Replacing the Organizational Chart with a Strong Culture: Hewitt in the 90’s
From 1994 to 2000, I was a Hewitt associate. The original Hewitt (privately-owned, smaller) is no more having since gone public and then been acquired. Which is the way of the world. But for a large swath of my corporate life, I worked for an interesting and unique organization. It had its advantages and disadvantages, as every workplace will. But what fascinated me most, after arriving from five years at the very structured and status-dependent Chrysler Systems, its culture and how I realized over time that the culture of the organization replaced something that they did without for years…an organizational chart. To observe and experience this in action was akin to being dropped onto another planet, it was so different, so fascinating.
Years after leaving, I had kept my notes from the white papers and materials I was asked to contribute to about this culture. I don’t have those final papers, but I do have my notes. And instead of letting what I learned languish in my file drawer, I’m parking those notes here to use for new projects and new teaching. And as a strange artifact of my working life.
Substituting Culture for Structure at Hewitt:
Since my role at Hewitt from 1994 to 1999 was one where I was required to study and comment on Hewitt’s culture in order to carry out my responsibilities, I feel pretty fortunate to have been able to spend as much time as I did on the topic.
- One thing that caught me off guard early on when I was hired into the Human Resource Development group was the complete absence of an organizational chart.
I had arrived from a five year stint at Chrysler where the organizational chart gave everyone their cues about who to defer to, who to involve in briefings, how to act around certain people, and so on. Nothing could be produced at Hewitt that gave me, a newcomer and experienced hire, the slightest clue as to how this organization was constructed. After my confusion became overwhelming, I pressed my colleague, LT, to draw me a chart so that I could begin to understand where everyone was situated in the organization.
The chart she drew consisted of large circles that represented all of the major practice areas at the time: Actuarial Practice, Benefits Practice, Research Practice and so on. The names of practice leaders were written on the edge of each circle…not in the center, not across the top. In fact, nothing about the diagram could tell me who had power over whom, or who partners were, or where centers of influence were located. It was assumed, even in descriptions about the structure of the firm, that the everyone was equally important. And although when given specific names LT could tell me which associates managed other associates, she was quick to point out that the manager of a practice did not necessarily have the most influence in the group. Associates could influence, no matter what their role, by being highly respected by other associates, by being successful in their area of expertise, by being consistently dependable, and so on.
As I looked around, I realized that Hewitt really lived out this de-emphasis on traditional corporate artifacts. There were no titles on business cards, just someone’s name. There wasn’t a separate parking lot or other facilities for “management” versus “everyone else”.
In the absence of an organizational chart and titles, the strong culture of the organization provided the roadmap for who to involve in decisions, how to interact with each other, and so on. This was delivered to new associates through all-HA workshops, communication materials, and daily interaction with/feedback from experienced associates.
- This was also reflected in the layout of the offices in certain centers such as Lincolnshire, the Woodlands, and Walnut Creek.
Unlike the stereotypical corporation where one could guess who had power or influence by looking for the corner office, or the office with the nicest furniture, the surroundings at Hewitt were consistently serviceable and bland, with any variations more attributable to the needs of the user than anything else. Groups of associates were moved around frequently as the needs of the business changed, but any office was pretty much like another one, so disagreements over territories were either rare or well-hidden from the view of everyday associates.
- Because external trappings of power were rarely seen, you could determine who was influential by who was “in the know”.
Who was copied on emails and included in consensus building? Whose opinion was asked in meetings? Who was included in meetings? Those were the people who had influence and power.
- The shared language of associates at Hewitt was unique and sometimes required interpretation for newcomers.
Phrases such as “Benefit of the Doubt”, “Chunking Up”, “Chunking Down”, “Reframing”, “Push Back”, “Win Win” and multiple acronyms (“SWE”, “SWAN”, “BLOT”, etc.) were used daily by everyone in every practice. A few of these were taught to all members of the firm–from partners to mail room associates–in corporate wide classes such as (the unfortunately named) Charm School and Increasing Personal Resourcefulness. This allowed associates to communicate, in shorthand, in an explicit way (“Let me tell you my frame..“) but also tacitly reinforced certain firm values over and over again (“remember, when we talk about frames, we are saying it is important to try and understand the other person’s perspective before jumping to conclusions…”).
