I wrote a little yesterday about Jason Fried’s column in Inc. magazine about their efforts at 37signals to keep the organizational structure flat. He relates the story of an employee that moved on to another organization because she had more ambition “than we could use,” by which he meant she wanted a promotion to a more managerial role while they have steadfastly resisted creating those roles in the first place. The thing that struck me most about Fried’s column was his notion of vertical vs. horizontal ambition. For one thing, I don’t think “horizontal” is quite the right word for what he’s describing, although I get his point . . . maybe vertical vs. deeper works better at the cost of a mixed metaphor. More importantly, though, I think there is another kind of vertical ambition that’s worth teasing out of his definition. It’s more of an introspective sort of vertical (vs. the org chart vertical that Fried seems especially focused on).
In our research at the Nooru Foundation a few years ago, we found that many nonprofits in Colorado do well at recruiting strong newcomers, but then aren’t very good at giving them a professional development trajectory. A common type of explanation: there isn’t a lot of turnover at the higher levels, so there isn’t any place to promote people to. That’s one type of vertical ambition (the type Fried seems to be mostly talking about), and it may well be true that a lack of high-level turnover makes it difficult to give newcomers organizational chart promotion opportunities. But it’s a weak excuse for not helping your staff grow and develop professionally over time. It’s very possible to deliberately and thoughtfully give your staff increasing responsibility and more demanding challenges, to push them to the sort of deeper understanding and increasing performance that Fried mentions, to expand the sophistication of their understanding and the expectations of their contributions, to include them in increasingly high-level discussions and introduce them to a wider and higher level range of contacts, and to give them access to training, conferences, coaching, and other professional development resources without ever touching the organizational chart or expanding managerial responsibilities.
Curiously enough, I first saw this in sharp relief in the public sector, as I watched my own city manager and his senior staff do this with their younger staff: give them responsibility for managing a small process, then a larger short-term group, then a standing board. Give them small parts in City Council presentations and then increasingly expand the scope of their presentation responsibility. Set them up to play support on projects, then run small projects, then grow into becoming the point person on bigger projects.
I’ve never worked in a software shop like 37signals, so maybe the model doesn’t work where the output is more about providing high-quality customer service and producing high-quality code, but some version of this approach does make a ton of sense in most of the nonprofits I’ve worked with and seen over the years, and provides a powerful way of thinking about growing your staff that doesn’t rely on charts and titles (though sometimes titles are pretty useful, also).
I think Fried is on to something important when exploring less vertical organizational hierarchies, in other words, but it’s not new territory for nonprofits (and the private sector could probably learn a lot by paying more attention to how many nonprofits do this). And I think he’s on to something when he pushes back against conventional org chart vertical ambition. If the goal is to give our employees the room and opportunity to grow professionally, and it probably should be in most cases, we have a lot to work with regardless of vertical promotion opportunities.