Holacracy. Self-management. Distributed leadership. You’re probably already aware of the management models that eliminate hierarchy—and with it, managers. The goal is to empower all employees to make decisions and peel away layers of bureaucracy that are thought to hold back innovation. That, in turn, is supposed to help attract more talent, increase productivity, and accelerate growth.
Over the last decade, companies including Zappos, Medium, and Buffer have embraced flat organizational structures. But these experiments don’t always work. After adopting a self-management model in 2014, Buffer's team struggled to adapt. Employees felt overwhelmed by their new freedom. They felt lost without expectations, guidance, and accountability. By the following year, COO Leo Widrich had reported, "Hierarchy has once again become a central part of how we work again at Buffer."
Through this experience, Buffer learned one very important lesson: If you don’t impose hierarchy from above, it may emerge naturally.
The truth is, some employees have more experience and expertise than others. That’s why their peers intuitively look to them for advice and leadership. But leadership doesn’t have to be centralized. If you’re considering a shift toward distributed leadership but aren’t sure if going completely flat is right for your company, consider embracing joint leadership. Yes, it means you'll have more managers, not fewer—but that could be just what your growing company needs. Here's why.
Joint leadership simply means dividing what's typically one person's managerial duties between multiple people, who put their heads together to make leadership decisions. By adopting this model, you can benefit from two unique skill sets and personality types.
Let's say you hire two people to lead customer success at your SaaS startup instead of one. Over the course of their careers, both of those people have developed a core set of strengths. The first person you hire has 10 years of experience: seven years in technical customer support followed by three years in customer success. He's a seasoned team leader with considerable technical expertise. Plus, his ESFJ personality is likely to help encourage a cooperative team spirit.
The second person you hire has eight years of experience: three years as an account manager, two years as an account strategist, and three years as a marketing consultant. She has a history of working directly with executive-level personnel and a proven ability to drive growth at scale. Plus, her INTJ personality is likely to help foster a culture of achievement.
Despite their strengths, each lacks important skills that could derail their efforts. By hiring (or promoting) two leaders with complementary skills, you significantly reduce their risk of failure while leveraging their individual strengths.
Joint leadership doesn’t mean paying two C-level salaries instead of one. In fact, it’s not always suitable for seasoned professionals. But it’s ideal for those with less than five years' experience.
Career progression is a top priority for people early in their careers. By allowing your most promising young employees to take on more responsibility, you can satisfy that hunger without promoting them into roles they’re not quite ready for.
Putting your trust in someone who's inexperienced may feel like a risky move, especially in a startup environment. Dividing managerial responsibilities between two high-potential employees will help you lessen the risks while leveraging both of their talents and ambition.
We all want motivated, committed employees. But when they become competitive, it can threaten the harmony of an organization’s culture. The truth is, high-growth companies and startups can be very political places to work. From mid-level managers to executives, employees often compete with one another—and not just for sought-after resources.
Because every decision can affect the future of a small company, what one employee does can have a big impact. Savvy employees know this and feel motivated to maximize their own influence. And because it's a person’s connections and achievements that push their careers forward, this effect is often amplified when high-profile personalities are involved.
Hiring two people to manage one function can help eliminate these power struggles. In fact, the shift in language that accompanies joint leadership can have a tremendous impact. For example, speaking in terms of "we" instead of "I" can instill a more team-oriented culture. That's just one more reason why adding managers might mean having less conflict to manage.