How to Ensure the Success of a Position Your Company Hasn’t Had Before

Executive Summary

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 “Future of Jobs” report, many current organizational roles are likely to be disappear as early as 2022, only to be replaced by new organizational roles. You may already be seeing these changes in your organization. Does your organization have a data analytics manager yet? How about a social media specialist? Organizations are increasingly hiring people into novel positions, but often struggle to support these new roles. Too much structure will stifle creativity and innovation. Too much freedom will lead to ambiguity and chaos. To better understand the tension between control and freedom in new roles, we analyzed more than 4000 pages of interview data, company documents, and media reports from 21 organizations that recently established a “sustainability manager” position and appointed someone to the role. Our research found that organizations vary in how tightly they structure new positions, but almost all fall into one of three configurations: too tight, too loose, or just right. This last group of organizations displayed a broad overall commitment to sustainability, but the specific sustainability initiatives were not rigidly formalized. Sustainability managers in this configuration have considerable discretion to launch and champion innovative social and environmental initiatives. They leverage their discretion to successfully collaborate with internal (i.e., colleagues in other functional areas) and external (i.e., communities and regulators) stakeholders. Sustainability programs are decentralized, so social and environmental initiatives are not viewed as top-down directives but are embedded in the routine activities of other functions. Managers in this configuration feel empowered.

Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty Images

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 “Future of Jobs” report, many current organizational roles are likely to be disappear as early as 2022, only to be replaced by new organizational roles. You may already be seeing these changes in your organization. Are some roles (in administration perhaps) becoming redundant? Are new roles sprouting up? Does your organization have a data analytics manager yet? How about a social media specialist? A sustainability manager?

Organizations are increasingly hiring people into novel positions, but often struggle to support these new roles. These new roles do not come with a blueprint, nor can they be copied from other organizations. They have to be built from scratch. Too much structure will stifle creativity and innovation. Too much freedom will lead to ambiguity and chaos.

To better understand the tension between control and freedom in new roles, we analyzed more than 4000 pages of interview data, company documents, and media reports from 21 organizations that recently established a “sustainability manager” position and appointed someone to the role. Our research found that organizations vary in how tightly they structure new positions, but they fall into one of three configurations: too tight, too loose, or just right. This last group of organizations are those that found the “Goldilocks fit” between structural controls and employee freedom.

Too loose

Organizations with this configuration have the least formalized commitment to sustainability. These organizations are just starting to consider social and environmental issues. In the absence of formal structures, managers in the new roles scout for social and environmental initiatives that enhance the organization’s reputation, but they can put forward only a very limited range of sustainability initiatives. The managers struggle to access organization resources and have limited discretion. They have trouble explaining their roles to colleagues and feel lost and adrift. They see themselves as a small child, tugging at someone’s trouser leg, asking for more direction and resources, but receiving scant attention.

Too tight

Organizations with this configuration have highly formalized and centralized sustainability programs driven down from the corporate level. In these organizations, the sustainability managers have to justify their activities to their peers in other functional areas (who resist the sustainability programs as another corporate imposition). Sustainability managers’ roles in these organizations are tightly orchestrated with low discretion. When they suggest initiatives, the projects only get a green light if they fit the formal organizational agenda. To avoid being perceived as a bull in a china shop, these managers learn to curb their passion for social and environmental issues and end up feeling disempowered. They constrain their inner “greenies,” even though their organizational role involves going to bat for environmental issues.

Just right

Organizations with this configuration have a broad overall commitment to sustainability, but the specific sustainability initiatives are not rigidly formalized. Sustainability managers in this configuration have considerable discretion to launch and champion innovative social and environmental initiatives. They leverage their discretion to successfully collaborate with internal (i.e., colleagues in other functional areas) and external (i.e., communities and regulators) stakeholders. Sustainability programs are decentralized, so social and environmental initiatives are not viewed as top-down directives but are embedded in the routine activities of other functions. Managers in this configuration feel empowered. They see themselves as music conductors who work with their colleagues to co-create a sustainable future. The sustainability manager in a mining company with this configuration proudly described how he had worked with his colleagues to successfully embed sustainability in the core activities at his organization (e.g., finance, mineral processing, geology). This embedding shifted the sustainability focus of his organization (from “impacting the environment” to a long-term strategic “reliance on the environment”). A manager at a wine company described how she successfully collaborated with stakeholders both within and outside her organization to roll out an environmental assurance program across the entire supply chain.

If new roles are structured too loosely or too tightly, they are unable to provide the best outcomes for their functions. Organizations with these configurations can, over time, evolve to the “just right stage”, but it is not simply a case of natural progression. This evolution demands organizational and managerial maturity and can take decades. If organizations need urgent progress, they can accelerate this transition by deliberately introducing “structural overlays”. Organizations with the too loose configuration (that are fumbling with creating structure around new managerial roles) can consciously incorporate mechanistic overlays. This will give new roles resources, authority and a clear focus to advance specific projects. The too tight organizations can loosen the iron fist of formalization by deliberately introducing organic overlays (such as “sandboxes” for specific projects that demand innovative and collaborative responses). This will temporarily exempt managers from the organizational bureaucracy and give them the freedom to experiment and innovate. Deliberate attention to structural overlays can help organizations fast track their journey towards achieving that “just right” balance between control and freedom in new roles.

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