Strategic Leadership

for Leaders in an Uncertain World

HBR Editors blog, March 24 – How to Crack Companies’ Class Structure

How to Crack Companies’ Class Structure – Harvard Business Online’s HBR Editors’ Blog

How to Crack Companies’ Class Structure</blockquote
Posted by Steve Prokesch on March 24, 2008 9:01 AM

An invisible class structure is preventing companies from making the most of their employees’ talents.

By class structure I mean there’s a function or profession that considers itself and is perceived by all others to be the one that the organization values most. Everybody else is a de facto second- class citizen or worse.

By invisible I mean that everybody just accepts the class structure as a fact of life. Leaders do not consider either the price it exacts or how they might get rid of it.

What a shame! In an age when solving increasingly complex problems requires not just the input but also the robust interactions of multiple disciplines, a class structure is a formidable competitive disadvantage.

I first became conscious of this problem about 10 years ago, when I had the misfortune of becoming a second-class citizen for the first time. I was hired by an extremely affluent company, where one group indisputably ruled the kingdom: the salesmen. Even though this firm insisted on hiring “the best” for every function and paid everyone obscenely well, the vast majority of the salesmen had the attitude that they were the experts on everything. Everyone else, including yours truly, was “support staff”—or, as some of us dubbed ourselves, “window washers.” I felt I came nowhere close to making the contribution I could have made and plenty of others felt the same.

Admittedly this firm is an extreme case, but I’ve observed that organizations with class structures are the overwhelming norm. (Were Darwin still around, he undoubtedly would respond, “Duh! What did you expect?”)

Given that organizations need the best ideas of everyone and cross-disciplinary teamwork, leaders must do whatever they can to create classless organizations. Here’s a first crack at what the basic steps should include:

Perform a diagnosis. Go ask people in different disciplines which functions they perceive to be first and second class. I know of CEOs who have been shocked at what they’ve discovered.

Define a classless society: Make sure everyone understands that it means a meritocracy, not a democracy. People should know that they can talk to anyone in the organization and that their ideas will be welcomed and seriously considered but not necessarily accepted. There needs to be a decision-making hierarchy and advancement through its ranks obviously must depend on the possession of specific skills and experience and proof of talent.

Practice what you preach. Continually demonstrate in every setting that you personally value all functions and cross-disciplinary teamwork, that you respect anyone who offers constructive ideas, and that it’s okay for people to stick their noses into others’ businesses.

Don’t tolerate bad behavior.
Punish repeat offenders—even senior executives. Nothing gets the message across better than a few public hangings.</blockquote

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March 26, 2008 Posted by | Leadership, Systems | | 1 Comment