Edward Hopper: Office in a Small City

A framework for understanding role and org-fit.

Let us say you are a smart, sharp ex-strategy consultant from the Big 3, now working in the Strategy Office of a print major. The company, facing digital headwinds, is muddling its way through. Business is on a gentle decline; that said, the job still pays well, the people are interesting and comfortable to work with, and best of all, there is no travel. But you aren’t happy; there is something, either the role or the environment which makes you uneasy and a tad unhappy.

Or you are a hot shot alpha sales person from a leading IT Services co, hired as CEO of a new-age Silicon Valley decacorn that is now setting up office in India. The news of your joining is front page stuff on ET and the trade blogs. Your batchmates are envious of your 3x salary hike and those ESOPs. And what is more there is no sales pressure even. Menlo Park isn’t bothered with the piddly sums the India arm will generate. You get on board, and soon, 5-6 months later, the papers are full of news about your exit.

Both the above examples are dressed-up versions of real-life incidents. While there are likely individual reasons for what happened, or is happening to the protagonists, they both help illustrate a very valuable framework for understanding organizations and roles. In this essay, I want to share that framework, which I refer to as the Role-Corporate Tense framework with you. I do think that framework as well as the related concepts of role tense and its counterpart corporate tense will help you understand your role and position in your organization better; and thereby take corrective or proactive action to enhance your career.

Ways to understand an organization

There are several lenses to view and understand an organization. There is the usual top, middle and junior management one. Then there is viewing it as a sum of different functions – procurement, production, marketing, finance etc., or even as one split between front facing parts (marketing, sales) and back end parts (supply chain, finance etc.). Then there is the perspective that I want to introduce: that the organization is the sum of three unequal parts. One part lives in the past, the other in the present, and the last in the future.

Let us understand this better. Functions such as Internal Audit, Finance etc. largely live in the past. They concern themselves with investigations into past events, or deal with payments for activities that happened in the past. Sales and Marketing live in the present and the near future. They ask: how much money can I extract from the customer today? How do I go one up on the competitor? Then, there is the future part of the organization. This is where Strategy / Corporate Office, New Product Development, Corp Dev teams etc., all sit. These teams live in a world that is 5-10-20 years ahead of the rest of the org. They ask themselves – how will the market change in the coming few years? How will my consumers change? How will they solve their problems in the far future, that my brand is solve today?

It isn’t entirely watertight though. There are roles within HR and Finance that live in the future and concern themselves with future-oriented questions for their function, e.g., what kind of financing or manpower do we need to put in place to support the next 5 years’ growth plans and so on. Similarly, future-oriented roles exist in marketing and brand functions as well. Thus, we may say there are roles that live in the past, present and future; or even better, that that these roles have a certain tense – past, present or future. This is essentially what role tense is – a concept that helps clarify which tense your role falls in.

Role tense

Visually, we may depict role tense thus –

Do note that in this essay, the word ‘present’ also encompasses the near future, i.e., the next 3 months. And the term ‘future’ in fact refers to the far future really, everything ahead of the next 3 months, and typically associated with actions and tasks that have no direct correlation to sales revenue today.

For most traditional organizations, the bulk of the roles, upwards of 3/4ths to even as much as 90%, live in the present. The past accounts for most of the remaining. There is a tiny sliver, say 2-3% of the total workforce, that live in the future though. How big this future part is, depends a lot on the nature of the industry and the growth opportunity that the organization sees? If it is a growth industry, then there is willingness for the org to invest in a large future footprint. The term future footprint encompasses several markers of future intensity, such as the number of roles that live in the future (due to larger Corp Dev / Strategy teams or future-focussed roles in Finance, HR etc.), the importance given to new business units (number of such units, investments into them, signals such as whether they have prominent or powerful people heading these new units etc.), the amount of time the CEO/CXOs spend talking about new business opportunities, etc.

