Life in the C – Lane will surely make you lose your mind

By Brian Lucas

“Life in the fast lane, surely make you lose your mind.  Life in the fast lane, everything all the time.” – the Eagles

Just like the title of the Eagles classic tune, “Life in the fast lane”, life at the C level today can make you crazy.  Regardless of company size, succeeding at the C level is far more difficult than it ever was.  The degree of this difficulty can most readily be seen in the fact that 64% of C level executives in North American Fortune 1000 companies do not want to be a CEO[1].  That’s double the figure from 2001 with almost three fourths of the current CEOs thinking about quitting their jobs.  Turnover amongst all levels of top management has increased[2].  This is now the new norm[3].

This is despite the fact that the average CEO compensation is 209 times greater than the average employee’s pay.  That is up from just 18 to 1 in 1965[4].  For many of the rest of the C level, the days of privilege and perks are a thing of the past.  The hours are now long and personal time and home life is often lost in the incessant demands of the job.  The C level in a traditionally structured organization is now being forced to perform at a pace that is not sustainable.  Reporting requirements are now dramatically increased and hold the CEO accountable for the validity of these reports[5].

Boards of directors are also holding CEOs to higher performance standards.  This seems to fly in the face of golden parachutes and rewards for non-performance, but it is understandable in terms of the percentage of CEO failures (see my article “Why CEOs Fail in Today’s Agile Business Environment”).   CEOs have considerably less time to succeed.  They now have less than 18 months to prove themselves[6].

This has translated into increased pressure throughout the C level.  Even back as far back as 2003, vice presidents of marketing in high tech firms began experiencing a 75% turnover[7].  The chief marketing officer now lasts less than 2 years[8].  This type of pressure will continue to mount with no end in sight.  Where is this pressure coming from?  Well… it’s coming from us actually, that is to say the consumer.  We are all consumers in one way or another.  Since the internet revolution, it is now much easier and requires much less capital to start a business.  We also now live in a global economy, again thanks primarily to the internet.  A consumer has almost unlimited choice and with the ease of the internet’s search capability; they usually gravitate to cheaper, quicker and sometimes even better.  After all, the knowledge of a better product or service is only a click away.  Never before was there a need to be more effective and efficient in an organization[9].  The burning question in every C level person’s mind is how to bring this about.

Too often, C level executives turn to technology to solve this problem.  Since the last decade US companies have wasted at least $65 billion on unneeded[10] and $75 billion on failed[11] technology projects.  Technology can, of course, be part of the solution.  The real answer however is people and organization structure.  If you are a member of the C level you could ask yourself, “How is someone else doing what we are doing better because it is putting pressure on us?”  The question you should ask yourself though is, “What does the customer want and really need now and what will they need and want in the future?”

To survive, you need to answer the first question to thrive you need to answer the second one.  Knowing a customer’s requirements goes beyond importance.  US corporations lose almost $100 billion annually[12] through poor customer requirements and another $1.25 trillion in potential markets unrealized.  Not only must you know these requirements, but you have to fulfill the need as effectively and efficiently as possible.  If your solution is tighter command and control; your days are unfortunately numbered.

In the past and still seen today in most large corporations, companies are organized under a very hierarchic command and control model.  This is where most of the thinking happens at the top and execution happens at the bottom.  When products and services were simple this worked.  However it required long value chains, ridged processes, and highly regimented thinking.  This invariably leads to slow product and service delivery at high expense.  Unfortunately, today products and services are complex and require knowledge workers to be a large part of the solution.  To be effective, these people have to have a considerable freedom of operation and must be able to express themselves and their ideas without fear of reprisal or resistance in the structure.

What’s needed is an organization structure that nurtures self-directed workers and fosters a team mentality with an innate focus on the customer’s needs and the ability to change rapidly as the market dictates.  This means a change in strategic management!  The C level must unite to formulate this change and work towards a new organization structure.  It’s a matter of not only their survival, but the enterprise’s as well.

Strategic management’s history is varied.  Alfred Chandler, promoted an all-encompassing strategy for all the various aspects of management in his ground breaking work, “Strategy and Structure” and later on his Pulitzer Prize winning work, “The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business in 1977.  Peter Drucker the phenomenally accurate futurist emphasized the importance of management by objectives (MBO) and predicting the importance of knowledge workers and intellectual capital.  Philip Selznick defined the matching of organization internal aspects with the external environment known as SWOT (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats).

Strategic management has a direct effect on organization structure.  Organization structure has, in fact, been affected by the various strategies of strategic management since the early days of capitalism and the product/service oriented strategy.  We are now in the learning and agile strategy phase where businesses must change their structure fluidly in response to ever changing customer needs and market pressures.  The need to precede market demands with organizational adaptability, which can anticipate those demands and meet them at the beginning of a cycle, is the difference between enterprise success or business failure[13].  This agility requires that you shape your organizational structure (and business in general) in a lattice fashion.  W. L. Gore wrote eloquently about adaptability in his groundbreaking work where he defined a lattice organization as follows:

A lattice organization is one that involves direct transactions, self-commitment, natural leadership, and lacks assigned or assumed authority. . . Every successful organization has a lattice organization that underlies the façade of authoritarian hierarchy.  It is through these lattice organizations that things get done, and most of us delight in going around the formal procedures and doing things the straightforward and easy way.

