leadership within a self-managing organization

All our locations are organized based on self-management. No chief or supervisor, just professionals with a healthy dose of common sense, a lot of experience and heart for the business and the client. Alex Otten (Managing Director, We are you Tilburg), recently spoke at DrupalJam: XL about the road to a self-managing organization and all his challenges. This is his story.
Alex Otten
Managing Director, We are you Tilburg
Self-management and leadership; two seeming opposites. "Leadership" and "management" are two words that are often mistaken for one another, yet there is a big difference between the two. If you ask me, ‘self-management’ and ‘management’ do not go together. ‘Self-management’ and ‘leadership’ go hand in hand. Leadership is needed on every level and in every process of an organization. At least, in our experience.

Initially the level of self-management grew with the size of We are you Tilburg. As we grew bigger we noticed that within the teams people had sufficient self-management skills. But concerning issues that expanded outside the own team, people felt a little lost about how far they could go and to what point they could decide themselves.Understandable. Concerning expertise, our colleagues knew exactly what to expect and there was a clear division of roles within the team. However, when it came to more general matters, it was not immediately clear whether and who has "authority". In Tilburg we used to have the Operational Manager or the Executive Board for those matters.

An example: A team is in need of more capacity and look for help in other teams. Often someone is (temporarily) available. But who decides whether that available colleague will actually join the other team? And what if his new team runs out of work, what happens to the colleague that just switched teams? Or, what if the original team suddenly has a lot of work and needs more people?

Evolving from self-managing teams to a self-managing organization was a big challenge.

leadership and framework

A while ago, I spoke to Ron Meyer (Professor Strategic Leaderschip TIAS) during a lecture about agile leadership. He gave me an overview of the difference between a manager and leader:


manager leader
what do you do?I have a job with rights and responsibilitiesI fulfill a role with or without a formal job description
how do you get the role? senior managers appoint me I am being accepted by others who want to follow
what is your approach? I enforce obedience through reward and punishment I inspire people by convincing them with heart and soul
how do people respond? we have calculating relationships (what's in it for me?) we have reciprocal relationships (what is our common goal?)
what is the outcome?acceptable performance based on extrinsic motivationexcellent performance based on intrinsic motivation
concludingmanage things: make sure they have to lead people: make sure they want to
In the example I mentioned earlier, it would be best to have someone make a decision in the interest of the organization. Someone who has a mandate from all the people involved (empowerment), preferably based on a procedure or checklist. If those are not in place, you need someone in a leadership role to help the team in the right direction.

A leader needs to know to what limits he or she can take the role. This realization was the biggest eye opener in the entire process. If you do not specify the limits, nothing will get in motion. This was exactly my new role within our company, in opposite of being the manager before; define the space people can take and set the framework. The framework contains our values, how we think about profit and loss, ensuring that the information is thorough, that people have the right equipment to do their job and how we want to develop as a company. Give direction.

Without direction, no self-management. As business owners, we thought we would just stop interfering and then ''have a self-managing company''. That went well on a team level. But beyond that, it is necessary to provide directions and a framework. Within that framework leaders can stand up, so an organization can become self-managing.

Do you want to share your ideas about self-management or see it in practice? Contact Alex via our location in Tilburg.