By
Clemens Lode
,
March 21, 2022
Don't be a Putin in your Organization (image source: https://pixabay.com/de/illustrations/putin-der-russische-pr%C3%A4sident-2972184/)

Don't Be a Putin in Your Organization

Don't be a Putin in your organization. 

With that, I don't mean that you should not be forceful or have some ordinance. I don't mean that you should not correct people. If you, for example, are a consultant, look out for this specific style that we currently see in Russia's government. Unfortunately, this leadership style can often be found in companies, too. But how can a hierarchical company structure with the most influential person at the top be a problem for your organization? And how does that affect the way your company runs projects? This video discusses possible challenges and what you should do to transform from a CEO to a leader.

Hierarchies

You have to ask why someone is in a particular position in the power hierarchy. Ideally, for agile companies, you have a flat hierarchy. But what does a flat hierarchy mean? Does it mean that you have to be small or that individual managers have many different teams? No, it refers to how independent each unit can be. So, there could be some hierarchy. The question is: how independent are those individual parts? Depending on the industry and culture, the middle manager or CEO is at the top in many companies. Staff members forward messages to the boss or add the boss’ name in the BCC of every email message. Perhaps when a decision is needed, it is escalated to upper management, or the CEO has to step in. This is challenging, of course, for the execution, speed, and accuracy of your decisions. 

Imagine you have a project manager who reports to another manager, and that manager then reports to the CEO. The CEO might be in his position because he can control middle management by playing them against each other. This is usually done by setting up a system in which each of the company's departments cannot run a project independently but require upper management’s control and coordination. For example, if you have a situation with four departments (sales, marketing, support, development), the development department cannot sell a product without marketing or support. Each of those four departments has to interact. But if their only connection point is upper management, then project coordination has to go through upper management or even the CEO. Of course, the advantage for the CEO is being able to control those four departments easily. They are not running amok and doing their own thing.

Dictatorships

And this is similar to what you see in dictatorships. Usually, our image of dictatorships is that they are hierarchical, with someone powerful at the top and then a pyramid downward, and it's very neatly structured. But in reality, you always have a situation where one part of this pyramid cannot act without the other because they have to go through the person at the top, e.g., the president. And this, in turn, is the foundation of the president's power. So it's a central figure, and without that figure, the parts cannot act.

You see the situation further down in the hierarchy. If you have one indispensable person without whom you cannot talk to customers or another department, you will run into problems. Think about that person going on vacation. Should he or she have to provide a telephone number for emergency contact, or should you set up your team so individual team members can make decisions?

Independence vs. Control

You will find conflict between independence and control in companies and political structures. In the current conflict in Ukraine, you have commands coming from Putin down to the generals and oligarchs and "middle management." Can the individual commanders say “No”? Take a look at this clip and judge the relationship between Putin and his spy chief:

I mean, even if the spy chief had the power to say no, he is powerless because he would have to coordinate with other departments to do anything effective, such as commanding an army. And in the hierarchical structure of the Russian government, his only option is doing it through Putin. This also applies to branches of the military. For example, you have the Air Force, Navy, and Army. If each commanding general has to go through the Commander in Chief to coordinate land-, air-, and sea-based units, this becomes quickly ineffective.

Politically, of course, the big advantage of this constellation is that these generals cannot coordinate a coup. But on the other hand, you have the situation that each branch of the military cannot act in a coordinated way. Also, the president might have to withhold some information simply to control those individual branches of the military or even individual parts of the Army, increasing the risk for mistakes. In WWII, while the US's and UK’s army structure was  very hierarchical, each commander could act independently. Of course, there is always the need for some coordination, but each commander individually could plan operations on his own. 

The same applies to companies. So whenever you see in a company that you have to ask your superiors who then have to ask their superiors to really execute a project from beginning to end, then you have a massive slowdown and you have a mis-distribution of information. In such a situation, the team who is working on the project or who is in direct communication with the customer has a better view of the actual problem in the company. This is the same with individual Army units: they have a better view of the situation on the battlefield than the president far away at home. 

A Culture of Distrust

Another problem arises from the company’s culture, especially if you have a leadership style that is very hierarchical and suppressive. In such a setup, you don't meet your middle management or your team on the same level; people will tend to agree instead of argue with you. That means that the information they provide to you will be skewed toward your existing expectations. At first sight, this sounds great because people will act in the way you desire. But this also means that, for example, they will make things look better than they actually are. Or they may add a buffer to their estimates. They will tell you the project will take nine months while they estimate it will take six, simply because they fear the repercussions if they deliver too late. So, whatever data you receive in this position of power, you can't really trust. Thus, decisions you make will be based on factually wrong data. Beautified reports from the teams will cause your decisions to no longer reflect reality.

Just look at this picture and decide if the generals and Putin are at eye-level with each other and if there is the possibility to contradict Putin:

Advice

Instead of sitting on one’s high throne at the top, forcing people to include the leader in their communication and planning, the leader has to go down to the factory floor and sit with the teams to see the actual situation. And do not expect people pleasers. You win nothing by having employees tell you how great things are going until the problems are so big that the employees in charge have to admit their mistakes. This is also connected to creating a culture where people can make mistakes and are not reprimanded because of them. Create a culture in which people are promoted if they are making mistakes, because making mistakes also means trying something. Sure, it might not work out, but what is essential is to attempt to bring the project forward.

So that's something you have to keep in mind--if they can't coordinate directly with each other, but always have to go through the CEO or management. They're discouraged about communicating today instead of finishing their stuff and then moving it to the next department. It takes a while, especially when there are planned changes because everything must be coordinated again. Also, each department doesn't know why they're doing certain things that the other department has finished, such as sales. “OK, yeah, our product will be able to do this and that.” And then development says, “Oh, but this takes another year of development,” and says, “OK, you didn't know that.” And maybe 1,000 issues in the support department are not forwarded to the development department or the sales department. It becomes careless, and whenever they have to attempt to make something more complex, they usually fail, or it is delayed. You need separate project managers to get into this.

Summary

So, to sum up, don't be a Putin. That means don't try to control your teams, your company, or your departments in a way where they have to talk to you to execute something. Sure, there might be reports or something like that where you observe their work results (ideally, as close as possible to the team), but for the actual execution part, try to minimize any communication that goes up and down because those are the significant delays. Also, encourage multidisciplinary teams so that you don’t end up having to coordinate between, for example, the sales and development department. Sure, it’s efficient to have them separate as they will be talking a lot among themselves, but they also have to know why they are doing what they are doing. Without constant synchronization between the departments and the customer, this can be a considerable cost factor down the line.

Stay safe and think about your company structure. Try to find in your org chart where you might have situations of power, people-pleasing, or up-and-down coordination. Talk with your team about how things can be improved.

More Resources

You will also find additional videos about project management, publishing, and agile coaching on my YouTube channel, and below you will find services I offer in 1:1 coaching. Contact me for a trial session!

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About the Author

Clemens Lode

Hello! My name is Clemens and I am based in Düsseldorf, Germany. I’m an author of books on philosophy, science, and project management, and coach people to publish their books and improve their approach to leadership.

I like visiting the gym, learning to sing, observing animals, and creating videos on science and philosophy. I enjoy learning from nature and love the idea of optimizing systems.

In my youth, I was an active chess player reaching the national championship in Germany, and an active pen&paper player leading groups of adventurers on mental journeys. These activities align with my calm approach to moderating meetings, leading meetups, and focusing on details. My personality type in socionics is IEE/ENFp.

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