Many fast-growing companies, both in South Africa and abroad, are moving away from traditional leadership models and embracing ‘flatter’ structures that promote higher levels of autonomy, flexibility and collaboration. Some are going as far as to shun the entire concept of a C-suite and executive leadership.
This is especially true for companies that operate in the tech space, or that are experiencing hypergrowth.
At Basalt Technology, for example, a Johannesburg-based technology company serving global clients, there is no defined leadership structure. Instead, employees work in ‘pods’ of up to seven people and appoint their own leaders for specific projects. The pods learn from each other, drawing on different skillsets, and have a net result to achieve based on a client’s brief. There are ‘floating’ advisers/mentors who provide specialised expertise and guidance when needed (within the realms of business development, HR, finance, etc.).
“We are self-organised, and our way of working is organic and fluid,” explains Wayne Zwiers, founder of Basalt. “We have created our own ecosystem that is modular, dynamic and set up to scale. This approach is based on the premise that it is your people (not leaders) who create value?… and who should therefore guide the nature and pace of work.”
Such an approach arguably relies on a high degree of individual discipline, motivation and accountability, favouring ‘self-starters’ and people who flourish in environments that promote autonomy, creative thinking and assertiveness.
A delicate balancing act
Mention millennials and the global war for talent (particularly technology and developer talent), and the workplace will almost inevitably become a focal point of discussion – and more specifically, the growing millennial demands for autonomy and flexibility in the workplace. While companies like Basalt find this a very natural and intuitive evolution, others struggle to adapt.
Many business leaders are cautioning against the push for flexibility or remote working, primarily because of the impact on culture and cohesion within the organisation.
Allon Raiz, founder and CEO of business incubator Raizcorp, notes that many SA companies have major difficulties in adapting to new demands for autonomy and flexible working arrangements.
“There is something important about an organisation being together,” says Raiz. “Very much like a ‘family who eats together stays together’ concept, the idea of an organisation not being together where random connections can be made, makes it more difficult to build a cohesive organisation. Identity becomes an issue, too. This all has to be balanced with the need for autonomy and flexibility.”
Richard Flack, managing director of SureSwipe, an independent card payment acceptance company, says that today’s leaders are undoubtedly being challenged to become more innovative (and more purposeful) in how they drive the right level of accountability versus autonomy, as well as the freedom to be creative and self-manage versus structure and process.
“Spotify is a great example of where a company has been incredibly purposeful about creating the right balance between these contrasting elements in order to drive a faster pace of innovation and execution than its peers,” says Flack.
“But it is worth mentioning that their flattened structure – which seems to foster great ownership, decentralised decision-making and speed, does not seem to be done in isolation of some other very important elements of effective leadership – such as purpose, vision, culture and values, and alignment around strategic goals.”
Flack says that it’s mostly in technology-led companies where we’re currently seeing structures that successfully drive much higher levels of autonomy, self-management and collaboration. He points to iKhokha, a Durban-based fintech, by way of example.
“They have seen tangible improvements in collaboration, employee engagement and creativity in the workplace by fostering an agile and growth-hacking culture in their organisation,” he explains. “A recent example of this was when the company rolled out a new way of working that entailed the creation of consultative cross-functional ‘squads’ as a means to rapidly deploy and iterate on new product features for their mobile payments app.”
Much like the Basalt approach, these squads leverage team members from various parts of the business, along with their different skillsets, knowledge and organisational experience, to try and solve customer problems. Notably, these squads are actively encouraged to solve for their assigned customer pain point by experimentation, with wins and failures celebrated equally.
“This approach has empowered squad members to go out and solve tangible customer pain points, which has led to increased motivation and collaboration across the business,” says Flack.
Extinction of the C-suite?
While these workplace trends all point to a much ‘flatter’ leadership structure – or little structure at all – there are varying opinions as to what this means for the concept of leadership in years to come.
According to Raiz, executive leadership and hierarchies “will always be in place, in one form or another”.
“The shift that will happen is a move from a purely hierarchical structure to a matrix structure, where someone might be hierarchically higher in one context but lower in another context within the business structure,” he explains.
This is already in motion at Raizcorp, where people from different ‘levels’ in the organisation are members of the exco, not as a result of their hierarchy but of their strategic importance to the organisation at the time.
“For example, you might have two hierarchical levels as members of the exco, with both as equals in that context – but one reporting to another in a different context,” explains Raiz. “The role determines the membership of that committee and not the hierarchical level.”
Basalt’s Zwiers has a more radical view: “Looking ahead, I believe there will no longer be a place for hierarchies … and mentorship will replace executive leadership within companies.”