In his excellent book Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, author, professor and economic consultant Raj Sisodia points out the fact that the traditional business model was originally based in military structure.
In a military organization, it is only the leaders that make the decisions; the generals call the strategy and tactics to be used to bring it about, and pass it down the line.
The officers are charged with taking that strategy, along with the tactical plans ordered to carry it out, and bringing it about without alteration. The enlisted men and women are expected to follow orders without question, and in wartime refusing to follow an order is an offence punishable by death.
From the end of World War II onward, most if not all businesses—especially large corporations—were constructed in a very similar fashion, and many still are. This was due in a large part to the fact that many business executives were former military officers and expected their orders to be obeyed, period.
Anyone who questioned those orders or took it upon themselves to create and/or implement their own ideas was frowned upon, and sometimes even demoted or fired. Like all other parts of an organization, this has held true for business leadership, sales management and the sales force.
The reflection in business of the military model had a profound impact. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the picture of life in an office became so extreme it was often parodied in movies and television—everyone wearing the same white shirt and tie and towing the company line to the point of robot-like behavior. In actual fact up until the 1990s the white shirt and a “sincere” tie was the “official uniform” at IBM corporation, so the parodies were not that far off.
While such methodology might be necessary within the military to execute a successful strike or operation, it has left corporations bereft of one of their greatest possible assets: original thought and innovation in the lower ranks. People have been so afraid of speaking their minds that an order could come down to, say, initiate a particular marketing strategy. A director of marketing, being more knowledgeable than executives about customer thought and reaction, could clearly see that the order would result in lower responses or sales—but that director of marketing, knowing what might happen if orders get questioned, would go ahead and implement that strategy to the detriment of the company. If that implementation resulted in a serious decline in sales or responses, it might even result in the director of marketing’s termination.
It goes far beyond implementation of destructive orders. That same marketing director or one of her staff might have a creative idea that could boom the company—but afraid to speak up, says nothing and the company is denied the possibility of greater success. Or the idea, passed along, gets nowhere because one executive doesn’t think it is worthwhile, or are themselves simply afraid to pass it further up the line.
The Modern Approach
In the last decade or so, a few forward-thinking companies have begun to change this model. It began with “suggestion boxes” and the like where if an employee had an innovate idea it could be sent onto executives. In some cases these ideas were taken up, to the benefit of the employee and the organization.
A more radical approach is one which has been seen only in the last few years. Every employee is given the latitude to do his or her job—to make their own decisions, formulate their own strategies and move forward. It is normally done within reason, of course, so that executives are informed of decisions and can make sure they don’t fall completely outside of company direction and goals. But this is simply a matter of an accurate job description formulated in the first place; if an employee knows the precise purpose and scope of his or her position, it becomes relatively easy to operate within those parameters given a rational and motivated person.
This model has a particular applicability to the age-old model of the sales management-sales force relationship—an applicability which we will be taking up in our next articles.