5 Ways to Develop Talent in a Flat Organization

“Ladders are limiting. Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment.”
– Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Companies are flattening out: a survey from the National Bureau of Economics Research found that from 1986 to 2003, the average number of direct reports to the CEO increased from four to seven, while the number of levels between division heads and CEOs declined 25%. In general, we’re fans of this trend: it empowers individuals to make their own decisions, which speeds up the organization, and gives higher-ups a better understanding of what’s happening on the ground. But with fewer opportunities to move up, how can ambitious workers build a career, and how do companies encourage their best people to stick around? 

We interviewed Spotify’s Learning and Development team, studied "Work Rules!" by Google’s Laszlo Bock, and spoke to other flat organizations to find out how they’re helping their employees navigate the career “jungle gym.” If you’re looking for new ways to keep your team motivated, keep these five principles in mind: 

  1. Focus on purpose, benefits, and balance, not titles. While compensation must be fair, to truly inspire your team, connect their work to the larger goal. At Spotify, for instance, people are motivated by the goal of providing music for everyone, everywhere. And reconsider the need for titles at all—one company we spoke to doesn’t use titles when working with external parties.
  2. Use new challenges, not promotions, as motivation. Across all flat organizations, they stressed the importance of giving people the opportunity to do the work they want to do, regardless of their official role within the organization. Provide on the job training (such as Google’s 20% time) so employees can continue to develop their skills.
  3. Support internal mobility. If a team member has already exhausted all the opportunities for growth within the team, seek out opportunities within the organization. Google has an entire team dedicated to internal mobility, and Spotify will email their entire company about internal openings.
  4. Create time for regular feedback. People can never take on new roles if they’re not given the feedback they need to improve. Spotify breaks down feedback into four pillars and holds a continual dialogue so employees know where they stand.
  5. Provide mentorship to encourage growth. Finally, performance reviews aren’t enough—offer coaching and career advice so that people stay engaged.

Liked this? Read our full research report.


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