Org Charts: Flip the Pyramid

Excerpt from Chapter 29 of “60-MINUTE CEO: Mastering Leadership an Hour at a Time” by Dick Cross (Bibliomotion, 2014).

I hate them. They’re egotistical. And they cap, rather than inspire, motivation. The rant this time? It’s organizational charts! You know the ones I’m talking about—they start with the owner at the top and everyone else fanning out below. These boxes show company titles inside that string along, from the highest box to more and more boxes, multiplying both down and across a landscape page.

The most effective owners these days—the ones beating the pants off everyone else—see it just the other way, with themselves occupying the point of the triangle, but at the bottom. These revolutionists embrace a higher understanding of how organizations work best, and they truly understand how to get the best out of the individuals who work for them. The number of traditional top-down businesses delivering exceptional results is declining.

Along with the traditional pyramid, the term, “reporting to,” is past its useful life. But many of us still see the chain of command as a law of nature, as the imperative and unarguable connective tissue for organizational design. It isn’t anymore.

This idea of command rose from military discipline. There, the individual troop isn’t expected to be smart enough to figure out on his own how to contribute to a win on the battlefield. Nor is he expected to be reliable enough to put himself at mortal risk for the cause when it’s necessary that he do so. Hence, came the “reporting to” structure and accompanying grave consequences for disobedience. Henry Ford reflected this idea when he asked, “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”

Ford had a lot of great ideas, but that wasn’t one of them. Still, his comment was understandable given the thinking about work at that time. On the assembly line, people were largely substitutes for machines. Variation from stridently established procedures meant inefficiency. What’s not so understandable is why the idea persists in so many of our businesses today, though thinking and creativity have become the greater substance of nearly everyone’s work.

Maybe it’s because it feels good to be at the top of the food chain and have others “report to” us. Or maybe it’s because some of us still think we’re smarter than anyone else. Or maybe, simply, because that’s the model we’ve inherited, the one everyone else uses, and the only one we’ve ever seen demonstrated.

To be truthful, I think we are all susceptible to these influences. Take just a moment and think about yourself: How susceptible are you? If you admit you are, what can you do about it? And what might you expect as a result?

Here’s what I do, and what I’ve experienced. Every time. I start by drawing my org chart upside down, with me at the bottom and with the sales team across the top. I do this because I see my job as helping everyone else to make her highest contribution. The proof of my success comes in high-profit sales. Furthermore, if I truly understand my job, and I understand sales, I’ve got the best chance of seeing the relevance of everything else that lies in between from the point of the pyramid on up!

Then I spend most of my time thinking about how to catalyze others to achieve higher productivity on their own. I do this by experimenting and setting up circumstances that encourage them to find their highest potential, which also throws out our legacy structures for job descriptions.

Situations that motivate smart people don’t put them in boxes or categorize them on spreadsheets. Nor do they limit individuals to “reporting” to someone else.

Smart people want a runway that’s at least partially open, with latitude and resources to develop themselves on their own. This places a greater burden on me, as CEO, to make sure that everyone understands the fundamentals of my whole business, the roles of the parts, points of advantage for our market, and our competitive positioning.

At the same time, I need to trade in my bullhorn for a giant catcher’s mitt and trade my instinct for enforcement for a passion to receive well-intended inputs. And I must incorporate these inputs into my own relentless search for new patterns toward a better business without losing track of my duty to keep my business performing optimally.

What should you expect? It’ll take a while for you to shift into this mode of pushing from the bottom. Start with a small project that has a short time frame and limited risk. Set the expectations, provide the resources, and let your team figure out how to make it happen. Provide help when asked. When that’s successful, go a little bigger—until the news of how you’re operating touches your entire company.

Then you’ll see a spike of enthusiasm. A culture will emerge that seeks, rather than avoids, change. This culture will support people who work together in a way that puts a new multiplier on the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Excerpted with permission from “60-MINUTE CEO: Mastering Leadership an Hour at a Time” by Dick Cross (Bibliomotion, 2014). For more information, visit

Dick Cross has worked with underperforming companies for more than 25 years, helping mainstream businesses achieve their next level of success. Cross has been the chairman, CEO, or president at eight of those companies, and has mentored more than 100 CEOs at others. Much of his career has been spent in private equity circles, including Fenway Partners, and he currently serves on the board of numerous corporate, philanthropic, and civic organizations. Cross holds a degree in Architecture from the University of Virginia and a Master’s of Science in Business from Columbia University. In addition to “60-Minute CEO,” Cross is the author of “Just Run It!: Running an Exceptional Business is Easier Than You Think” (Bibliomotion 2012).