Media Businesses, Your Hierarchies Hurt–So Dismantle Them

The impact this has on underrepresented groups is extremely clear

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You’ll know someone it’s happened to. A colleague who is brilliant, but quiet. Who might work on key clients, but doesn’t have personal friends there. A person who might not look or sound like a standard manager, so they’re not promoted–or at least, not for a long time.

Hierarchies serve some people’s interests and leave others far behind.

Since the earliest days of the media industry, businesses have relied on hierarchies. However, these structures can be incredibly subjective. Promotions are often a product of how much you do for–or even resemble–your boss. Despite the fact that we’ve been speaking about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) for years, we have structures in place that can entrench privilege.

The impact this has on underrepresented groups is extremely clear. In the U.K., the advertising industry aimed to have women hold 40% of senior roles by 2020, but last year it slipped back to just 32%. Only 6.4% of senior positions are held by people from non-white backgrounds, which is less than half the current target. And with traditional structures, it can be even harder to address deeper issues like unconscious bias and modesty barriers: cultural behaviors that can hold even the very best employees back.

It’s clear that to create a more representative industry, we need fundamental action as well as dialogue. We need to critically rethink management and progression entirely–and strip out hierarchy from the process. And with that in mind, I’d like to share my personal experience and a few anecdotes, in the hope it can inform and inspire change in the media industry and beyond.

When structure is a barrier, not a benefit

Every transformation must start with an important realization: existing structures and old-fashioned hierarchy are a barrier, rather than a benefit, to employees. That’s not to say leadership isn’t important of course, and across all areas of a business senior people are needed to support, inspire, motivate and lead by example.

Reverse mentoring schemes are a perfect way to encourage knowledge-sharing up and down an organization. They offer junior members a route to directly influence senior leadership but more than that, they can increase retention by seeding strong internal cultures, promote skill-sharing and eliminate those barriers that may stop businesses from addressing serious issues such as diversity or mental health.

Ultimately, it comes down to reinforcing a different mindset, where people are empowered to bring their best selves to work, learn from one another and progression is about contributing to an organization’s collective goals; about rewarding outcomes, rather than output; and about providing an equal, unbiased platform to prosper for all employees.

Cultivating unique career paths

Importantly, everyone should be able to take ownership of their career path if given the opportunity and then approach work as a passion to cultivate, rather than a ladder to climb. Dismantling hierarchy also means that progression no longer depends on waiting for an opening–which helps to underline a critical principle for DEI. Creating a more inclusive business isn’t about displacing the senior team that you already have, but ensuring you have space for all people to grow, progress and continue building their own role, in a way that’s authentic to them.

The evidence so far indicates this type of approach can create real change. And by taking down barriers, organizations can accelerate their journey to becoming more representative in the industry. What’s more, there is a wider issue to retain bright, young talent from Black and Asian backgrounds and the issue of gender equality should never be considered complete until both of the pay gaps are eradicated, never to see the light of day again.

Critically, by taking down barriers, leaders can accelerate the journey into media and advertising for all, empower professionals to drive equality, produce better work for our clients and become a more representative industry of wider society.

The process of change

Rethinking business infrastructure isn’t an easy undertaking, and I’m not saying we have all the answers. It’s an iterative process; like all good marketing (and business) practices, we should be testing, learning and refining as we go. Change is challenging; there will always be anxiety and resistance, especially when you’re looking to address a long-standing part of the business world.

But if your structure doesn’t serve every employee, my advice would be to make that change. Start by rigorously scrutinizing past shortcomings and failures, being honest about even the most fundamental elements of your organization. Then consider how you could embed greater belonging and inclusiveness in your processes–and take action.

Think of it as an ongoing journey, and be open, transparent and authentic about your progress and the challenges along the way. If we can share our experiences as an industry and a wider business community, others can learn and take inspiration for their own efforts and create more effective and equitable organizations.

Hierarchy has long been embedded into our organizations, our industry and even our own careers. But now, we need to be brave enough to transform the status quo with serious action. Where hierarchy hurts, dismantle it. It’s the only way to create a truly representative sector and enable our most valuable and underrepresented groups to achieve the success they deserve.