work is personal

I think I have always been averse to hierarchies, yet I joined the Army and entered the most hierarchical organization in the country. I graduated from military college and began my career as an infantry officer. Career progression was through promotion, based on yearly performance reviews.

It was supposed to be a meritocracy but was much more tribal. Having a senior officer looking after your career was a great help. I did not have that. I also bored easily and it was the Cold War with us fighting fictional Soviet troops on the Canadian prairies. So I decided to leave the infantry and transfer to the medical services, where I thought I would do more practical work.

On transferring, and removing all the the accoutrements of my regiment, I quickly found out that I was a different person. Well at least I was treated differently by my fellow officers. First of all, I had abandoned my tribe and was now an outcast. Other combat arms officers treated me as if I could never understand the profession of arms, because I was wearing a medical badge.

Those inside the medical services saw me as a stranger. I had been told I was joining a multidisciplinary team of medical professionals, but really I was there to handle anything the medical officers (physicians) did not want to do. Again, I thought that doing a good job would be enough. It was not.

After four years with the medical services I was posted to a job at defence headquarters that did not really exist. My superiors wanted to send me back to Canada, as my unit in Germany was down-sizing. There was no real position open, so one was created for me.

I went to work, sat in my office, and had about an hour’s worth of administration to do in the course of a day. They say that if you want to drive a person crazy, give him nothing to do. I was under orders to go to work each day, but there was little work to do.

I was able to pick up some French writing courses that kept me busy, and I also started doing some personal career planning. With 15 years of service, I was only five years away from a small pension, so financially it made sense to stay in the military. I was able, once again, to transfer to another branch of the services: training development.

I threw myself into my new profession, reading whatever I could, picking up courses, implementing the frameworks of change management, instructional systems design, and human performance technology. I also went back to school to complete a Master’s degree in education. I developed significant expertise in the learning aspects of flight simulation. But five years later I realized that no matter how good I was, I would only be respected for my rank, not my knowledge or ability.

As a junior officer, my role in the hierarchy was to implement policy, not think about the big picture. Systems thinking was, ‘beyond my pay grade’, as they would say. So I decided it was time to leave the services.

The Friday afternoon I turned in my military identification card, I dropped by the officers’ mess to say one last good-bye. I had a drink with a college acquaintance who was now a Colonel, whereas I had been a Captain, three ranks below. Now that I was a civilian, I noticed that finally I could have a real, human conversation with a senior officer.

In far too many instances, my recommendations at work had been ignored because someone senior to me disagreed. In the military the hierarchy is always visible with rank insignia. Suddenly, I had no rank, and could no longer be put into a box by my fellow officers. My last conversation in that officers’ mess was my best. Over the years, many people have asked how long it took me to make the transition from military to civilian life. In my case, it was about 24 hours.

The fact that I had three careers inside the military (not normal at the time) is probably the main reason I was able to serve 21 years. I had a horizontal, rather than a vertical, career. This put me in a good position for future career changes — working at a university and at a web technology company, and then as a freelancer serving multiple industries.

It was as a free-agent that I was finally able to work in an environment that was as close to a meritocracy as possible. Life outside a hierarchy requires multiple skills and perspectives, which my varied past had prepared me for. It had also taught me a certain degree of humility, as I had little rank to force my will on others.

For the past twelve years I have been working in an overlapping network of networks. In my professional networks each node and relationship is unique.  Some of the relationships have been formalized, such as with the Internet Time Alliance, Adjuvi, and EthosVO. But each is founded on a two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, and credibility, that is the core of Jon Husband’s wirearchy.rp_wirearchy.jpg

Perhaps this is why I have written about 200 posts on wirearchy here. It just makes sense to me. In each of my careers, I had hoped for a two-way flow of power and trust with my colleagues, but often it was not the case. Someone would always use positional power to get their way.

I firmly believe that the more we can remove positional power from organizations, the more human they will become. I know that I have felt more engaged, and have been more creative, as a single node in my various networks, than in any hierarchical organization.

In the recent report on The Future of Work, the authors list three key findings from their research:

  1. The biggest fundamental shift in capacity is in freeing people to do their best … the future of work is moving from hierarchy to wirearchy.
  2. Engagement – and how we approach employees’ relationship with a company – is so horribly incomplete that it is dangerous to leaders who rely on it.
  3. The future of work is personal. Very personal. The hardest and most important work in the future of work centers on one detail: personal accountability in decision-making.

All organizations should be built on “a dynamic two-way flow of  power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”. Can anyone, other than a sociopath, see any reason why they should not?

4 Responses to “work is personal”

  1. François Lavallée

    Ahhh, work -related growth and quantum leaps!
    Why is it that we always want to contribute in places where is seems to be un-appreciated?
    At least, these ordeals make us grow.
    As far as wirearchy… yep. It makes so much sense it hurts.
    It hurts to see organizations still not seeing it.
    It hurts to to hear clients and colleagues complain about the situation while knowing that what is required is , as Dave Snowden say,
    1- Hunger to change.., well they have this.
    2 Pressure to change.. they certainly feel it
    but also , and this hurts to realize that it will not be easy…
    3- a radical paradigm shift

    And to think that I could help while at the same time being fully aware that the shift might be too important for them to be able to do it.

    Ah well…. at least we have this most excellent blog to keep our faith in human kind alive!

  2. Christopher Mackay

    There’s a term — complete with catchy acronym — to describe how such hierarchical decision-making scenarios usually play out: HIPPO (the HIghest-Paid Person’s Opinion).

    Reflexive deference to rank also reminds me of one of my favourite lines ever from a TV show (perhaps not coincidentally, the scene is a military tribunal; a civilian barrister addressing a British Army officer on the stand): “Respect and deference are two different things, sir, too often mistaken for each other.” —the Martha Costello character in season 2, episode 2 of Silk

  3. Matt Renwick

    Thank you for sharing your personal story here. It serves well as a parable for how differently authority works in today’s world. We as leaders have to empower our staff to become accountable for themselves, and give them the “space and grace” to allow them to flourish on their own terms and at their own rate.

  4. Helen Blunden

    I had to smile throughout your story as it resonated with me strongly – and my career within the Royal Australian Navy across two branches (Training Development and Public Relations) as well as working within Service and external to Service (with Air Force and Army counterparts – and then added to the mix, the Defence civilians), then with the Reserves who were an entirely different mindset. I think these experiences shape us. I agree that despite working in a hierarchy, the opportunities to have different work and opportunities empower us to grow. Many times I have thought that I didn’t “come out into my own” until I was well into my mid 30’s and when I started contracting. “Human conversations” within military were always with select individuals who shared similar mindsets and who are still now, my friends from all those years. Thanks for your personal story.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)