Why I choose to lead through a horizontal workplace hierarchy - Pierlite Australia

Andrew Smyth, General Manager - Sales (AU)

How do your workers relate to each other? Are they motivated to give their best? Do they feel comfortable contributing their ideas?

An organisation’s workplace structure shapes the way people interact and collaborate. Right from the beginning, I’ve always wanted my team to effectively communicate with each other. That’s why I’m a strong advocate for horizontal workplace hierarchies. It’s the way I choose to lead my amazing team at Pierlite. My way of leading involves connecting with everyone I work with, regardless of their job titles or areas of expertise. I like to take an empathetic view in understanding what it’s like from their position.

What is a horizontal workplace hierarchy?

A horizontal workplace hierarchy has fewer layers and levels of management. It typically involves a CEO, president or founder who opts to only have a few managers that report to them. In creating less friction between the business head and employees, there’s greater room for an increased flow of action. Fewer managers helps to increase the speed at which information filters through the different functions of a business. In this way, horizontal workplace hierarchies are geared at maximising communication efficiency. I like spreading decision-making across horizontal lines because it empowers everyone to play to their unique strengths and generate the best outcomes possible. I prefer a team of collaborative innovators over one that obeys without question, any day! We don’t get anywhere by staying the same.

Putting horizontal workplace hierarchies in action
Inspires greater connections

As General Manager of Sales at Pierlite, I have over 80 people in my team, including seven senior managers who report to me. My goal is to encourage everyone to be equally passionate about giving their best in delivering exceptional customer service.

How do you encourage high levels of enthusiasm? Listening is always a good place to start. Horizontal workplace hierarchies are all about high levels of cooperation and cross-function between business subsets and occupations. Every week, my team and I meet with direct reports. In these meetings, I listen and ask questions. I talk with my team about their goals, our business goals, what our clients want, and how we intend to deliver great value to our clients. I’m honest when I don’t understand a concept or when I need extra clarification about a topic. I ask further questions and commit to better connect with where everyone is at. I like to be open and vulnerable, and I’ve stayed true to these values ever since I started working at Pierlite.

I came to Pierlite with a background in construction sales. I knew construction inside out; electricity and intelligent lighting industry were new territories for me. My desire to learn and listen to others helped me overcome my knowledge deficits. Being willing to ask questions and be vulnerable about your shortcomings is key to becoming the best version of yourself. It also helps to build open and honest connections with people.

Being with people gives me energy. I love connecting with people, seeing what they’re doing, learning from them, and understanding how they achieve their goals. In this way, I prefer to think of myself as a participant, rather than a leader. Thinking of myself as a participant helps me step outside of my ego and allows me to actively engage with everyone I work with. I want everyone to feel heard and understood.

All too often, leaders and participants are seen as opposites, as binaries on either end of the spectrum. This leads to a barrier between leaders and participants and can often stunt open communication and the sharing of ideas. A horizontal workplace culture challenges this and instead encourages idea-sharing across different team members and invites collaboration.

When I first began my leadership journey, I was too fixated on “leading”. I ran around doing everything myself like a machine on autopilot, not asking for help. I quickly discovered this was not a sustainable way of running a business. I also found that I wanted to focus on fostering more meaningful connections with people.

I have now wholeheartedly embraced leading through a horizontal hierarchy. I emphasise collaboration in helping my team develop. No matter what department or profession, I always take steps to connect with everyone. For example, I said thank you to a warehouse manager for working on a Saturday. I know it’s a small gesture, it’s these little acts of appreciation that catalyse a ripple effect of positive workplace morale. Listening and being prepared to connect with people across all aspects of business is essential in creating an egalitarian environment.

Authenticity creates a dream team

Authenticity means everything to me. If someone offers an idea with good intention, I back it. I’m interested in everyone’s view and how we can collaboratively take things to the next level. Leading with this kind of authenticity enables your team to feel less intimidated by their higher-ups, therefore encouraging open discussions. This is something that I also practice on the weekends, when I volunteer as a Group Leader, District Commissioner and Region Commissioner within the Scouting community.

I volunteer through Scouting because I am passionate about helping communities grow through empowering our youth. I lead by example and encourage the team to do the same, by being authentic and sharing my failures, learning curves, and honest opinions. This creates an environment where everyone feels equal and comfortable among their peers, which leads to a more supportive team, increased motivation, and improved performance. At Scouts, we’re wearing outdoor gear as we venture out into nature. While at work, we’re in office attire in a corporate office. But ultimately, being a leader for either team isn’t so different when it comes to horizontal team values.

Leading by example is the best way to lead. Give your best if you want your team to give their best. I expect my team to create consistently good experiences for customers. So, I am consistent in the way I treat my team – with respect. Recently, I met with our newest team members and spent two hours in open conversation with them, learning and listening to their experiences and knowledge while responding to any questions they had regarding our business and strategies. When I interview new workers, I encourage them to learn from what they see. I want everyone, no matter where they start in the business, to consistently strive for further development.

