The Fall of the Alphas: The New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence---and Leadby Dana Ardi
The new model for business success: replace top-down Alpha management with collaboration, connection, and increased job satisfactionthe Beta model
The Fall of the Alphas explores the sweeping changes taking place in the corporate and social cultures of today's most successful organizations. Utilizing years of advising companies of all sizes,/i>
The new model for business success: replace top-down Alpha management with collaboration, connection, and increased job satisfactionthe Beta model
The Fall of the Alphas explores the sweeping changes taking place in the corporate and social cultures of today's most successful organizations. Utilizing years of advising companies of all sizes, hypergrowth startups to Fortune 500 company management teams, Dana Ardi identifies a pivotal evolutionary moment: the decline of the traditional Alpha-model (the top-down, male-dominated, authoritarian, corner-office hierarchy that has ruled organizational landscapes for so long), as it is replaced by collaboration, connectivity, and the sharing of power. As Ardi persuasively demonstrates, in the new Beta organization, it is the team players, the sage advisors, the network experts, the trusted assistants, and the communications facilitators who are coming to the fore, as savvy managers learn to lead through influence and collaboration rather than authority and competition. From technology behemoths to small and medium-sized businesses, Beta has become the new paradigm for success in today's challenging market.
With insight and practical guidance, Dana Ardi shows how any business organization or team can re-organize from Alpha to Betaand be more effective, flexible, and profitable
“Noting the potential of higher flexibility and creativity promised by the beta model, Ardi offers solid advice on how more companies can make the switch. An insightful look at a pivotal change in business management style.” Booklist Review
“Dana Ardi explores a new world of collaborative organizations which are poised to blow past the old command and control model.” David Karp, Chief Executive Officer of Tumblr
“Dana Ardi gives a voice, and a name to the behavioral shift underway in society and business today. As I read this book, I found myself thinking intensely about her new model for leadership, and what it means for our clients and our company.” Frederick Crawford, Chief Executive Officer of AlixPartners
“The Fall of the Alphas offers a brilliant analysis for manageable transformation. Dana Ardi's insights will show you how to bring your company into the more sustainable model of collaborative structure.” Jonathan Miller, partner, Advancit Capital, former chief digital officer for News Corporation, and former CEO of AOL Inc.
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The Fall of the Alphas
The New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence â" and Lead
By Dana Ardi
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Dana Ardi
All rights reserved.
I wear power ties, I tell power lies, I take power naps, I run victory laps. I'm a totally ongoing bigfoot slam dunk rainmaker with a proactive outreach. A raging workaholic; a working rageaholic. Out of rehab, and in denial. I've got a personal trainer, a personal shopper, a personal assistant, and a personal agenda. You can't shut me up, you can't dumb me down. 'Cause I'm tireless, and I'm wireless, I'm an alpha male on beta blockers.
— George Carlin, Life Is Worth Losing
For thousands of years, groups of people have looked to a single strongman for leadership. Families had patriarchs. Tribes had chieftains. Villages had lords. Nations had kings, prime ministers, presidents. Over time, this ancient model defined by one powerful figure dominating the rest of the group has been applied to practically every sphere where groups of individuals work together. Cities have mayors. Armies have generals. Teams have quarterbacks. Nuclear families have fathers. And corporations have CEOs. In the 1940s, we came up with a catchall description for this ubiquitous archetype. We dubbed these strongmen Alpha males, a term we borrowed from studies of the animal world.
For all of prehistory, human societies were egalitarian, collaborative communities of hunters and gatherers. The typically male role of hunter wasn't valued any more or any less than the typically female role of gatherer. Both provided sustenance for the tribe. In fact, considering that females were the source of life itself, societies revered matriarchs as much as they did patriarchs. It wasn't until the development of agriculture and the necessity of being able to plow for crops that physically stronger males began to dominate. The adoption of agriculture also meant that tribes became rooted, rather than nomadic. In turn, fixed locations led to greater population density and heightened competition — competition, I might add, that led to hierarchical rather than collaborative group dynamics.
