It’s hard to ‘stay true to your vision’ when your partners and customers don’t work that way.
The decentralisation journey doesn’t stop at the doors of your organisation. Socialising your new operating model with the outside world is going to be the true test of its resilience.
Some time ago, we were facilitating a group of organisations in the social sector. It was a gathering of highly accomplished people who all brought unique value to their field. At a certain point, one member of the group stood up and said, “No offence to anyone here, but I’m the only CEO in the room. How are we meant to effect change without leaders?”
This wasn’t intended to derail or delegitimise the work we were doing. It was a genuine query based on one of the most prevailing assumptions in the corporate and institutional worlds – that the people with the power to make things happen are all at the top of the organisational pyramid.
It also got to the heart of one of our biggest challenges in decentralising TACSI: we work in a marketplace and a wider society that still operates according to a traditional hierarchy. It’s not just about work. There are legal, social and economic ramifications to holding a particular title. People’s identities and egos are heavily invested in their position; for many people, progress in life means ascending the corporate ladder, and to reach the top is the fulfillment of a significant goal. These titles hold meaning far beyond the workplace, and that meaning permeates every interaction we have as a business.
This is why (for now) we still need to have people at TACSI with specific titles like ‘Director’ and ‘Principal’ – though they often function quite differently to their counterparts in other organisations. Our clients and partners (and almost everyone else) naturally equate power and capability with a person’s position within the company. And they are sometimes reluctant to deal with people who don’t bear these easy markers of authority. By no means are we saying that power is negative (quite the contrary when combined with the right behaviours) – but how do we build power in the right places so we can do our best work? In our experience a neat pyramid does not deliver this.
We’ve come to realise that this reluctance isn’t about elitism or a lack of faith in our capabilities; it’s about trust. Authority makes people comfortable. When businesses or institutions are working with us, that comfort is a critical part of the relationship. They need to trust that they’re getting the best we have to offer, and under the traditional corporate model, that means the people ‘in charge’ of the hierarchy. Get rid of the hierarchy, and clients have no easy way to gauge what they’re getting or who holds responsibility. It introduces uncertainty and raises questions from others about our priorities – why isn’t TACSI’s CEO at the meeting? Is it not important enough to them?
This has been one of the biggest pitfalls for us in staying true to our mission. It’s tempting to offer a quick fix and give people the security of traditional, recognisable power structures, even though we don’t work that way. It’s especially tempting for the people in those ‘positions of power’ at TACSI – it’s very personally validating to be treated as important. But if we’re going to be authentic with our clients and partners, we can’t base our relationships on something inauthentic (even when they ask for it). Apart from being unrepresentative of who we are, it creates an opening for us to backslide into old thought patterns. It also perpetuates the misconception that title-holders are in a better position to make decisions than the people close to the work. On the other hand, we can’t afford to be too uncompromising or experimental either, or we risk alienating the people we rely on for our business.
So how do we build trust without relying on an authoritative figurehead? How do we convince our clients and partners that the people in the work are the best people to guide it?
Once again, we found our answer when we shifted our focus to the ‘connective tissue’. Trust is a function of human interactions, and so we started with the building blocks of any healthy relationship – vulnerability and emotional connection.
As with so much of this journey, putting this into practice comes down to authentically living our mission. We all need to model trust for our clients and partners, in both internal and external interactions. We all need to model leadership and responsibility, and continue to build it in each other. Understanding this early will help you avoid a lot of conflict on your organisation’s decentralisation journey.
In practical terms, this means that, while a ‘title-holder’ may still be present in an initial meeting (particularly with new clients), we will always make a visible demonstration of trust in deferring and handing control to the person(s) leading the work. We also set aside a considerable amount of time with clients and partners for us all to get to know each other – at a genuine, emotional level – in the lead-up to a major project or initiative. A big part of this involves trust-building exercises to create a safe environment for vulnerability and learning, on both sides.
It’s hard to overstate the value this brings to our work. Our working relationships are more productive, responsive, successful and fulfilling than they have ever been. A personal connection helps our clients and partners to feel safe sharing information and investing in projects in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise. Crucially, they begin to recognise that our people – not their job titles – are what really lie behind our value.
Interviews with Carolyn Curtis, CEO and Euan Black, Organisational Development Lead. Writing and editing by Cam Sullivan.