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SpeakEasy: Decreasing levels of leadership increases productivity

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Former ADP Chief Executive Josh Weston spoke recently at Stevens.
Former ADP Chief Executive Josh Weston spoke recently at Stevens. - ()

In the early 1980s, former ADP Chairman and CEO Josh Weston was visiting Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, to get a sense of how the company operated.

“FedEx, back then and even today, has a very good reputation for being a very effective operation,” he recalled in a May 7 speech at the Stevens Institute of Technology's DeBaun Auditorium.

During his visit, Weston asked Smith what the biggest issue on his mind was.

“He said, 'I want to change our span of control from one on eight to one on 13.'” Weston said. “Span of control of one on eight means, on average, you have eight employees report directly to a supervisor (and) a span of control of one on 13 means you have 13 people reporting directly to the supervisor.”

It might seem counterintuitive to have fewer supervisors overseeing more people, but the benefit, Weston said, was a major theme in his speech: communication.

“It means communication from the top to the bottom and, incidentally, from the bottom to the top, is a lot faster because people lower down don't have as many buffers between them and the top,” he said. “If you go over to FedEx and they're 'one on 13,' there are so many fewer levels. Aside from the economy of it, communication goes up and down faster; people think they matter if they're not several levels removed.”

One key to success is not only to surround yourself with the right team of people, but to set in place effective communication processes. Without clear communication, even a good team can be lost in a situation he likened to the children's game of “Telephone.”

“A says something to B, B says something to C and if you ever ask Q what was the message, Q will say something that has no resemblance to A,” he said during a speech titled “Lessons on Leadership They Don't Teach You in Class.” “From my point of view, the A's — and I was one of them — should talk, periodically, to the Q's.”

One of the ways Weston enacted this idea was to assemble 12 different managers of 12 different functions within the company for breakfast and invite the managers to tell their colleagues what they do.

“I also do it myself, as each of these persons described what they did in their department, I would say how important that function is, I would amplify that description,” he said.

“I also told them when we'd begin that this is a two-way street, that I need their help. And when we're done with that round-robin, I'd like any comments or criticisms that will tell me how we can make the whole thing even better.”

E-mail to: andrews@njbiz.com

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