CEO, COO, CFO. Everyone knows who’s top of the pile in a business. Below, partners, managers, and line managers decorate the career ladder. Associates, analysts, and interns are firmly below the top dogs.
But what if everyone was the same at work? What if, no matter their position, everyone had a vote on new acquisitions or new mergers? What if even the intern had a say? Collective leadership, or horizontal leadership, could be the future, especially for smaller companies and startups. Does it really make sense for a four-person company to be CEO, CFO, and COO? What about the fourth person?
Sue Shaw, co-founder of JourneyHR, explains what collective leadership means. “Collective leadership can come in many forms but its overall result is a flatter structure where every employee can drive the business. Teams are able to work closer together, with greater fluidity to their roles and responsibilities. If companies choose to remove traditional job titles as part of the strategy, it can help retain talent that may otherwise feel restricted by their title.”
There are pros and cons to having a flat structure. For startups, the best thing about having a collective structure is that everybody keeps on top of all areas of the businesses. Even if finance is your focus, understanding other elements of the business is crucial, especially when getting off the ground.
Dr Tara Swart a neuroscientist and leadership coach advises that research increasingly shows us that fostering diversity and varied views within a company correlates to improved economic performance. “This is because diversity encourages innovation and a more diversified range of ideas and perspectives in the workplace.
“As a leader, hearing an alternative perspective from your own will cause a surprise/startle effect which will motivate your own brain to seek alternative relevant information and stimulate creative thoughts which will help combat bias and diversify your own thoughts.”
Communication and transparency can be improved with a collective leadership model. You can debate and decide things without having to farm things out to different sections of the business. This could lead to less infighting and staff are less likely to disagree in secret - instead, issues will be hashed out in public.
In terms of decision making, having a collective leadership structure can make it easier for staff to hunt down management, which in turn will keep clients happy.
Richard Taylor from Dusk Lighting (a lighting shop based in Devon) was more than happy to provide a comment for you. Taylor said: "Here at Dusk we have a very relaxed workplace. With being a small company of only four employees, all ideas and decisions are discussed as a group. If one person thinks we should move with a manufacturer or in a slightly different direction from what we are doing, then this is raised to all employees. If then a group decision is made then that person who has the idea is given the freedom to act on it and take ownership. This gives all the employees ownership on part of the company."
There are downsides to collective leadership too. The main con is that it can make simple decisions more time consuming. Rather than having to get the “ok” from just one or two people, you need to hear confirmation from multiple managers.
In addition, there are no secrets when there’s a collective structure. This sounds like it could be a benefit, but if something is sensitive, a client may feel uncomfortable sharing their memo with every member of the team, including people they haven’t met.
Shaw explains how a flat structure can be unappealing to staff driven by career progression and development. “Collective leadership’s flat structure can make delegating tasks a challenge as it’s not always clear who should be doing the job. Equally, because of this fluid structure, employees can struggle to explain their roles and responsibilities. This can become an even bigger challenge as the business grows and takes on new people.”
She advises that before businesses decide to implement a flat structure, they must recognise what motivates staff. “Staff need to buy into the culture of collective leadership, desire to build the company and develop the industry. If employees are motivated by interesting clients and a diverse range of responsibilities, collective leadership will be a success.”