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Only Chiefs and No Indians

Those who have worked in an American company know the expression. It means a company where everyone wants to lead, and no one wants to execute. It is an organization where so-called chiefs multiply, but no one follows. It is a world of lonely leaders, confined in their own little world and illusions.

The same trend develops today. There is an inflation of titles in companies. They reflect the concerns of society. More and more managers are now in charge of sustainability, climate change, digital transition, or gender equality. There are even “Chief Evangelists” (a term coined by Guy Kawasaki at Apple), such as Mark Lee, the CEO of Splashtop.

For many companies, this is an easy way to publicly demonstrate their commitment to the big issues of the day. But is it a fallacy?

A bit of history: it all started with General Motors in the 1960s. In his famous book, “My Years at General Motors” – according to Bill Gates, the best management book – Alfred P. Sloan defined the ideal organization. On the one hand, there is the front which consists of regions, countries, or products. They generate the revenues of the company.

On the other hand, there are supporting activities such as human resources or finance. There are cost centers. Those in charge of one or another had the title of director. So far, so good.

The first hurdle came in the 1970s when the very large American banks realized that customers liked to deal with so-called senior managers. So, they started handing out the title of vice president to almost anyone on the front. Some banks soon found themselves employing several thousand vice presidents.

It was a mess. Soon a hierarchy of vice presidents had to be created. That is how first vice presidents, executive vice presidents, and then senior vice presidents came into being. In the end, no one knew which of these titles meant real power. The only way to know was to look at the size of the office, its location (a corner office) or, better yet, whether it had access to a private bathroom.

A little later came the revolution of process management. That is when the titles of manager of quality, production, innovation or customer relationship appeared. The famous matrix organization suggested by Alfred P. Sloan became a multi-dimensional organization that only a genius could make work.

It was not the end. In the 1980s, a new management technique called reengineering appeared. It advocated reorganizing the company from top to bottom, disregarding history, and especially removing hierarchical levels. As a result, employees with prestigious titles were all at the same responsibility level, and no one knew who decided what anymore.

Today, we are witnessing a similar phenomenon. To deal with the new expectations of society, companies no longer create committees (that is outdated) they appoint a person in charge of the problem. Consequently, everything is possible. A company may have a director of teleworking, a director of the health environment, or another in charge of social media. In the end, a sweeper becomes the chief surface technician.

For example, in 2020, more than 1,500 companies have officially adopted a net-zero CO2 emission target for 2030, or 2040, or later. In all cases, a chief has been appointed. Everyone is reassured, even if behind the chief, the Indians are missing.

A company must stick to reality. 95% of its survival and competitiveness depends on excellence in implementation. It is unnecessary to be a chief for one’s work to be respectable, important and valued. In addition, more and more companies prefer to create team structures where responsibilities are shared. Sometimes it is better to have colleagues than subordinates.

This inflation of leaders with pompous titles is dangerous. It creates expectations both inside and outside the company. Too often, they cannot be met because behind the title, there is no organization and no resources.

President Franklin Roosevelt said, “It is a terrible thing to want to lead and to see that no one is behind you. This is indeed the tragic fate of all chiefs without Indians.

The article was first published here.

Photo by MJ Tangonan on Unsplash 

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Only Chiefs and No Indians

12 April 2021