This is a radical departure from the traditional hierarchic organization structure and line of authority.  It presents the following fundamental change in philosophy:

  • No fixed or assigned authority
  • Sponsors (mentors) not bosses
  • Natural leadership defined by followership
  • Person-to-person communication
  • Objectives set by those who must make things happen
  • Tasks and functions organized through commitments

One way of accomplishing this is with a bifurcated organization structure with a functionally aligned workforce pool and a product and service organization where work is actually done.  Assigning work by product or initiative gives the advantage of promoting team thinking and teamwork.  The focus is on the success of the product or initiative and therefore the organization; rather than the individual.  Managers of record act as workforce fulfillment agents for the Work Structure. They manage a pool of resources, conduct periodic reviews and deal with personnel issues.  They build performance plans based on job descriptions derived from the organization plan driven by an amalgamation of needs identified by the product and service managers, behaviors defined in the vision, and individual goals created in career path planning.  This is 50% of the review rating; the other 50% comes from team achievements against goals as recorded by their team facilitators. The functional organization matrix provides economy of scale advantages and proficiency of expertise while its hierarchical organization promotes clear lines of authority and performance rewarding. Individual employees report to this structure governing behavior, teams report to the Work Structure governing work assignments.

The chart below shows a simple version of this structure.

This is not a matrix structure; it is actually the evolution of a hybrid structure that is one step closer to a true latticed web structure or virtual corporation.  The hierarchy is the financial and sponsor structure and more fixed.  This gives stability. The work structure is highly flexible and environmentally responsive.  The key concept is that individual employees report to one structure governing behavior.  Teams report to another structure governing work.  It does not have the limitation of being able to support only a few products or initiatives.  It does require dual planning with the hierarchy supporting the product structure.  The functional organizational structure exits as a servitor to the work related one.

This might seem complicated, but it is not.  While it is true that you can have two or even more managers, none of their directions should be conflicting since they govern differing areas.  As far as priorities are concerned, the various product or service managers settle any potential conflicts outside of the team setting.  As a rule if you are doing agile you should be focusing on one initiative at a time anyway.  Your hierarchy manager is a service manager that works to see that sufficient human resources are available to meet the needs of the product and service managers.  If you are following scrum, the scrum master’s role is to facilitate and remove obstacles, not manage the release or iteration.

As you can see the structure is firm where solidity is needed and fluid where responsiveness is required and can interface with third parties and vendors in an organic fashion.  In short, it is all things to all people.  If this sounds too good to be true, like Bill Gore says you will find some form of this structure working at times very surreptitiously in all successful companies.  The extent which this virtual organization identity has to “buck the system” determines how effective it is and usually the company’s success.  Moving to this type of self-learning and agile structure is not easy.

It does not however, have to be done all at once.  It can be done through increments as long as the new entity that is being created has the full support of everyone concerned.  It’s truly amazing just how Machiavellian the old guard can be about protecting their turf regardless of who it hurts or even if it will bring down the whole company. If you want to end your pain at the C level you need to implement this kind of change or the pain will unfortunately only get worse.  Like the Borg say in Star Trek The Next Generation, “Resistance is futile”.   Till next time – Keep Agile.

[1] According to Burson-Marsteller

[2] According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas

[3] According to Booz Allen Hamilton

[4] According to the Economic Policy Institute

[5] As required by the Sarbanes-Oxley act

[6] From Burson-Marsteller’s Building CEO CapitalTM survey conducted with RoperASW.

[7] According to reports

[8] According to executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart

[9] See Peter Drucker

[10] According to Morgan Stanley

[11] According to the Gartner Group

[12] According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology

[13] For more on this see my post “The imperative of having an agile organization structure” on my blog Keeping Agile

About Brian Lucas

In his life, Brian Lucas has been a coach, farm worker, forester, health care advocate, life guard, general contractor, mechanic, mixologist, musician/singer (in a rock group), salesman and teacher. Brian has worked as a project manager, technical marketer, methodologist, manager, software architect, systems designer, data modeler, business analyst, systems programmer, software developer and creative writer. These efforts include over a hundred hi-tech initiatives in almost every business and industrial sector as well as government and military projects. Among them, he designed and developed a quality assurance system for the first transatlantic fiber optic communications network, a manufacturing system for a large computer manufacture’s seven manufacturing centers, a data mining system for steel production, an instrumentation system for cable systems, defined requirements for government’s information systems and designed and developed human performance management systems. Brian has educated and mentored many over the years, designing programs to discover and develop talent. He has also lectured extensively to a variety of audiences. Brian is currently devoting as much time as possible to the innovation of business agility and human capital management along with the next generation of agile software development. As an amateur theoretical physicist he is working on joining general relativity and quantum mechanics through a multidimensional time corollary on string theory and negating the uncertainty principle with Louis de Broglie’s wave/particle hypothesis. He is also an avid blue-water sailor and wilderness backpacker. He enjoys billiards, boxing, chess, cooking, famous battle reenactments and war gaming, fencing, flying, gardening, horseback riding, martial arts (particularly Ninjutsu), philosophy and psychology, playing musical instruments (7 so far), poker, rapid-fire target shooting, reading (he tries to read a new book every night), painting with oils, scuba diving, skiing and recently writing novels.
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98 Responses to Life in the C – Lane will surely make you lose your mind