- Not only a shared language, but shared meta-cognitive strategies for thinking and a language talking about differences.
One of the first things that I was impressed with when I examined the learning curriculum was the quality of the content in the classes that were required for all associates. ALL associates. Even the most experienced new hire in the business development practice would be sent by their practice leaders to IPR (Increasing Personal Resourcefulness) or ACS (Adapting to Communication Styles), where they were required to turn their beepers and cell phones off and sit next to first year actuaries and new administrative assistants in order to learn meta-cognitive strategies for dealing with disagreement, individual differences in perception and assumptions, problem-solving, etc. Associates would apply these frameworks frequently, in their work with each other and with clients. Again, this was a shorthand way for dealing with potential conflict or differences of opinion that could derail project goals and collegiality.
- The 3 goals of the organization were simple and straightforward enough to guide decision making for any associate in almost any situation. Faced with any decision, associates could ask themselves:
- Which choice satisfies the client?
- Which choice creates a satisfying work experience for associates?
- Which choice is financially beneficial for HA?”
As long as any two of those were met, without severely compromising the third, decisions could be quickly made and it was known that practice leaders would support them and the outcomes.
For example, even an associate in the printshop, in the absence of someone to ask for guidance, could be faced with the choice to work overtime and make sure a box of client materials was put in the mail tonight, or leave at their scheduled time and put the materials in tomorrow’s mail. This associate could ask themselves, “Which choice would satisfy the client?”, decide that they were personally agreeable to staying late, and would not hesitate to charge the firm for overtime hours necessary because they knew that they could rationally defend their choice and that their practice leader would then support them. This type of clarity eliminated a lot of second guessing and empowered associates to make better/quicker decisions.
The advantages of the “culture as structure” model at Hewitt:
- Less ego and power or self-protecting behavior tied to titles, office size, budget size, and other formal “trappings” of power. More respect accorded to quality ideas, personal influence with others, and individual knowledge.
- Fewer barriers to working across disciplines and areas of expertise. More opportunities for working in multidisciplinary ways.
- Strong group loyalty to the organization, and benefit of the doubt extended more readily in the case of difficult decisions that might affect the organization; lower turnover of employees.
- Strong alignment around quality of service and product delivered to the client.
- Efficiency of agreements around how the work should be accomplished, how to work with each other, how important quality was, how to interact and serve clients, and so on.
- Contributions other than people management were rewarded and this ultimately benefitted the firm and the client. You could choose to excel in one or more of three areas: People Leadership, Project Leadership, or Thought Leadership. Those who were excellent at Project Management or Innovation weren’t required to become managers in order to progress in their career or compensation. This provided the opportunity to better match skills with needs everywhere.
- The expectation that experienced associates would mentor younger associates was part of the culture. Continuous learning through the career lifecycle was a given, and younger associates benefited from personalized mentoring relationships.
- Making everyday decisions was more efficient and did not involve “CYA” behavior as long as decisions aligned with the overall goals of the organization.
- Easier to reconfigure the services in the organization in response to external market forces because the lack of titles fostered “face saving” behavior (e.g. no demotions needed, etc.)
The disadvantages of the “culture as structure” model at Hewitt:
- The culture was so strong that it was difficult to fit in immediately if you came from a different culture, or if you had other ways of doing things organizationally that were counter-cultural.
- The “on-boarding” process for new associates was robust, and required a healthy investment of time and resources.
- Problems with scaling to become large quickly because of the time and resources needed to orient new associates to the culture, and to mentor them.
- Outside organizations were often unfamiliar with how to “value” an associate outside of the Hewitt context because of the absence of cues such as titles.
- Making large and complex decisions was less efficient and took more time because of the need to engage more people and get buy-in. (Though once they were made, less problems with implementation and sustainability of the change.)
Would love to here more from my 1990’s colleagues, especially in the consulting side of the business (versus outsourcing), about their thoughts on this!