always keep an eye on their industry and competitors, and would like to try out as many new ideas as possible hoping one of them will turn into “the next best thing.” Words like innovation and disruption are clichés, but they describe what many executives strive for.
Managers have two aims:
- They maintain a communication channel between experts and executives. New ideas, progress, and problems are bubbled up, and goals and priorities are trickled down.
- They create an environment where experts can accomplish stated goals, and they achieve it through hiring, setting processes, providing tools and resources, holding regular feedback and training sessions, and monitoring.
Middle managers allocate work to experts in such a way that the work supports their company’s goals. Managers often need to step out of their circle of responsibility and influence another group of people to push forward critical efforts and initiatives.
The tension between stability and disruption
Experts and executives have almost opposing goals. Most experts would prefer a stable environment: a steady job and an opportunity to improve their craft. Most executives, on the other hand, observe from a different vantage point and see that a static environment may become obsolete. A delicate dance between stability and disruption ensues. Too much stability might make a company irrelevant, costing experts and everyone else their jobs. Too much disruption might make a working environment too ambiguous and disorganized, forcing people to leave for more stable jobs.
Managers often stumble during the dance. Many of them played the role of an expert not so long ago, and still appreciate the drive for perfection. However, they also gain a better understanding of how broader efforts fit together. Managers realize that, in some situations, restrictions on their teams might allow other teams to succeed for the benefit of everyone in the company. It is a painful realization, but a necessary one.
The two forces—stability and disruption—are pulling in opposite directions, but it isn’t clear where they meet for a healthy balance. The point of balance depends on the company and industry, and will also change over time. I was often confused by seemingly opposing statements employees make in the same company: “We should move faster and try out more ideas” or “We’re too fast and just accumulate debt.” How could both be true at the same time? It’s the tension between two opposing views, which are both, paradoxically, required for a company to function properly. It’s critical to recognize that the tension exists everywhere. Therefore, the main question you need to ask yourself is, how do you work and thrive under that tension?
This essay stemmed from an idea first intended for Lessons from the corporate world.