What it is like “on the other side” –
Working in a self-organized company as a junior employee
Whenever I tell people about the fact that I do not have an official leader that I report to at my job, I am faced with puzzled expressions. “How does that even work?” or “Who makes all the decisions?” are some of the most common reactions I get. With many organizations currently transitioning to more agile and less hierarchical structures, I thought I’d share with you what this looks like from the perspective of a new and junior employee.
About the author
As a solution design associate, Jonas specializes in the areas of business strategy and organizational design. In this, he supports customers in implementing holistic and human-centric transformations of their organizations. His interest and experience in business, efficiency, and digital solutions allow him to contribute to internal initiatives as well.
Jonas got certified as a trainer and facilitator during his business and HR studies and discovered his passion for the field there. His broad profile includes having cycled the world for three years from New Zealand to Germany with his partner, distributing tiny houses for a manufacturer after building and moving into their own and running a small photography business on the side. Above all, Jonas is a curious realist always trying to strike a healthy balance between all the exciting things one could try and learn, usually failing miserably at that.
After joining atrain almost eight months ago as a Solution Designer, I now have managed to settle in and get comfortable with this still unusual organizational setup. As a consulting firm with around 100 employees, we do not have a hierarchical structure that could be visualized in a typical organizational chart that has a few people on the top and more and more branching towards the bottom. All of our customer-facing teams, our solution experts, and even our HR colleagues are working in a self-organized way. And yes, none of these teams has a team lead in a traditional management function.
That might seem like a perfect recipe for chaos, but of course, there is some structure in place which takes care of tasks that would be typical management activities. All of the strategic and many of the organizational topics are taken care of by what we call “Councils”. These are staffed with colleagues that focus on contributing to this specific area of the business in addition to their regular day-to-day business as consultants, project managers, HR employees, or digital specialists. Many of them are senior or executive level colleagues, but everyone can apply for a seat on one of the councils if a position is vacant. If my internal application is convincing enough, I could get the position even as a more junior employee. It does not come down to seniority or job titles, but relevant knowledge, experience, and motivation. Being a member of a council does not mean free reign and decision-making, though. The councils run company-wide advice processes for all important decisions to give everyone the chance to voice their opinion, to benefit from all the different perspectives, and to create transparency.
With great power comes great responsibility
When I first started my job at atrain, this way of working was quite overwhelming at first. Having worked in both a corporate setup and a smaller digital agency before, management was always structured along with hierarchical structures. Now nobody is telling me what to do and nobody has direct disciplinary power over me. Instead, power is evenly distributed within my team. We have to decide on the best way to get our work done together.
That means that a single person cannot take most decisions alone, but that everyone has to take ownership of the success and failure of the team. You cannot just defer accountability for a result to “the boss”, but every member of the team has to own not only their own decisions and results but also things that happen on the team level. Of course, there are still different roles and responsibilities within the team, but the overall accountability rests on everyone’s shoulders. If something goes wrong, there is no manager (or anyone else, for that matter) to take the blame, but you have to ask yourself the difficult question of what you could have done differently to prevent such an outcome in the future.
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
– Leo Tolstoy
Zooming out even further, the same is true for the success of the whole organization. Our purpose to “create the conditions for people to breakthrough” is very present in our daily business and most, if not all, colleagues truly believe in and strive to contribute to this purpose. This necessitates both a high level of personal maturity from every single member of the organization and individual engagement beyond one’s immediate daily work responsibilities. There is just nobody whose sole job it is to steer the ship, but we are all rowing the boat together, everyone pitching in what they can muster. We win together and we fail together, which is also reflected in the absence of any kind of individual bonuses. Whatever profit the company produces, is shared between all colleagues.
This might all sound rather challenging, but there is also a beautiful upside to this: Autonomy and the empowerment to make use of said autonomy. If there is an idea that a member of the organization thinks to be valuable for the whole organization overall, we are encouraged to follow up on it. Of course, urgent customer business will always take precedence over these grassroots initiatives, we are still a business that has people and bills to pay. Outside of very busy times, though, it is up to us to decide how to use our time in the best way.
In this way, for example, some colleagues have established a sustainability community that seeks to create awareness for and to implement the topic of sustainability even more strongly within the company. Furthermore, there are colleagues offering Yoga classes, guided meditation sessions, and groups of people working to improve our internal knowledge management or project execution.
Clear principles instead of strict rules
All of this might sound like a bunch of lofty goals, but how can you make this system work?
There are very few strict rules or processes outside of legal, contractual, and data-protection topics. When it comes to how we organize our internal structures and how both strategic and customer initiatives are executed, we cannot rely upon someone within the company to tell us how to do our job in the best way. There is knowledge and experience sharing, of course, but these are not directive, but meant to inform decision-making.
To align many different self-organized teams and functions, we all agree upon following a few rather general principles. These are in line with and reinforce our company vision and values in whatever we do. Not all of them are necessarily very explicit, but our culture transports them still. The advantage of principles over rules is that they offer more freedom and autonomy which people need to thrive. I think we can all agree that there are few things more frustrating than having to follow some unnecessary process just because someone “up above” decided that it would be a good idea, right?
Yes, every principle offers a certain room for interpretation, but it also forces colleagues to make sense of what it means to be part of atrain and to embody that in a way that is authentic with one’s personality. Starting at atrain as a new employee, this ambiguity resulted in a lack of clarity on how exactly this system works in many places. Just following a concrete rule is much easier, but also stifles autonomy, creativity, and innovation. I sometimes felt thrown into deep water and my attempts at swimming have also resulted in friction with my colleagues. For example, my strong personal preference for independence did not always match my immediate colleagues’ approaches to teamwork. Also, I probably did not always ask enough questions or asked for help when I should have. Now that we had time to get to know each other better and to calibrate our interpretations of our principles, we all contribute to the business with our personal strengths without being hindered by overly strict rules or processes.
Boss-less but leader-full
All in all, this means that instead of relying on increasingly small (and often less diverse) groups of upper managers, leadership is a shared responsibility within our organization. We believe that all leadership starts within the individual and the ability to understand and consequently lead him-/herself effectively. Once you have invested real effort into understanding your patterns and their impact on you and your environment, you can start leading yourself. As one of our fundamental beliefs, we also share the idea of an inner transformation enabling an outer transformation with all our customers.
Only if you can look at yourself critically and change yourself, you can start having a sustainable and authentic effect on your environment as well.
As mentioned before, the idea of shared leadership between all members of the organization requires a high level of personal maturity. That is why we always assess both internal and external applicants for any position not only on their current level of performance but also on their potential to grow into future tasks and positions. This means that already when hiring people, we try to make sure to attract colleagues that can share the responsibility of leading our organization.
Now you might think that all this is only possible in a smaller organization like ours. But I’d like to challenge you on that, our constantly changing and volatile world needs leadership from everyone to be able to sustain itself – whether it is any company, community, or society as a whole. Everyone needs to take ownership and we cannot wait for someone above to fix all our problems. Of course, a single person will not be able to fix anything by herself/himself. But our circle of influence is still much larger than we often want to admit. I can change myself and inspire my immediate environment to think differently, hence having the potential to start a multiplying effect once these people start having an impact on their environment. And all of this starts with each one of us, changing what we can, creating momentum together.
I am grateful to be trusted with this much responsibility within atrain and even as the die-hard realist that I am, still I am convinced that there is a difference to be made, especially when we create workplaces that allow people to be treated like mature equals, rather than subordinates, all working together towards a common goal.