Since our founding in 2001, we have believed that formal hierarchy creates barriers to excellence – both for our clients and for our internal culture. Although title is only one marker of hierarchy, it is indicative that while traditional advertising agencies are a forest of titles and acronyms, Greenhouse Partners employees have always had one of two – yes two – titles: Associate or Senior Associate.

This philosophy and approach is not without its challenges, but Greenhouse has consistently embraced those “costs” due to the powerful benefits of our structure.

What are the benefits of a flat structure?

First and foremost, a flat structure frees the best ideas to win the day, rather than the most senior person’s ideas. If you’ve lived in a hierarchical organization, there is a good chance you’ve bit your tongue on critiquing a more senior person’s idea. Or maybe held an idea back because you knew it wouldn’t go anywhere. In a flat environment where the lead on one project might be in a supporting role on the next, ideas and debate flow more freely and increase the chances that the right ideas are the ones that move forward and that our clients will have the desired results.

But a “meritocracy of ideas” isn’t the only benefit. A flat structure:

  • Reduces territoriality – and leads to fewer people that “own” other people within the organization. The politics and jockeying that can challenge corporate cultures are diminished as a result
  • Invites people to take ownership and/or leadership roles for projects and initiatives they are most interested in
  • Increases autonomy, independence, and accountability
  • Can be a differentiator – many of our clients find it refreshing to work with an organization where they don’t need to strategize around and up a corporate ladder of titles, and prospective employees are motivated by the chance to have great work – not tenure – determine their success

What about the downsides?

Like any organizational initiative, it is important to be aware of and proactively manage the challenges of a flat structure. Here is what we have found over the past 15+ years:

  • People coming from big organizations have come to expect frequent and regular title promotions. Moving to a place where everyone shares the same title, we work hard to get our team comfortable with the idea that increases in responsibility, leadership, and salary define professional growth, not title changes
  • It can be harder for individuals to open doors with new partners and clients. Title bias exists – we work hard to help our team present themselves in a way that doesn’t focus on an email signature or business card. As soon as a door is open, an individual’s contribution to a conversation or situation is what matters
  • A flat structure could be more challenging as an organization grows past 50 or 100 people – but organizations like Zappos have shown it is both possible and productive

How does it actually work?

Our client teams are organized in a traditional manner – with individuals designated in leadership roles to be accountable for the relationship, decision-making, and work product. We then have a broader team supporting the client – and it is the leader’s role to utilize each individual based on client need and each team member’s skill set.

  • Those leaders are not the other team members’ “boss” – rather, the whole team is in it together with the objective of delivering great work to our clients
  • Without a formal reporting structure, we make our Partners accountable for all people in our firm – including talent development and growth – ensuring that people feel like they have someone who is invested in their growth and resulting in closer relationships with the leaders of the organization
  • Consistency of communication is important: while we introduce the idea of our flat structure to any individual we are considering for a new hire, we spend time at least twice a year with the entire company revisiting our culture, our structure, and encouraging open dialogue to address confusion or concern

While not right for every company, a flat structure has proven itself right for Greenhouse, our clients, and our people. At a minimum, we’d argue that every organization would benefit from adopting some of the core philosophies introduced here to increase individual accountability, reduce politics, and drive better work.

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