The Upside Down Pyramid


Three Steps to Modern Management – Look up, Listen and Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is


Managers face lots of challenges but invariably they relate to figuring out the difference between leading and trying to control.  If the top management of a company can figure out how to motivate their team and to promote those that do motivate the battle is nearly won.  There are only a few basics concepts to what it takes to convert managers into leaders.  1) thinking of the company as an upside down pyramid, 2) building a communication structure to learn who can lead versus only manage and 3) recognizing, compensating, and promoting those managers that are leaders of people – those leaders who get it.


1. Thinking of the company as an upside down pyramid


At a recent coffee house visit to a large chain location, it appeared that staff were unaware that all 12 customers were sipping coffee with their coats on indoors.  We couldn’t resist testing things a bit to see how empowered they were to make day to day decisions.  We asked one of the baristas if she had noticed everyone was cold.  She replied that she knew but that “they (management) won’t let me touch the heating system.” What should have been a simple fix required some senior level manager’s involvement.  The result is helpless employees and unhappy customers.


Since the industrial age, most leadership models feature the typical hierarchical top down pyramid with leaders commanding and controlling from the top (and at most levels between them and front line workers).  Unfortunately this typical workplace structure promotes dependency and a sense of helplessness for many staff workers who aren’t empowered to make day to day decisions to do right by the company and customers.  It also discourages employees from communicating with the next level as past communications have met with less than satisfactory and predictable responses.


We would suggest that what works best for employees, customers and ultimately any organization is for leaders to put themselves on the bottom rung instead, serving those “above” them; The Upside Down Pyramid.[1]  Everyone in the organization, and customers, too, are better served by leaders whose primary task is to find ways to support and serve the needs of those they lead.  Yet to accomplish this, leaders must stop thinking of themselves as responsible for everything. In this model, the power remains at the top – where the customers are and the front line employees that serve them.  Turns out these are the people who really know what the customer wants – like a few degrees on the thermostat.


The concept is a simple one; front line employees are generally best suited to make the calls on what actions will best serve the business.  However, a cultural change is required to implement this model successfully in an organization.  Fundamentally, management’s task in this model is to support the people who support the customer.  This shifts day to day decision making to staff allowing them to use their own good judgment to keep customers happy. In other words, grant employees more control over their work. Support them to take personal responsibility and ownership for the success of the business. Give them the required latitude and resources necessary to succeed at their primary task of keeping customers satisfied.  In this model, your every day task is to make the next level up in the pyramid successful and happy.  Train them and then trust them. The result - employees will take more responsibility to do what is best for the business.




How to make it work? 

  • As the senior leader, you must make a commitment to change the culture and truly walk the talk. 

  • Anticipate and plan for resistance,  Communicate the change and model your commitment to it everyday via actions

  • Hire entrepreneurial people who demonstrate commitment, initiative and achievement.  Train them to act like owners.  Ask those who report to you: “What do you need to be successful?”  Train them to tell you by listening.

  • Encourage staff to take necessary action to please customers vs. waiting for senior management to approve every little decision.  Demonstrate by example that you will not shoot the messenger nor those who take reasonable risks

  • Instead of giving staff all the answers/decisions- teach them to fish


Giving up control and supervision however will not be easy for many leaders, particularly those that reached their currnet position by controlling the details but even they can make this change.


Managers should provide whatever is necessary for their employees to succeed in meeting customer expectations on the front line.  This can include everything from tools, training, and resources to decision making authority.


When staff make their own decisions about equipment, work processes and day to day operational decisions to make customers happy, the entire business prospers and leaders get out of their constant fire fighting mode.  You might be surprised at how much time this will give you to focus on driving the strategy of the business instead of driving the temperature in a specific store.


What you can expect as a result:

  • Increased job satisfaction and morale

  • Increased employee retention

  • Increased performance and productivity

  • Increased customer satisfaction

  • Decreased bureaucracy

  • Higher caliber employees (competent and committed employees won’t stand for micromanagement)

  • More time for senior managers to focus on big picture vision and strategy vs. handling the day to day decisions



2.  Building a communication structure to learn who can lead versus only manage


It isn’t always easy to tell someone that your boss is not a great manager.  Especially it isn’t that easy to tell your boss.  Heck if you tell your boss that he or she is great than you get branded a brown nosing, kiss ass suck up.  (Can we say that in an article?)  In today’s culture it is hard to give the most important feedback.  That is unless that is the culture in the company.  So how do you create that culture?




Ask.  In some cultures skip level interviews work because of the smaller family feel of the organization.  This is where you sit down with your employees and discuss their supervisors and try to determine how managers are doing at leading.  This might work except that it is unreliable in that employees might not be as honest as when they are anonymous responders.[2]


There are many companies that provide survey services that require the employees to submit the survey on-line or mailed to an outside address.  The results are tabulated and provided to management to assess the strengths and weaknesses of members of the management team as well as gather feedback on the company and the work environment.



The questionnaires usually ask how much a respondent agrees with various statements.  Stongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree and Strongly Disagree. Here are examples of what a survey can ask:

  • My manager asks me what I need to know to succeed in my job

  • My manager provides the resources that I need to be effective

  • I understand the company’s goals and objectives

  • I have the ability to make decisions that will benefit the company

  • I have the training to do my job.

  • My compensation is fair.

  • I am able to satisfy our customers.


So what do you do once you get this valuable feedback from the font-line employees.  Use it to train the needy and promote the leaders.  Use it to improve the work environment.  All of these changes will demonstrate to the work force that the leadership of the company values their opinions. 




3. Recognizing, compensating, and promoting those managers that are leaders of people – those leaders who get it


Each manager, regardless of how well they scored on the survey of their team, has the opportunity to develop an improvement plan.  Even the best can improve  After reviewing the responses with an open mind they have a discussion with their team and develop jointly a plan for improvement in the lowest scoring areas.  As an example, if a high scoring manager has a low score in an area of communication then the action needs to be around improving this area.


Part of each manager’s performance appraisal and goals should be tied to the results of the survey.  This rewards leaders and trains others to modify their behavior.  In the extreme examples high scorers should be given more management responsibility and the lowest scorers should be considered as a good candidate – for individual contribution roles.[3]


Obviously there will be more to the compensation than the feedback of the manager’s team but the link will change the culture.  This ties the whole process together.  Managers who lead by supporting their teams will score well on surveys and be compensated for team success.  Managers will be motivated to listen to their teams who will be encouraged to be part of a progressive change.  Naturally companies will be come more employee and customer satisfaction centric.  Watch out – this can only benefit those that foster the cultural change.


So look up to your employees, listen to their feedback and put your money where your mouth is.


Jonathan Koshar is the President of The Broad Reach Group, LLC.  He offers corporate financial and operations consulting services and can be reached through the website