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April 07, 2010


Jennifer Tucker

I encounter this often. The degree of power balance (or imbalance) between line and staff managers is one of the first things I look for in doing an organization assessment. Time after time, I have seen that organizations that have figured out how to maintain the power balance between the staff and line groups are also those that have found a sweet spot between cross-department integration and differentiation.

Line managers tend to naturally have more clear cut measures of accountability than staff managers. In systems that balance staff and line well, staff managers also have very clear measures of accountability, which incorporate BOTH overarching organizational goals AND their success in making life easier for the line functions. Yes, overarching corporate goals are important – AND operational efficiencies at the department level are also important. (They should align, you say? Of course. In reality, it is rarely that neat.) Both levels of accountability are vital in making it work… If staff managers are only accountable for corporate level measures, but make line manager’s lives more difficult in the process, it doesn’t work in the long run - line managers start to "in-source" their own finance, communications and IT specialists to maintain control and mitigate perceived risks in local operations. Most line managers have also been BURNED by the latest and greatest from staff managers (CRM, anyone?!?).

Staff managers that are successful – and I have had the pleasure of working with many - tend to work in smaller chunks of effort (quick and steady wins) and are very clear in establishing service level agreements with line managers to set expectations on both sides. They find the common needs across departments and target those first to demonstrate the value of integrated approaches, INSTEAD of starting with the pieces that differ most across departments in the noble (but very difficult) quest for "big win" standardization and efficiency. Once small wins are consistently met, line managers actually start coming to them to staff managers to ASK for their help – always better to be asked to do an initiative you want to do anyway… I’ve seen this work so well that line managers have actually volunteered to centralize functions across departments as long as a certain staff manager is leading it – trust, built through good experience. The BEST staff managers know what they can do effectively, communicate in terms that support the organization AND line needs, AND deliver, each and every time. That's true leadership.

Gwyn Teatro

Line vs Staff is an issue that has been raising its ugly head and getting in the way of progress since I can remember..and I have a long memory.
I wrote a post called "the importance of Being Purposeful" which speaks to something of what you are saying. Here's the link if you care to have a look.

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