10/21/2011 03:34 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2011

About Leadership: Flatten, Flatten, Flatten

I know that Tom Peters and others have played this particular song before, but the removal of layers in a corporation must be a never ending theme. There is something about companies that provides a fertile soil for the growing of layers -- maybe it is the human instinct to reward those working for us by putting them in charge of someone else.

But it does not do anything for productivity, morale, or making money for there to be people with no other function than to manage other people, who are in turn managing other people ... As I think Tom Peters once said, just look at a company with a 100 story headquarters building and you will see a metaphor for the whole corporation -- 100 layers of bureaucracy stacked one on top of the other.

Great leaders can deal with having a lot of people reporting to them. It forces them to know a lot about what is actually going on at the front line -- what people are working on, what they are succeeding and failing at, what's frustrating them. Insulation may be useful for keeping homes warm and wires shielded, but it has no place in management.

So I believe in stripping out layers. Relentlessly. Find new and productive things for the middle managers to do. If they are really still useful, they should be good individual contributors at a senior level. And that is something that is needed. People with experience of the business who can see opportunities, advise and consult. But not managing a layer of managers.

In my early management jobs I was hesitant about doing this, but I rapidly lost this hesitation. One of the early reorganizations I did of the 'layer removal' sort was slowed down because the computer program for drawing organization charts could not do a flat organization -- it only knew about tree structures. This was overcome.

I think that for some people even fifteen direct reports are quite manageable. A group that size can meet in a room once a week and set directions, tackle key issues together. A good leader can be conversant with the problems -- technical, business, people -- of fifteen teams. A great leader can move these problems forward, challenge assumptions, guide and shape performance.

Sure, you will spend a fair chunk of your time in a flat organization meeting with the people who report to you, and talking through their issues. You will, of necessity, be closer to the problems they face with the people who work for them. If you stir yourself and get out of your office regularly, you can be in the workplace of lots of your people by just going down one level. I think one of the most profound managerial challenges I ever heard was 'When did you last see your boss, talking to your staff, in your staff's workplace?' Well, a flat organization is the way to make that happen, substantively and frequently.

And once a year you will spend a lot of time doing appraisals. Ten or fifteen appraisals, thinking about them, meeting individually, listening as well as talking probably for 45 minutes to an hour, writing something up, reviewing the feedback -- all of this takes time. You will also have a lot of staff development issues to consider, depending on the company, as people move on to other jobs, and new people have to be recruited. But aren't all of these things a big part of how a senior leader adds value to the Corporation? I think they are, and hence a good use of time.

In a traditional, hierarchical company, the leader who goes for a flat organization becomes known as something of a radical. I recall putting out a chart for a very flat organization as part of a big shakeup of the BP Research Centre in the early 1990s, and one of the older divisional managers made a comment in a large meeting about how the new organization of my division was very difficult for him to understand! And the Director of Research, to my delight, answered 'Well, the people inside that Division seem to understand it, so I don't think it matters much whether you do or not.'

About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques, to the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management, and to anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?