The late Bob Dunlap, founder and president of RETEC where I worked for a decade, often would show an organization chart with clients at the top, then project managers, then the rest of the organization, and him at the very bottom. He would proudly say, "My job is to serve those who serve our clients, because that's why we're in business."
It was Bob who
fashioned our core values, the first of which was: "Our clients are the
focus of everything we do." Unlike many companies, RETEC was serious
about their values. They routinely came up in conversations about
strategy, operational matters, business development efforts, and
personnel decisions. That focus on clients was perhaps the most
important factor in RETEC's success as one of the top performing
environmental firms—before they were acquired by AECOM.
I've since been
involved in several debates within different firms about organizational
structure. These discussions are typically internally oriented, in
contrast to Bob's vision of an externally-driven organization. Ego is a
common visitor in these conversations, as managers vie for their favored
spot on the org chart where the extent of their domain will be visually
displayed. In general, people's perceptions of the org chart within the
firm take precedent over any concern about clients and markets.
Interestingly, what results is often internal dysfunction. Every subdivision of the organization is a potential barrier to communication and collaboration. When client focus is subjugated to internal realms of control, functional silos
inevitably develop. While A/E firms tout the breadth of their
experience and expertise, the fact is that many of them struggle to make
the full benefit of these assets available to clients because of
So here's a
homework assignment for you: Sit down with your management team and do
an honest assessment of how well your organizational structure serves
your clients' interests. Does it facilitate the efficient delivery of
your services? Does it expedite access to your best resources as client
needs dictate? Does it promote cross-disciplinary collaboration? Does it help you focus efforts on your target markets?
If you find
your org chart is a hindrance rather than a help to serving clients,
perhaps it's time to restructure. You don't necessarily have to invert
it like Bob did. But it wouldn't hurt to remind your management team in
the process: "Our job is to serve those who serve our clients, because
that's why we're in business."