We can see the presence of a large future footprint in new-age orgs such as Google, Uber etc. In such orgs, roles with a future tense are typically high prestige roles, and present tense roles such as sales are looked down upon. Google, FB and other Silicon Valley firms exemplify this. In them, the highest prestige roles are in Engineering, followed by Product Management. Far, far down the pecking order come Sales and Marketing roles.

There are also related nuances. Orgs with high future footprint are high risk, high reward, high energy environs; and hence they attract a younger, more vibrant workforce. Typically, they also have a more diverse workforce – more women, more LGBT employees, more expats or repats (repatriates, i.e., Desis who have returned to India). There is considerably less hierarchy in these new age orgs, and a greater focus on nurturing high-potential employees.

Conversely, in orgs with a declining future footprint, we see considerable revenue pressures. The focus is retaining or grabbing market share (from the competitor), not creating new markets. Thus, in these orgs, employees in future tense roles are seen as a liability. Such roles are pejoratively described as staff roles, and are seen as a drag on the company, which is concerned predominantly with the here and now. In such companies, Sales becomes the hero function, often getting outsized rewards. CEO / CXO time is directed towards the immediate present, handling crises, upset customers, regulators etc., in fact, anything but the future.

Corporate tense

That brings us to a very important insight. Just as roles have a tense associated with them, each company too has a tense associated with it. This is what I refer to as corporate tense. Startups, new-age companies and new business units are all future tense orgs; they have a large future footprint, often an increasing one. Then there are organizations which are seeing steady but not spectacular growth. The future footprint isn’t growing, but neither is it declining. These are present tense orgs. And then finally you have organizations where the future footprint is declining. The company may even be encountering revenue or customer declines. In such a context, the focus shifts to milking existing shares or customers. These are past tense orgs.

The table below has examples of orgs across these 3 tenses –

A framework for understanding your org, and your role

If you have been reading thus far, then you have clearly identified which bucket you fall in, and where your org is located. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with a job, say, where you are overseeing all bill processing in a large utilities company. You are in a job with a past footprint, in organization with a past footprint. Your job’s tense (past) matches your company’s tense (also past).

What if you are in the Corporate Strategy or Innovation role in such a company? What if your job’s tense is future, but your company’s tense is past? Then I dare say you need to worry. Sooner or later the pressures that the company is facing will impact your role (if it hasn’t already started to), as the company decides to chop ‘unproductive depatments’ such as Corporate Strategy which don’t contribute to revenue today.

Contrasting your job’s tense with your company’s tense to check if they match, is a useful evaluation framework to determine if you are moving to the right company, or indeed are in the right role or company. This is useful for employees and also for corporates seeking to hire the right talent.

Let us lay out this framework, which we may refer to as Role-Corporate Tense framework.

Let us understand how it can be applied through a few of examples.

If as an employee, you have predominantly been in present tense jobs (trading, sales etc.), do understand that joining a company with a high future footprint means you are relatively less important in the org structure. You will certainly get rewarded for performance, but you have very little say and influence in the company. This is the lot of sales people at future-tense orgs such as Google, Snap etc. This also explains why the hotshot sales guy I referred to in the starting of this essay quit his new employer soon.

Let us now take the example of an employee who has predominantly been in future tense roles being wooed to join a largely present tense company. She is told that when she is brought in that the company is looking to transform itself, and people like her are to lead the change. Let us say she joins the co. Now how does she know if the company is indeed expanding its future footprint? Easy. She has to look at whether the number of future tense roles are increasing, whether the CEO is spending more and more time in the future, and so on. If this isn’t happening, then the signals are clear; she should quit at the earliest. Oh, and given the high pressure on her to deliver the new plan, she should make sure she is well-compensated for the higher stress levels of the job

Now let us take a corporate and explore how it applies to them. If as a corporate you are in clear decline mode (past tense org), and if your head of Corporate Strategy leaves, it may not be a bad idea to revisit the JD and skill requirement. The Corp Strat head who came in 5 years ago, may not be the right person. You may well need a more junior person, or in fact you may not even need such a resource in the org you have today. 

So, tell me, what tense is your role? Does it match the tense of your company?