Improved employee satisfaction

When people see that their perspectives are being heard and considered, it makes the work they’re doing feel more meaningful. As a result, they’re more likely to put in their best effort. Horizontal workplace hierarchies encourage free-thinking, individual initiative, and collaboration across all business functions. They allow workers with differing expertise to collaborate on one project seamlessly. When you emphasise inclusivity in the workplace, everyone is motivated to help the team succeed. Horizontal workplace hierarchies uplift those who like learning and enjoy change. These are attributes I value in myself and my team.

From my own experience, I’ve found that employees feel more respected under a horizontal workplace hierarchy. Horizontal workplace hierarchies are much less truncated than their vertical counterparts because they have fewer layers for information to pass through. When communication is agile and there’s little room for power struggles, employees blossom and love their autonomy.

Allowing creative workers to be directly involved in the decision-making process helps them find purpose in their work. This leads to greater employee satisfaction and performance. One of the greatest joys in my life is seeing my team enthusiastic about their work. I love being around people who are passionate about what they do. It’s a great energy to surround yourself with.

Sets off a chain of positivity

I’ve always prided myself on being an optimist. I like to make the best of every situation that comes my way, no matter how earth-shaking the obstacle seems. I choose to see challenges as an opportunity to grow and learn. My team’s response to lockdown is a good example of this. When lockdown hit, I asked my team to share 50 of their wildest dreams to help us adapt to the changing times. This saw our sales results skyrocket, which just goes to show that we should never be setting limitations for ourselves in the face of adversity. I always encourage my team to exercise creativity in helping us overcome challenges that come our way.

In reducing bureaucracy, horizontal workplace hierarchies make the team more aware of success stories within the business. They also give you greater access to people. For instance, it’s easier to see when someone isn’t having a good day. When I see someone in this predicament, I actively go out of my way to empower them. I let them in on good news and make a conscious effort to uplift them.

Fosters innovation

Horizontal workplace hierarchies reinforce that innovation is everyone’s responsibility. Ensuring that innovative efforts are carried across all business functions makes the business more resilient. Encouraging the whole team to contribute ideas promotes an ongoing, open forum for brainstorming. Unlocking employee creativity welcomes more opportunities for innovation. This makes it easier to challenge the status-quo and level up the business.

Being innovative isn’t just about fulfilling customer needs. It’s about creating an environment that supports employee growth. Innovation strategies delineate ways in which companies can grow their market share and remain prosperous during market shifts. Openly talking about innovation with your team helps clarify what’s expected from employees at every level when problem-solving.

Innovating helps businesses find better ways of doing things. An innovative culture actively encourages employees to utilise creativity and lateral thinking. Companies that can think outside the box remain profitable because they’re always a step ahead of their competitors in providing future-proof solutions to market niches.

Everyone wants to stay ahead of the game. But how do you actively encourage innovation in the workplace? Horizontal workplace hierarchies encourage open communication between all team members. When I interact with my team, I welcome “what ifs”. I encourage my team to challenge every boundary and assumption that currently governs the way the business operates. Allowing your team to put forward “what ifs” helps to identify constraints that may have unknowingly impeded opportunities for innovation.

Is there a downside to horizontal workplace hierarchies?

When I tell people I lead my team through a horizontal workplace hierarchy, they’re often unsure how it facilitates stability within the business. So, I want to take a moment to address some common misconceptions I hear regarding horizontal workplace hierarchies…

Insufficient amount of leaders

In horizontal workplaces, the ratio of employees to executives is higher than the ratio of supervisors to employees. As a result, people often think that employees won’t receive the one-to-one guidance they would normally receive.

I have always led my team based on mutual trust and respect. I encourage my team to be creative and to take educated risks. Trust is a fundamental ingredient in supporting employee growth. When I show my team I trust them, they, in turn, trust themselves more, which leads to increased confidence and initiative. Employees who are empowered by the trust of their leaders are more autonomous and motivated to explore uncharted territories. Fostering this temperament within a team reduces employee dependence on leaders, making the need for multiple layers of management obsolete.

Limited performance oversight

It’s no secret that executives are busy people with endless to-do lists. As a result, people assume that executives don’t have the time to ensure they have direct knowledge of employee work habits in horizontal workplaces. They think that poor job performances can go unnoticed more easily.

I don’t deny that this possibility can happen in businesses. However, I’ve always managed to avoid this predicament by being careful about who I hire. Granted, you can never know everything about a person when you first hire them for a role. One thing I do know is, when you hire people who demonstrate enthusiasm for the business, you have a better chance of building a team of self-starters. When you show your team that you respect them, they respect you by honouring their work commitments. This removes the need for constant performance oversight.

Limited scope for upward career progression

Unless one becomes a partner or financial investor, people often assume that a horizontal workplace has limited scope for upward career progression. They think there are fewer supervisory or management executive roles to transition to as a reward for high-achieving employees.

This could not be further from the truth. In giving employees the freedom to utilise creative thinking, horizontal workplaces allow workers to delineate new responsibilities that revolutionise business operations. Horizontal hierarchies are about helping people master themselves, rather than being mastered by bureaucracy. They allow workers to continuously meet new people, try different roles and explore uncharted opportunities.

My responses to these misconceptions are drawn from my decade’s worth of experience in harnessing horizontal hierarchies in workplaces. I’ve tried and tested countless times and have learnt what works and what doesn’t. I hope my experiences inspire you to consider leading through a horizontal hierarchy in the workplace.