When society morphed from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age, the leadership paradigm failed to evolve along with it. In fact, during the Industrial Age, the Alpha model became even more ingrained. Although working on an assembly line did not require physical strength, labor became firmly divided along gender lines. Men worked outside the home; women worked inside the home. If circumstances obliged females to seek outside employment, they did so in roles that mirrored their by-now-customary roles: cook, maid, laundress, seamstress. For most of the Industrial Age, in fact, the only professions that welcomed females were those requiring the role of nurturer: teacher and nurse.
In the 1980s, when women began to collapse gender barriers and occasionally assume an exalted profesional status, they were dubbed Alpha females. This very minor tweaking of the name made sense, considering that the behaviors and attitudes of many Alpha women were indistinguishable from men heading up similar groups. Many of these women had decided that the only way they could succeed professionally was by becoming exactly like men. They surrendered most vestiges of their femininity. They desexualized themselves. The wore tailored shirts and even female neckties that both mimicked and parodied a traditional male wardrobe. Books from that 1980s era had titles like Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women, which counseled women entering the workplace to avoid any and all so-called subservient positions. Among other things, women were advised never to take notes, as their colleagues might then perceive them as secretarial. (Today, I'm constantly reminding young women of the power inherent in minutes-taking. The way I see it, aggregating the sum of organizational data is about as far as you can get from subservience!)
Again, women who rose to top positions in the 1980s and 1990s felt almost as though they had to out-Alpha the Alpha male. They not only had to be aggressive and tough but they also had to be twice as aggressive and tough as all the men out there. Think of empire-builders Martha Stewart or Linda Wachner, the CEO of apparel giant Warnaco. Wachner rose from working as a department store buyer to leading a leveraged buyout of the global company she would eventually lead. She soon quadrupled the size of Warnaco's business, which owned numerous high-end brands including Calvin Klein jeans, Ralph Lauren Chaps, Speedo swimwear, and Olga bras.
Like numerous Alpha men before her, Wachner was ultimately brought down by her own hard-charging management style. She was, the word went, too abrasive, too critical, too autocratic. She drove away key management talent. She didn't heed the advice and counsel of subordinates. Most unforgivable to stakeholders, under her governance Warnaco began hemorraghing money, and ultimately filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001. That same year, Warnaco fired Wachner without severance pay.
Author Sarah Dunant was once quoted as saying, "[The] Alpha female, like [the] alpha male, depends on such a state of innate superiority that she's probably not aware of her status. While she would be effortlessly talented and capable, she would need a reduced capacity for empathy, because otherwise it would derail her. ... I envisage the mind of Mary Warnock, the body of Kate Moss and the humanity of Leni Riefenstahl."
"[The] Alpha female is pretty exceptional," agrees UK Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. "There are not a lot of people trying to be like her, whereas there are a lot of men behaving in the same way, clambering over each other to reach the top of the tree. Those women who do get to the top are mavericks, hybrids and deny that they are like other women. Women do not like the Alpha female very much, nor do they want to be like her. Women want to be liked, which holds them back," Toynbee concludes, adding that English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the only female leader in history whose cabinet lacked even a single female.
Whether male or female, an Alpha is an Alpha, right?
So why did the Alpha model of business leadership and its hierarchical organizational structure last as long and spread as wide as it did? Because it worked, that's why. The risk-taking, competitive, self-assured boss was lauded for his or her decisiveness, certainty, and willingness to go it alone. Was he or she disagreeable? Occasionally. Callous and insensitive? Sometimes. Close-minded and obstinate? Often. But those negative traits were condoned, accepted, and even admired as part of what it took to reach the top dog slot and lead the group to success. Moreover, an Alpha leadership style worked best with a carefully structured pyramid of support beneath it. There needed to be a clear hierarchy, or chain of command, usually divided up into functional branches, in which people knew their roles, carried out orders from above, and in turn gave orders to those below them. For the next generation of leaders, there was only one clearly marked path of ascension or leadership to follow, and only one sharply defined set of skills for them to possess: the path that led to the CEO job, as well as to the huge, glassed-in corner office.
