I recently wrote about our philosophy of Hiring People over Skills at Zero Gravity Labs and was very encouraged by the feedback I received, so wanted to follow with the next part of the story and tell you a bit about what it’s like to work at ZGL and our leadership on demand model that is emerging.
Flat Structure Is A Term Used But Rarely Actioned
Many companies talk about a flat structure, or a servant leader model that will only ever live in big,aspirational statements that get put on a wall, or in a presentation. No company has a completely flat structure; at some point decisions have to ladder up to someone, but at the companies that I think are truly operating in a new model, those decisions tend to be the big ones around governance, burn rate and other issues that the C-Suite needs to take on for the direction of the company.
The companies that have found the new operating model are the ones empowering their associates at every level. They are the ones that understand that the best companies and products are built by the best people regardless of title, level or status. If leaders are methodical about selecting the best people – those that have an aptitude for learning and a desire for growth – then the leadership needs to recognize that their opportunity to help those people grow into the best version of themselves is now. If a company can accomplish this, their associates will reward the company by producing better work, making the right decisions, by inspiring their teammates and they will evangelize the company to all the other great people they know.
So, how does this fit with what we are trying to achieve at Zero Gravity Labs?
Leadership on Demand at ZGL
As a company that is growing in a purposeful manner and one that will not settle for hiring someone just to fill a seat, we recognize that we must also set up a different internal structure that allows us to give everyone a chance to be a leader. Given the nature of our work and our desire for an open and collaborative culture, we’re hiring T-Shaped talent and as such by definition we have people who have expertise in an area but who have a desire to grow the breadth of what they know. This sets up a really amazing opportunity for us if everyone puts aside ego and title, we truly have an opportunity to create an environment where we put in practice a “leadership on demand” model.
What does that mean? It means that the Hippo (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) in the room carries no more weight than anyone else’s and, in fact, it might carry less weight if they do not have any expertise in the subject being discussed. It means that at any given moment, anyone is free to take the reins and lead a discussion, or bring the team along with them and, as the conversation shifts, another person will chime in with their expertise and the “leadership” shifts seamlessly to them.
I’m actually thrilled when when someone comes to our office and can’t pinpoint the “Head of Data Science,” because in any moment, any person could be leading that function, depending on what the discussion happening at that moment.
Leadership does not always mean standing up at a podium and addressing a group. In a leadership on demand model, leadership can be exhibited in hundreds of different ways, depending on the situation. Leadership at ZGL can mean teaching others a new technique or even asking a question that changes our thinking. The key is that we have created the environment and space for our associates to step up and be leaders in this way.
We are a relatively small shop, so it might seem that this is easier for us than others because we do not yet have the need for layers of management, as my partner and I get to weigh in on almost all decisions. The truth is that even when you have more layers of management in an organization that management still has a daily opportunity to empower their associates and to let them (encourage them) lead in various situations. Of course there are things that are not appropriate for every employee to know, see or do but those should be the exception and not the rule.
Titles & Tenure Get In The Way
Leadership too often is wrapped up in titles and tenure, however, I truly believe that the best leaders are those who see it as their job to empower and advocate on behalf of their associates. The leaders who stand up and say ‘nobody works for me, I work for them,’ or ‘we are all teammates’ are the ones who engender loyalty and who are also getting the best out of everyone they work with and, as such, getting a huge payoff.
Companies can talk about flattening, about empowering their associates, but that talk track and the action behind it needs to start with the company founders (or in a corporate with the CEO as we are fortunate to have at LoyaltyOne) who need to both model the behaviour and reward the other people they entrust with seniority, not only for the product they put out, but for the way they are developing those around them and allowing them to be “leaders,” day in and day out.
We’re not perfect at this but in even coming to the phrase “leadership on demand” I think we’re articulating what we aspire to and we set the expectations we have of our team. We ask people who work with us to come to work ready to shine because they will get plenty of opportunity to do just that.
I would love your feedback, are we onto something? How are you creating leaders in your own business?
On that note, if this post resonates with you, we are actively seeking great leaders (on demand) at Zero Gravity Labs, I encourage you to check our our open roles, follow us on LinkedIn and subscribe to our posts on Medium.
Michael G. Cohen is General Manager and a founding member of Zero Gravity Labs.
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