Blog Post

How to Advance Your Career in a Workplace That Has No Boss

Cornerstone Editors

The modern workplace is all about being "flat" -- that is, eliminating the hierarchies, job titles, and traditional corner offices more associated with the Industrial Age than the Digital Age. But while many employees thrive in the egalitarian culture of a flat organization, others who are more familiar with the promotions, titles and other perquisites of a vertical workplace worry about a potential drawback: their own career advancement.

It doesn't have to be that way. True, flat organizations have far fewer leaders at the top, but that doesn't mean employees can't expand their skills and position themselves for a better job down the road. The key is to look beyond the classic rewards for a job well done and to pursue other ways of learning new skills, fulfilling your ambition, and boosting your worth. Here are four ways to do just that:

Become a Master of Your Trade

Jason Fried, the CEO of Chicago-based software company 37signals, doesn't often promote employees to managerial roles. He doesn't have a chief technology officer, a creative director or customer support manager. Instead he divides his 40 or so workers into teams and gives them the freedom to manage themselves. The programmers program. The designers design. The customer support staff, well, supports customers. Instead of one designated team leader, the company rotates each team member into the role each week.

"Instead of rewarding high performers with managerial responsibilities -- which often drives people further away from the job they are actually good at -- we reward with responsibilities closer to the work," Fried writes in a regular . Promoting a great designer to creative director would only take her away from the day-to-day work she's so good at, he explains. Instead, the company lets her lead more projects and truly own her work.

The moral of the story: master, don't manage. Expand your depth and breadth of knowledge to truly master your craft. You may not technically be "climbing the ladder," but you're certainly adding skills and grooming yourself for a better position down the road.

Be Your Own Boss

Valve, a Washington-based developer of video games with some 300 employees, has never had a boss in its entire 17-year history -- nor does it have traditional pay scales, hierarchies or office hours. Yet, Valve's per-employee profits reportedly top those of Google and Microsoft.

The egalitarian structure allows all employees to participate in major company decisions, including individual compensation. Leadership and product design are handled by whomever steps up and makes something happen. By giving everyone a vote and the opportunity to participate, the company places the onus on employees to manage projects, develop and execute on strategy, and lead.

"You don't necessarily need leaders or people in positions of authority, but you need people and systems to empower everyone else," said Nick Stein, senior director of marketing and communications at The company has developed software that helps companies identify their goals, motivate employees to achieve them and reward top performers in both flat and hierarchical organizations. "It's about empowering people to take more control of their destiny," Stein said.

Be a Mentor

There may not be an established hierarchy, but junior employees will still need role models and mentors. Think of it more like the relationship between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker and less like the relationship between the tyrannical Bill Lumbergh and rebellious Peter Gibbons.

Just because you're not officially in charge of a team doesn't mean you can't share your know-how. By mentoring new employees, you not only reinforce your skills but also show initiative. Plus, making a difference in the lives of others is one of the best forms of fulfillment, writes Susan Krauss Whitbourne, an acclaimed psychologist and expert on fulfillment.

Learn What You Can, Strike Out on Your Own

A great way to advance in a flat organization is to focus on mastering skills and, together with your passion, starting your own company. Fried recounts how an employee who wasn't perfectly suited for 37Signals' more freewheeling structure wanted a new job title with managerial duties attached. Eventually she left -- amicably -- to launch her own business. She now runs her own team and also turns to her former boss for advice.

Whether it's taking charge of an internal team at your company or branching off on your own, opportunities abound for career growth beyond traditional hierarchies.

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