No doubt about it: this historical, hierarchical Alpha paradigm had a heralded, unprecedented run. For thousands of years, it was the model for nearly every group of human beings, from the Roman Empire to 1950s America, from Patton's Third Army to Jack Welch's General Electric to Tom Brady's New England Patriots. It was the traditional way to lead a company, structure an organization, and run a family. But everything comes to an end.
* * *
The generations that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s saw themselves as rebels. They were a historical and antiestablishment. The civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights movements all had their origins in the youth-based counterculture that flowered during those two decades. The irony was that gender roles and the Alpha paradigm were as firmly entrenched in these "revolutionaries" as they were for previous generations. What was revolutionary, however, was how this generation grew up to raise their own children. Those young people, who have grown up to become today's knowledge workers, weren't necessarily forced into strict gender roles, and growing up, they also learned that every member of the team had a valuable role to play. In short, most were taught to be true to themselves and to work well with others.
Eventually, when they graduated from college, these young people found themselves entering a new kind of economy: the Information Age. In the Industrial Age, work was algorithmic and incremental. Experience mattered more than anything else. This made it a natural fit for the hierarchical Alpha structure and leadership paradigm. By contrast, work in the Information Age is heuristic — it stimulates inquiry, oftentimes by trial and error — and fluid. Creativity matters more than experience, since, let's face it, today memory can be digitized. The sheer ubiquity of information and instantaneous communication has given a generation that feels entitled to speaking its mind the ability and the means to call out opinions twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Information technology has also led to the globalization of economies and cultures. Today's businesses no longer exist in a closed system. No one leader can have all the answers, nor can any stand-alone leader ignore the power of today's new 24/7 information flow. This combination of information and communications technology has brought down more despots than all the smart bombs built over the course of the Industrial Age. Hierarchical organizations, in which decision-making is centralized in one person, or within a small, elite group of people, are becoming as obsolete in today's world as political autocracies.
Which is another way of saying that the future belongs to the Betas, not the Alphas, and to organizations and leaders who communicate, collaborate, and curate.
Information is now so valuable and so widespread that trying to keep it under control isn't only counterproductive, it's also bound to fail. Today's organizations and leaders must have as open a dialogue as possible, not just internally, with employees, but also externally, to the public, and in some cases, the world.
As everyone knows, information technology has made the world vastly more complex than it used to be, and it continues to do so in leaps and bounds. It is impossible for one person, no matter how brilliant or dynamic he or she is, to master all the knowledge a company needs to compete. In the Information Age, success requires leaders who are willing and able to collaborate with employees, directors, customers, and competitors.
Which is where Beta comes in.
Beta leaders and employees are fully networked into their communities. They influence rather than intimidate. They play to their strengths and seek help from others to compensate for whatever skills they lack. Rather than aspiring to omnipotence and acting as though they're the masters of all they survey, Beta leaders focus on what I call motivated skills, for example, the things they know they do exceptionally well. And instead of exploiting their peers' weaknesses in order to attain and hold on to power, they encourage their fellow executives to play to their own strengths so that the entire team and organization can succeed.
For a leader, this requires the ability to curate — to listen and to guide — rather than command. The ideas, products, and efforts of all the organization's constituents must be woven together into a cohesive narrative. And those individuals who work in Beta organizations must be encouraged to pursue their own areas of interest and expertise, rather than forcing themselves to follow a culturally preapproved development path.