  1. Sondra says:

    Brian this post shows the true you. You are always the perfect blend of intelligence, action, humor and compassion. I am so glad that I found your blog. Let me know the next time you come to Seattle.

  2. Michael Faux says:

    You nailed this Brian! This is exactly how it is and what the problems are. Keep posting!

  3. Renee says:

    It seems you are making a universal statement here. Does life at the C Level always have to make you crazy?

  4. Colon says:

    I think it really depends on the company you work at….

  5. G.Jemby says:

    This captures it exactly, brilliant piece of work Brian!

  6. M. Saxby says:

    The model of making a bundle and getting out only works for one person. I know I did this and I now regret that I left things as they were. I did work hard and improved the stock price and drove others hard. I retire early sold the stock and made out, but things went south six months after I left. Many friends who were not as fortunate as I lost their jobs. I am sorry now that I have time to reflect in retirement that I did not leave a better legacy. You are right Brian. Your message is important. Keep writing and talking to whomever will listen! A new devoted reader! -Mike

  7. Anonymous says:

    I lost mine and retired early. Fortunately I had enough to do so. I am not sure this will ever change but I hope so for the new comers.

  8. Sydney says:

    Powerful insight, eloquently expressed, a warning to all at the C level. Change must happen NOW!

  9. Eldrige Colley says:

    As an independent businessman, I think you have made it clear though perhaps more mild than you should have. The C-Level must change from politically driven self interest and administrative management to team based self managing productivity or suffer complete collapse.

  10. Karen Rigsby says:

    quite benefiWell said Brian! Pure genious! Life in the C Lane to a T.

  11. Katheryn Fury says:

    Finally an article that depicts the life of a C level executive accurately and the forces that act upon them. For years, 90% of executives have been in denial of the need to change the entire concept of executive management. Finally the tide is turning and by force of circumstance executives are changing how they think and act. For most it will be too little and too late to survive. As a former CEO who retired early because of the very insanity this article describes, I would love to see Mr. Lucas create a forum for executives that are a part of the change or want to be a part of that change. How about it Brian?

  12. Kenny-G says:

    Good analysis of C level issues and problems facing all managers today. Problem is many will be slow to act on the solution you outline!

  13. Courtney Madison says:

    Definitely a great read on the forces driving the C Level today and why it won’t continue to exist in the shape it is now! Very well thought out yet simple enough to make it an enjoyable read! Super Job Brian! Please post more!

  14. Doris Gwen says:

    Super post I will have to start following your blog!!!!!!

  15. Angelo Bellamy says:

    You got it in 1 Brian well done!!!!

  16. Gregus Mannix says:

    Having left this life behind last year to pursue life and sanity, I must compliment Mr. Lucas on both his perception and writing ability. If I had read this earlier I would have walked away from the rat race earlier. I wish you would have published this 5 years ago! Keep on sharing your obviously vast store of wisdom Mr. Lucas. There are so many in need of it!

  17. Xavier Rojas says:

    I am a shop floor production manager. I have tried several approaches to being more innovative in my job but none of them were effective. This is the first blog I have followed that makes sense and I believe I can actually gain some ideas from i can work with!

  18. Gerald M says:

    I had to chuckle when I read this. It is exactly the reason I left my position as a Chief Marketing Officer at a mid-sized software company. Now I am the proud owner of a string of B&Bs. It is an altogether different interaction with the customer. Yet, for all the complaints I receive, it is far more enjoyable than my previous life. There it was all about competition, now its all about cooperation. The CEO was definitely to blame his management style was to set everyone against another. Then he would complain when infighting slowed development down or prevented sales. Ha! He had a lot of stock and was buddies with most of the Board of Directors, so getting him out was impossible. He would yell and scream and surrounded himself with toadies and yes men. Despite this the company still made money. The money was not enough to make up for the misery, so I left and never looked back.

  19. C-Moyer says:

    To me the C-Level is a defunct design. A dinosaur of an era that should have died out at the end of the last century!. This post is a good summary of why the C-Level so often fails!

  20. Peter Horvath says:

    Brian – I AM IMPRESSED! Can you write more on the subject of current corporate organization and your suggested alternatives! This was dead on and very well written!

  21. Chet Bowman says:

    Hi Brian! I enjoyed this post even though it was a bit above my head at times. The point is I learned from it and it was very well written. Thanks for sharing!

  22. Emily Barett says:

    Awesome post Brian!

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