"If you can flatten your own pyramids you will be creating a far more powerful and resilient organization that not only serves customers better but also unleashes the hidden energy within your employees. The results can be absolutely astounding."
In Moments of Truth, Jan Carlzon shares his secret to top-notch success in the airline industry through solid leadership and the creation of a customer-oriented business strategy. He calls it the “flattened pyramid.” It is linear with a focus on empowering the frontline rather than the traditional hierarchical business model. Top management focuses on developing strategy and putting it into action. Middle managers focus on planning and allocating resources. Frontline operations are where all the specific decisions are made. Those who directly serve the customers then can create an ideal service experience.
The Big Idea
Be a Leader, not a Manager
"Rather, I succeeded because I reoriented each company toward the needs of the market it serves. To do this, I learned to rely more in the frontline people, who deal with the customers, and less on my own edicts. In other words, once I had learned how to be a leader rather than a manager, I was able to open up each company to new, market-oriented possibilities and to the creative energy of its employees."
Carlzon goes into detail about doing away with the prestige of leadership. He wanted to be supportive of his employees so they could provide the service they always wanted to. He frames leadership as setting the example of behaving the way he wants his employees to behave, not by giving orders. Instead, he trusted their judgment and set high expectations. He demonstrated high personal integrity, humility and respect that spread throughout the company. His tough expectations for the company were happily met by employees because he believed in them.
Delegating Responsibility Through Empowerment
"Anyone who is not given information cannot assume responsibility. But anyone who is given information, cannot avoid assuming it. Once they understood our vision, our employees accepted responsibility enthusiastically, which sparked numerous simultaneous and energetic developments in the company."
Carlzon calls it the “moment of truth”, the company’s core ideas, decisions, and actions are determined within the first 15 seconds of contact a frontline employee has with a customer. If that employee does not have the authority, information or resources they need the customer forms a negative impression of the company. If they can take advantage of their golden opportunity to exceed the customer’s expectations for service, the company earns the customer’s loyalty. This is what determines the success or failure of the company. Communicating larger goals to employees helps them see beyond daily tasks. Giving them the power to achieve them with their own authority creates the atmosphere of respect and personal empowerment. Most mistakes can be corrected, so when mistakes are made it is important to make it a positive learning experience and not a failure. An employee does a better job when they feel valued and respected. What does 15 seconds of spectacular service look like? Are there decisions and actions that get delayed because the right people do not have knowledge and authority? The quality of service speaks volumes to the customer about the quality of the company.
Results Oriented Leadership
"A leader is not appointed because he knows everything and can make every decision. He is appointed to bring together the knowledge that is available and then create the prerequisites for the work to be done."
Leading is a choice, not a job. An effective leader asks what needs to be done and brings together the resources to do it which creates results. An ineffective leader barks orders and casts blame which creates a resentful, powerless frontline. Be a results-oriented leader. Choose to lead in a manner that communicates a common goal and values those who will achieve the goal. Leadership is not about power or social relationships, it is about guidance and support. The real insight here is everyone wins. The leader can release the responsibility for things they never really controlled and focus on communicating goals, listening to problems and providing the resources to solve them. The frontline can achieve the victory now that they have knowledge of the goal and the resources to do it. Do you clearly communicate goals and help people stay focused? How can you be a resource? Do you show appreciation? This is the core of results-oriented leadership.
What impressed me was the sense of balance and high level of employee engagement that resonated through the large organizations Carlzon headed. No one shouldered too much responsibility or took too much credit because the results were everyone’s victory. In my experience this is not usually the way it works. Sometimes in a leadership role it is forbidden to let go of the rules and the scripts because those things are set up to produce consistency, control employees and to get predictable results. Many of us work in a pyramid structured company that is not going to change because it has worked for many years. The one thing we can all agree with is that everyone needs to be understood because we are all human. It is far more rewarding in the end to make that connection and understand than it is to be right. By actively listening to the people we work with and to our customers with the goal of understanding and recognizing their individual obstacles, that sense of balance and engagement is achievable even if we cannot change the rules. Positive results will follow. Understanding and doing all we can is the clearest way to communicate respect. When people are respected they return respect, and there is a natural sense of balance and inevitable engagement. This is a very practical way to “flatten the pyramid” and improve a work situation when you have to work within the company’s structure.