Message to the C-Suite: Get Out of Your Employees' Way

Why we ditched the traditional hierarchical structure

At most agencies (and most businesses in general), orders flow from the top. C-level executives make the decisions, and everyone else executes. Employees don't have much of a chance to pursue ideas of their own or influence the direction of the agency.

We've recently turned that traditional structure on its head. Our most experienced people are tasked with supporting the employees on the ground. As senior executives, our primary responsibility is ensuring that everyone on our team has the resources, training and relationships they need to be successful. 

Even people in roles that are not traditionally client-facing are expected and encouraged to be a part of the review and feedback process. We've learned that responsibility is a strong motivator: It turns employees into entrepreneurs and talking into action. 

The transition to this way of working hasn't been easy, but it's clear that this approach is better for our business, our employees and our clients. Traditionalists may balk at this inverted management structure, but in an industry that is constantly accused of being behind the times, we find the uncertainty exciting. 

Every employee knows it's up to them to solve problems. If a client brief is too complicated, you bring it up to the team and talk to the client. If you don't love a strategy or a new idea, you come up with a new one. Raising a problem and then dumping it on someone else's lap doesn't help anyone. 

That may sound scary, but we're surrounded by 700 colleagues with a diverse set of skills and experience. It's a built-in safety net. This is everyone's agency, so everyone has a role in shaping it. 

If you spend a moment thinking about a traditional org chart, you'll realize that it stifles creativity and elongates timelines. Plus, the people at the top are far removed from the actual work. Should a handful of executives have the power to make all of the business, strategic and creative decisions, even though they are not directly involved in all of their clients' businesses? 

We've even rethought the usual hierarchy between chief creative officers and creative teams. Why limit your organization and your clients by filtering all of the creative work through one person's perspective? People's backgrounds and experiences shape their worldview and how they think. Our new system allows for an incredibly diverse range of perspectives to inform our work. 

Here's how the inverted pyramid structure works in practice:

The task is the boss.

We give teams full autonomy to manage any client or brief in the way they think is best. They are accountable for sticking to a timeline, budget and any other parameters. No one supervises them, and no one chases them down. When people need support, there's an entire global collective ready to provide feedback so that teams can move forward. 

Regular feedback is mandatory.

Teams have the opportunity (and the obligation) to get peer feedback on their work. They can choose to incorporate that feedback or set it aside—but they must seek it out. Seven hundred people share in the wins, and 700 people share in the losses. 

Leaders need to be vulnerable.

Being a "leader" in this environment looks and feels very different. Leaders here seek feedback and are held to the same standard as everyone else, and they admit when they're wrong. It takes authentic vulnerability. Sure, it's hard to pull off at an organizational level, but isn't that the kind of environment everyone wants at work? 

Final thoughts.

We don't get this right all the time. And while it may seem like a progressive approach, we believe it will be table stakes in the next five years. Think about it this way: Every agency wants to hire the best possible talent. Why hire brilliant individuals if you're just going to tell them how to do their jobs? 

A better approach is to get out of their way. Free them up to do their best work, collaborate, hold themselves accountable, and put the best possible product out in the world. 

Profile picture for user Michele Prota and Mike Densmore
Michele Prota and Mike Densmore
Based in Forsman & Bodenfors' co-headquarters in New York City, Michele Prota leads the talent department while working closely with Mike Densmore who oversees the agency as CEO. They are both global board members of the creative collective.

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