I confess that as an avid reader of The New York Times, I have been disappointed in recent years because they devote too much space to interviews with CEOs and other bosses. Notably, it seems to me that they run the same column twice every Sunday: Adam Bryant's "The Corner Office" and another interview column called "The Boss." I do love many of these interviews anyway, as The Times gets interesting people and their editing makes things better. And I am a big fan of Adam Bryant's book, The Corner Office, as it did a great job of transcending the column. What bugs me, however, is that The Times devotes so much of the paper to interviews now, I suspect, because it is simply cheaper than producing hard-hitting investigative journalism. They do an occasional amazing in-depth story, but there is too much fluff and not enough tough for my tastes.
That said, some of the interviews are still striking. One of the best I have ever read appeared a couple years back, with Citrix CEO Mark Templeton. The whole interview is unusually thoughtful and reminds me that people who don't see themselves as CEOs and don't lust after the position often turn out to be the best candidate for the job (related point: see this study that shows groups tend to pick people with big mouths to lead but that less pushy and extroverted leaders tend to lead more effective teams -- at least when the teams were composed of proactive members). In particular, however, I was taken with this quote from Templeton:
You have to make sure you never confuse the hierarchy that you need for managing complexity with the respect that people deserve. Because that’s where a lot of organizations go off track, confusing respect and hierarchy, and thinking that low on hierarchy means low respect; high on the hierarchy means high respect. So hierarchy is a necessary evil of managing complexity, but it in no way has anything to do with respect that is owed an individual.
If you say that to everyone over and over and over, it allows people in the company to send me an e-mail no matter what their title might be or to come up to me at any time and point out something — a great idea or a great problem or to seek advice or whatever.
There is so much wisdom here, including:
1. While there are researchers and other idealists running around and urging companies to rip down their hierarchies and to give everyone equal power and decision rights, and this notion that we are all equal in every way may sound like a lovely thought, the fact is that people prefer and need pecking orders and other trappings of constraint such as rules and procedures. As Templeton points out so wisely, organizations need hierarchies to deal with complexity. Yes, some hierarchies are better than others -- some are too flat, some have to many layers, some have bad communication flows, and organizational designers should err on making them as "light" and "simple" as possible -- but as he says, they are a necessary evil.
2. His second point really hits home and is something that all too many leaders -- infected with power poisoning -- seem to forget as they sit at the top of the local pecking order "thinking that low on hierarchy means low respect; high on the hierarchy means high respect." When leaders believe and especially act on this belief, all sorts of good things happen, including your best people stay (even if you can't pay them as much as competitors), they feel obligated to return the respect by giving their all to the organization (and feel obligated to press their colleagues to do as well), and a norm of treating people with dignity and respect emerges and is sustained. Plus, as Templeton points out, because fear is low and respect is high, people at the top tend to get more truth -- and less CYA and ass-kissing behavior.
No organization is perfect. But a note for all the bosses out there. If you read Templeton's quote a few times and think about what it means for running your organization, it can help you take a big step toward excellence in terms of both the performance and well-being among the people you lead.