Which is where the Beta leader steps in. He or she understands that every individual in the organization is a contributor; the closer everyone in the organization comes to achieving his or her singular potential, the more successful the business will be. Beta leaders encourage their employees to acquire new skills, but rather than responding to a company mandate, employees themselves set out to expand their skill sets. In the Beta organization, individual development is all about self-actualization, as opposed to self-promotion.
Now, self-actualization doesn't mean slinging a backpack over your shoulder and spending six months beachcombing the sands of Costa Rica. It's more accurately defined as self-awareness. Beta companies generally encourage employees to bring to their roles an intellectual and emotional understanding of their strengths and their weaknesses, their goals and their motivations. And among the qualities that make up successful Beta leaders is a willingness to help employees reach a high level of awareness via self-directed learning — which is one reason why the 360 reviews (performance-appraisal data collected from all around an employee) and feedback sessions in many corporate offices seldom have any teeth. (I'm a long-standing believer in self-directed learning, with an encouraging assist from the top.) Leaders need to give their people the proper tools, techniques, and feedback. At the same time, organizations cannot be wholeheartedly responsible for their employees' development; employees have to play their parts, too.
For example, if an executive says to an employee, You are unbelievably good at doing X, but less adept at doing Y, and I'd like to help you develop your skills at Y with the following techniques and protocols, well, to me that's a conversation that's actually liable to bear fruit. Another executive might tell an employee, You're a really incredible VP of Marketing, but you lack equally great financial modeling skills. To that end, we recommend that you consider pursuing an executive MBA. Oh, and one more thing? We're not going to push you toward doing that, but we will support you every step of the way, and make a long-term commitment not just to your continuing education, but to your role in this company as well. Which is why among the characteristics that define Beta leaders and organizations is the ability to imbue employees with processes designed to make them better than they are, and that help them play to their strengths and shore up their weaknesses.
Whether they're executives or directors, today's most successful Beta leaders apply the same principles to their organizations' development as they do to their own, and their employees', development. Just as Alphas build hierarchical organizations, Beta leaders create horizontal organizations that mirror their own approach to collaboration and teamwork. Beta companies are communities, not armies. They are made up of shifting, project- or process-based teams instead of rigid functional silos. On one project someone might take on a leadership role, while on the next that person will be just another team member. Instead of following individualistic, ego-driven tactics designed to meet quarterly numbers and boost short-term revenue (and compensation), Beta executives and directors pursue strategies that benefit the entire community through growth and long-term profitability. The successful corporate leadership of today evolves the company toward its own kind of self-actualization; of becoming the best at what it does best.
Example: What does a company like Apple do best? The short answer would be "Whatever it wants," but in 2001, when Apple decided to expand its brand into retail, few industry observers predicted the experiment would work. Today, there are 326 Apple stores across the United States, Europe, and Asia, which in 2010 accounted for roughly $3 billion in sales. As The Wall Street Journal points out, "More people now visit Apple's 326 stores in a single quarter than the 60 million who visited Walt Disney's four biggest theme parks last year." As the world's most valuable company, one many experts believe may someday become the world's first $1 trillion business, Apple holds an enormous share of the fast-growing smartphone market (especially across emerging markets) and a near-monopoly on music downloads. The company produces the default MP3 music player for all ages in the iPod, and has a 54 percent market share in the tablet market. Sure, the company sells desktop and laptop computers, but what Apple is really selling is style, simplicity, beauty, high-tech design, and treasurelike packaging, while inspiring in its customers a reverence more typically associated with religion. (When I recently visited the standing-room-only flagship Apple store in Midtown Manhattan, it looked and felt like an international day care, while only half a block away, FAO Schwarz, the world-famous toy store, was nearly empty.)
Excerpted from The Fall of the Alphas by Dana Ardi. Copyright © 2013 Dana Ardi. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
DANA ARDI is a leader of the human capital movement, distinguished by her expertise in the executive coaching and recruitment field. She is Managing Director and Founder of Corporate Anthropology Advisors, working to advise and transform businesses through people. She lives in New York.
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