Big conglomerates tend to be companies filled with rules, regulations, and office politics. But flat organizations strive to empower and coach their employees.
For years, I worked at a Fortune 100 company, one that did billions of dollars in sales annually. It was surprising to see how it could survive for so long, especially with how broken its internal communication systems were. Marketing had no idea what PR was doing. PR had no idea which products were being worked on by engineering. Product planning made up projections instead of looking at sales numbers. Customer service was oblivious to everything.
In a typical organization, the room for growth is slim. Innovators are usually shut down, while yes men are promoted. Then the hierarchy tilts, rendering no true leadership at the top. In this type of environment, the chances of moving to the top are nearly impossible, unless you're appointed by the board of directors.
In flat organizations, things don't work that way. In fact, innovation and creativity are the driving forces behind these companies.
I had a chance to talk to Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, president of the leading Finnish fashion and design house Marimekko. She started her career with Marimekko in international PR. In the course of 10 years, she became one of only three women and one of the youngest presidents leading a listed company in Finland.
I asked her how she was able to move up the ladder so quickly.
Tiina shared these criteria:
1. Find a company that fits into your passion
Tiina's motto for success is, always be yourself.
At an early age, Tiina became interested in international business and branding. She also knew she wanted to work with design, so when it came time to embark on her career, it was very clear to her that her dream job would be at Marimekko.
Marimekko's values and philosophy resonated with her own, and she had always been inspired by how the bold and unique design language of the brand encourages people to express themselves freely.
2. Company history matters
Before working for Marimekko, Tiina looked at the company history. During her audit, she saw that women have equal opportunity to succeed and the brand has a very strong history of female leadership.
On top of that, Tiina found:
This showed her that she had opportunity to grow at the company.
3. Find a company culture that suits you
Tiina has an impressive educational background, with master's degrees in multiple areas. She is always eager to grasp the challenges and opportunities she is given. Her first job at Marimekko was a summer job. During that time, she noted:
Tiina understood that this company could give her room for personal development, organizational learning, and creative thinking.
Because Tiina found a company culture that suited her appetite for constant growth and applying her creative skills, she was able to work in many different departments. Her various roles and experiences led her to where she is now.
Tiina says it was not a consciously thought-out path. She just always enjoyed the work and roles that she has had along the way.
But what is it really like to work in a flat organization?
Every day in the life of Tiina's job is different, which is why she loves it so much. However, she always spends an hour just walking around and catching up with people in the organization, to coach, listen, learn, and laugh with them. It is important to enjoy working with one another, while working hard. Getting things done together is one of the key values at Marimekko.
Tiina feels that you should stay true to your values by letting others know that you respect and appreciate them.
She says she's been lucky throughout her career. But I feel her success is a result of the respect and appreciation she has shown from the beginning for everyone in her company regardless of their differences. People truly like her and look up to her. That approach combined with Tiina's passion for the business increased her willingness to learn as well. For her, it opened up development opportunities.
It isn't all easy being in a flat organization, though.
Back in 2014, Tiina was acting as interim creative director for a few months while in search of a replacement. This was one of the most challenging experiences of her career, but the one that also taught her the most: to learn a whole new area of business very quickly and handle matters that weren't previously familiar to her. This was an opportunity for her to understand the company's creative design and product development functions and processes from a new perspective and on a much deeper level.
Tiina realized over the years that intentionally working with people from various fields and backgrounds and in multiple facets of business was an extremely useful way to develop a holistic perspective.
Being curious, open minded, and respectful creates a good starting point for personal development.
As president, Tiina is proud that the work of her teams has led Marimekko to grow internationally. Her focus now is on creating even more interesting products and collections for her global clientele as well as on strengthening the customer experience in brick and click to inspire her customers even more about beautiful everyday life.
Have you worked your way up at a flat, non-hierarchical organization? I'd love to learn more. Comment below!