I recently met a Series E start up that was struggling with its organisational design. In one breath, they were working to scale their existing traditional business for growth while pivoting into a larger market segment as a disruptor to a new category.

So on top of the fast, nimble machine that they had built with their team of young, energetic “intrapreneurs”, the company was building in another more powerful and dominant layer — that of the seasoned Senior Executives, management consultants, and compliance/process talent, in order to acquire and maintain both a legal and regulatory and social license to operate in the new segment.

To any outsider who sought to scratch the surface, the symptoms of the clash of cultures, lack of team cohesion, lack of empowerment and lack of aligned people, process and technology to strategy, were obvious.

Also Read: ‘Culture fit’ might be more detrimental to your organisation than you think

The organisational design challenge root causes included the sudden changes in policies, changes in power and functional leadership, the perceived new burden of process on decision making and controls, and narrowing of job design that comes from having to rapidly scale capabilities across the complexities of a regional market, while maintaining performance growth on the pressures of large capital raises.

The organisational design challenge? How to manage the big three:

  1. Climate – the overall mood at the company due to attitudes and beliefs,
  2. Culture – dealing with the norms, values and behaviours of the individuals, and
  3. Organisational strategy – identifying and deploying the right organisational design strategies to promote change and alignment to its new agenda.

‡I believe one of the key insights to finding a quick win for its organisational design challenges sits in leveraging the capabilities of its workforce by career stage.

The four career stages

Individuals typically pass through four stages of their careers. These four stages consist of

  1. Establishment,
  2. Advancement,
  3. Maintenance and
  4. Withdrawal.

Each of the stages represents the “typical” age of a worker and the responsibilities and challenges that need to be addressed.

1. Establishment: a person, typically 21-26 years of age, who is learning the basic elements of the job and where they fit within an organisation. Those who change careers later in life also might go through this stage at a more advanced age. They need to feel a psychological contract with the organisation. This is an implicit agreement between them and the organisation that details exactly what is expected in the relationship. In addition to the salary, benefits, and perks they receive from the company, they also expect support from mentors in helping them to develop in their positions.

In any start up, this expectation can have both positives and negatives. Typically, the issue is a sheer matter of time available from Senior Executives to provide mentoring support and the constant lack or limits to the number of resources or pressure on costs from investors. This is where basic process and technology automation can help to ensure adequate support infrastructure and oversight for their everyday tasks, and career management and development systems can have a larger impact. But they still expect the support of an in-house mentor. In this company, given they make up a good percentage of the company’s early direct workforce that’s quite a significant overhead.

Also Read: Startups and organisations: Why leadership style matters

2. Advancement: Employees typically aged 26-40 years of age. They have likely forged a career path by trying out different departments across a company, and accelerated up the corporate ladder. The challenge in a Series E company is the ambiguity of both the nature and the height of the career ladder that clashes with their desire for basic support infrastructure, a clearly defined job description, and career path. This is only exacerbated in a talent-short environment, when the company is transitioning from one market segment to another and when the goalposts are still changing rapidly during the company’s pivot and on the back of regulations. In this company, this category of talent also makes up the bulk of their seasoned Executive workforce and process/compliance talent.

3. Maintenance: This individual from 40-60 years old is typically someone maintaining productivity while evaluating their career goals. They are now generally more interested in where, when, and how, they are going to retire. Most have reached a career plateau, where the chances of the individual moving up the corporate ladder are slim — for instance they never wanted to become a CxO or they just want a challenging career with travel and opportunity. The company’s new layer boasts a number of seasoned Executives at this level, and their career stage is, in fact, ideal for the role of mentor to many of its younger, and more ambitious employees. Interestingly a large number of their indirect workforce also sit in this bracket, ideal for the type of work that is being deployed. This is an inherent opportunity for capability development.

4. Withdrawal: the final stage and ending of a career. This includes, for example, a phased retirement, where hours are reduced and full retirement come gradually. Interestingly, a large number of this company’s indirect workforce sit in this bracket, ideal for the consistent delivery for the type of work that is being deployed and a prospective sustainable labour force to support their existing business capabilities and growth.

(Note: age is only used here as a broad reference point only. In today’s work environment, many workers will repeat a career stage, particularly, if they have a second career or midlife career change.)

A climate necessary for growth

Organisational strategies, in addition to supporting technology and processes, are the core of the development and transformational process for the capability development of this company, as it will facilitate the promotion of change and support the cultural and climate evolution necessary for its growth.

Four basic tactics could be considered for this deployment:

  1. External ‡Diagnosis: To identify issues and problems for the company related to its goals/mission/climate/culture and make recommendations for any changes in the “org structure”. An internal diagnosis is more likely to carry unconscious biases — e.g. confirmation bias, gambler’s fallacy, probability neglect, etc.
  2. Action Planning: The development of an organisational design plan in order to eliminate the diagnosed issues and determine feasibility of different change alternatives
  3. ‡Intervention: Produce the exact steps necessary to create the change, e.g. career management and development systems, process and performance automation and reporting, etc. This is essential for monitoring and adaptation of execution.
  4. ‡Evaluation: Tracking the overall success of the plan. Evidence of change impact should be evident on the overall organisation.

For this company, tapping into the expectations of talents offered through the basic four career stages of their workforce is a very simple tool to help them to accelerate existing and inherent capabilities to address climate and culture, and to align the diversity of their talent to their new growth and industry pivot agenda.

Also Read: From unknown to unicorn: 8 tips in running a successful startup from Grab’s pioneering employees

Through managing the big 3:

  • Climate,
  • Culture and
  • Organizational strategy,

the company could have in place the levers to more effectively transition for growth and performance.

Word to the wise: What got you here, won’t get you there.


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