Coffee and a Do Not: Span Breaks

For all the benefits of being a senior manager in a company, far too many management positions, even very senior ones, come with limited authority… Avoid filling or creating them.

In the grand scheme of things, being senior is a nice thing. Having position, especially position that others believe is influential and interesting, can be very rewarding.

However, in many organizations, particularly those focused on hierarchical control and “execution,” management positions–even very senior ones–can start to look like information channels vs. leadership roles.

They start to look like “span breaks.”  Literally they are a funnel for the span of control in an organization and not for the efficient operation of the company.

McKinsey defines a span break as a manager who relays information from executives to workers.  In an only mildly backhanded definition of reality for these sorts of managers, one McKinsey article explains that:

“Such managers keep an eye on things, enforce plans and policies, report operational results, and quickly escalate issues or problems. In other words, a [span break] manager is meant to communicate decisions, not to make them”

The result?  Managers in these positions play the role of observer, reporter, and monitor.  They may have “authority” on paper, but they know where decisions are made…and it’s at a higher level than them.  They spend more time in PowerPoint preparing for others to make decisions than they take making decisions.

Sometimes companies create these kinds of positions willfully as a means of developing people.  Most of the time, the created position is, unfortunately, an unrewarding one. If it is offered without a developmental time horizon, it can be career purgatory.

One firm’s leadership–intending to create developmental roles for high potential executives–consolidated multiple businesses into single senior management positions reporting directly to other senior management positions (in football speak, this is the old “I” formation). In the process, the company effectively re-layered its hierarchy with a redundant layer of management–not a fun thing for the professionals attempting to make a difference from those roles.

More often, the existence of span breaks in an organization represents brokenness in the leadership culture.  Top managers skip levels, second guess, and generate decision fear to the point where their subordinates only bring them decisions to make–and then, you suddenly have a span break.

It’s not the way the organization works on paper, but when you ask around, you realize that “all roads go to Rome.”  Often the decision maker is a tribal leader or highly controlling (and often excessively insecure) senior executive.

One semiconductor materials manufacturer’s CEO was so prone to second-guessing on particulars of any decision that his subordinates slowed their decision pace to a crawl while they funneled information through the CEO in a long series of “trial closes” for their own decisions.  The organization, up to and including its most senior business and functional leaders, was paralyzed by a smart but highly detail-oriented executive.

Do you have these issues in your organization?  Have you taken steps to create role clarity and real authority?  If so, what has worked?

Don’t create span breaks in your organization.  Devote time to real development of people through the development of meaty roles vs. symbolic ones; and ruthlessly eliminate actions that turn leaders into information carriers.

Most of all, don’t be a span break yourself.  Such is, in the most basic of terms, a bureaucratic pursuit.

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