Building Leadership in a Self-Leading Organization03. Mar 2023
After DDC’s transition to a self-leading organization, I have found that humans don’t necessarily use the influence made available to them just because they can. It’s a skill we must train and support each other in using. We use personal leaders to create that safety in our organization
In 2021, DDC – Danish Design Center took a drastic step that many organizations talk about but have not (yet) implemented: We eliminated managers and set all colleagues free to choose their own personal leader. In other words, we became a self-/co-leading organization. We did this because we believe that anyone can lead and anyone can follow (hence our ten human values that work as our core management principle).
While this came with a number of challenges, it’s my experience that it has also been – and is – of great value to several colleagues individually and to DDC as a whole. But it requires an ongoing effort and conversation across our organization about leadership and decision-making. And not least, it requires continuous training in using the influence that is suddenly made available. Because an interesting aspect emerged in this new structure: Just because our colleagues can make decisions does not mean they do it.
How to ‘Personally lead’
Imagine personal leaders as the blood veins in an organism. They’re a vital part of the structure, and they help transport blood across the organism. When a colleague chooses a personal leader who isn’t part of their usual closest colleagues, the personal leader might be able to contribute with new and different perspectives that are harder to see when you are “in it” daily. Choosing a personal leader outside your usual suspects might also give you more of a safe space to unload when needed.
In that way, you build new connections in the organism – the blood streams flow broader and reach longer.
The relation to your personal leader is, well, personal. That means you can structure the relationship as you see fit. It can be weekly, monthly, or even yearly meetings or check-ins. You can use tools like our Personal Leadership Canvas or our Spiderweb Tool to guide the conversation or simply go for a walk and talk.
Psychological safety is key
The purpose is to build and grow psychological safety. We all need to feel comfortable leading and making decisions on behalf of our colleagues, and we also must trust other colleagues when they do the same.
But an interesting aspect has emerged in this new structure: Just because our colleagues can make decisions does not mean they do it. Training the ability – and confidence – to enable everyone in the organization to grasp the influence available to them is part of our development.
One of the tools we use in this process is personal leadership. Ideally, this allows us to support and train each other in decision-making. To know when to entrust the decision-making power to someone else and when to exercise that power yourself. To build that and succeed, we need to lead each other.
Breaking the old age hierarchy
After choosing a personal leader, I’ve experienced a massive leap in my professional and human capabilities. I’ve had the same personal leader (Brian Frandsen) since the summer of 2020, and since the summer of 2022, three colleagues have chosen me as their personal leader.
It’s a huge compliment for me to be chosen by colleagues to help them explore and develop, but it’s also a new skill set for me to develop. I use the canvas tool Brian developed to facilitate the space and conversation between the colleague I lead and me. Brian has also used the tool “on me” in our relationship. It helps set direction and guides you as the personal leader – and when you’re being led.
It’s also a great way to see if you reach the goals and make the changes you set out to. I usually check on my canvas every 6-12 months and evaluate. Otherwise, I use the space to discuss whatever is on my mind that day.
Two of the three colleagues who have chosen me as their personal leader are traditionally above me hierarchically. They are more experienced, have senior titles, and (previously, more) decision-power than me. Our new organizational structure makes this constellation between us possible and adds value to my and my colleagues’ everyday lives, personally and professionally.
After a year with Brian as my personal leader, I reflected on his role for me and sent him an email highlighting the four major parts I see him fulfilling and guiding me in:
- The Cartographer. He helps me take an outside look at my position in the organization.
- Yoda. My experience is that my personal leader sometimes plants a seed or says something, maybe a little mysterious, that I must find the answer to on my own.
- The Container. Sometimes he works as a dumpster where I can offload big and little things.
- Obi-Wan Kenobi. He’s a catalyst for acting. Sometimes you just need that one person that tells you, ‘go ahead, you can do it – write that post, run that workshop, talk to that colleague.’ And then, magically, it happens!
These roles might look entirely different for other colleagues. It’s crucial for us that every colleague use this space as they see fit, but defining a range of roles for the personal leader (see text box below) has helped us create a shared language to talk about how we might use each other best and pay attention to our changing needs.
The power – and responsibility – of the organism
In practice, setting free the decision-power means we no longer need to run every decision, doubt, or question by a boss or manager. Instead, we’ve committed ourselves to seek advice from relevant colleagues.
Some of the significant effects are that more decisions are made faster by the colleague(s) who execute the tasks. Furthermore, it gives the individual greater freedom and influence on their (work) life.
The feeling of community and dependency has strengthened because we’re all responsible for each other – and DDC as a whole. After our transformation, we see ourselves as an organism more than an organization. This image makes it very clear that we are all dependent on each other, but it’s also a great demonstration of fluid leadership – the person who leads and the colleague(s) that follow changes.
Do we need blood veins forever?
Well, yes, in an actual living organism, of course. We are debating whether we will eventually phase out personal leaders. Suppose we are to become a fully self-leading organization. In that case, it shouldn’t be necessary to formalize leadership this way, because we automatically reach out to those we need to talk to and ask for advice in a given situation.
Becoming a self-leading organization is not about having less leadership. In reality, it calls for a lot more leadership.
The faces of the personal leader
In the summer of 2022, we dedicated a team day to explore and discuss the role of the personal leader. We defined eight leading roles and functions of the personal leader in DDC:
- Advice on career and professional development
- My role in DDC and how to navigate
- Might offer an outside-in perspective
- Able to put the individual in relation to the community
- Wise, listening and challenging (but in a mysterious and not always obvious way!)
- Space to nerd out
- Mentoring – strategic and professionally
- The break
- A place to offload – professional and personal
- A place to reflect
- Use of our focus contract
- Personal development
The Guardian Angel
- Someone who watches over me
- Gently pushes
- Regular check-ins
- Preventive effect
- Collective leadership
- Shared space for seeking advice
- Guides and co-develops
- Knows the way and has done it before
- Helps carry the burden/takes over
Piotr – The Personal Trainer
- Paces and pushes when I need it
- You can do it! Support
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