Flat Army

"Treat your people and your team members like tools, numbers or subordinates, and you can merrily look forward to an organizational culture replete with apathy, disengagement and insubordination."

- Flat Army, page 261

I love this statement. If it describes your workplace, or worse your leadership style, you need to run and purchase Dan Pontefract’s Flat Army. If you are feeling pretty good that the statement is the opposite of how you lead, you are going to love Flat Army. Pontefract’s book provides strong evidence for why organizations must build collaborative and connected workplace cultures, describing them as “Flat Armies” – groups of employees who are moving in concert to deliver significant results for their organizations.

“Flat Army,” Pontefract writes, “in its simplest form refers to the point at which all employees act as a unified corporate organism through the use of clear and succinct goals. Individuals don’t think solely about themselves, but rather act with the greater good of the organization itself and its people in mind.”

Much of Pontefract’s experience with the models he outlines in Flat Army comes from the innovative leadership and learning programs he has been responsible for implementing at TELUS. He outlines detailed leadership models for the qualities and competencies leaders need for creating workplace cultures that are both vibrant and results-focused.

Flat Army has five tenets that provide the overarching model of leadership, including:

  • Connection: The behaviors, actions and tactics to become an engaging leader

  • Collaboration: The behavioral method in which leaders and employees should be operating

  • Participation: The act of continuously building your network and distribution of knowledge

  • Learning: The recognition that learning is continuous, community driven, and everywhere

  • Technology: The tools and processes that cultivate both an engaged and connected organization

Pontefract develops each of these elements in detail in the book, often with additional models. Together, these tenets combine to create the Flat Army philosophy for developing dynamic and effective leaders, and successful organizational cultures.

Everyone moving in the same direction, acting for the greater good to do amazing work? How do we get started?


The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

It's About Building Culture, Not Engagement

"Employee engagement and business results are what we’re measuring, but organizational culture – through Flat Army – is what we’re building."
- Flat Army, page 262

It was such a relief to read these words. Too often, our conversations are focused on creating employee engagement, and while this is an important measurement, I agree with Pontefract that our efforts should be focused on building the culture that organizations need, and employees crave. There is also compelling evidence that you’ll see significant business results when you do.

As a leader in an organization, you need to look at the qualities of your leadership skills and style, and identify the outcomes you need. If you don’t have a sense of what this should be, Pontefract offers ideas for team assessments and other ways to begin looking at your leadership qualities in new ways.

Let’s distill it further into a couple of key lessons.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Do All You Can To Connect, Collaborate And Get In The Mix

"[The] goal is not a larger team; it is making that team – whatever the size – the best it can be. It is the leader’s responsibility to assist team members to hit their professional or career goals."
- Flat Army, page 125

Pontefract emphasizes the need for leaders to focus on collaboration and help create new relationships and connections throughout the organization. While this idea is not a new one, he provides models for how leaders can build these skills, including detailed competencies for each level of leadership growth, creating a process that leaders can use to create their own development plans.

And before you think this book sounds far too serious, one of Pontefract’s leadership competencies is “clowning” – to create moments of fun that become part of the team folklore.

At the heart of it all though, what’s the essence every leader needs?

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

You Won't Get Far Without Building Deep Trust

"Engagement, therefore, and in my opinion, is about whether or not an employee feels trusted by leaders to do the right thing when it counts."
- Flat Army, page 13

Trust is a foundational element in most leadership models, and Pontefract includes discussion of it as well. He encourages leaders to look at the subtle (or not so subtle) ways trust can be undermined, such as continuing to micro-manage. In my experience, many managers have micro-management as a blind spot, and working to move from managing to coaching is one of the strongest ways to change the team dynamic, improving outcomes as well as engagement.

It’s worth the time to look closely at Pontefract’s models for learning as well, where he describes how learning and technology are now intertwined, and encourages embracing a “pervasive learning” mindset, rather than seeing training as an event to complete once or twice a year.

In many ways, Flat Army is a call to arms to care much more about how our organizations are being led. As Pontefract notes, “We’ve become numb to the bosses who don’t care. We’re ambivalent to leadership that is hierarchical and close-minded.” Instead, wake up, step up and take a running leap forward to be more intentional in the way you lead.

Flat Army is a book I will continue to use for years, and it should be part of every leadership development toolbox. Whether you are new in building your leadership skills, or have been leading for a while and are continuing to learn and grow, this book is full of thought-provoking ideas and guidance to push your leadership capabilities to new levels.

We need a world where workplaces are filled with leaders who give a damn about providing the best environment for employees to succeed. Flat Army will be part of the arsenal of tools to get you there.

Please share your ideas in the comments below… what are you doing to create your own Flat Army?

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Alyssa Burkus

ABOUT Alyssa Burkus

As a consultant, I work with entrepreneurs and senior leaders through periods of significant change in their organizations, by delivering strategies, new programs, and coaching to build the workplace foundation they need to shift their company to new levels...
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