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Lead Your Team Leadership

Leadership: Why Alpha Is Over and Beta Is Better

alpha, beta Credit: Alpha image via Shutterstock

What do Amazon, Zappos and Timberland have in common besides about a billion pairs of shoes? They're all "beta" businesses— that is, businesses that follow their own unique paths and organize themselves along nontraditional lines.

These aren't the hierarchically structured, cutthroat corporations of centuries past, not by a long shot. Beta businesses— a term coined by entrepreneur and "Corporate Anthropologist" Dana Ardi in her new book, "The Fall of the Alphas: The New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence— and Lead" (St. Martin's Press, October 2013) — thrive on shared leadership, open communication and employee collaboration.

Take, for example, Zappos' "core value" of building relationships through open and honest communication. That's not just a nice sentiment, it's company policy. Or consider Timberland's "Path of Service," a corporate policy that encourages employees to perform community service by paying them for it.

In an email interview with BusinessNewsDaily, Ardi explains how such policies and corporate structures represent the beta way of doing business and why this departure from the norm will usher in a more efficient corporate age.

BusinessNewsDaily: First of all, can you explain what a “Corporate Anthropologist” is.  Is that an official title or just a way you describe yourself?

Credit: David Needleman

Dana Ardi: I coined the phrase Corporate Anthropology to describe the deep study of organizations— company culture, mores, values, communications, diversity, physical spaces, roles of individuals, and how they organize to accomplish strategic initiatives.

As a Corporate Anthropologist, I study the cultures of organizations— how they evolve and intersect with what’s happening right now, and how the people in them influence and shape their communities. In my work as a consultant, I believe it is critical to take a larger, 360-degree look at what is happening socially, culturally, globally, digitally, and across generations to best advise organizations.

BND: What is the catalyst for the fall of the alphas? What has changed to make this happen?

D.A.: For centuries, the hierarchical style and structures that I call the Alpha paradigm was the only way leaders led, and the only way organizations organized. As I explain in "The Fall of the Alphas," leaders asserted themselves aggressively, competed rather than collaborated, and conquered rather than compromised.  This trickled down to younger generations as the single template of how to be, act, behave, and aspire. 

Organizations were constructed like pyramids with predetermined and narrowly defined steps or rungs leading to the top. The slightest suggestion of a more community-oriented or compassionate approach was seen as “soft,” certainly not sufficient to lead a “tough” organization through “tough” times. 

But everything changed with the dawn of the Informational Age. It was my realization that work in the Information Age is heuristic— it stimulates inquiry, trial and error and is fluid. Creativity, technology, social change and globalization have created the opportunity to rethink how we organize and come together. The new Beta way is all about the way we need to connect, collaborate, and influence to meet the challenges of this information age.

BND: Is this inherently a good thing or are there drawbacks?

D.A.: The Beta Model of flatter, more collaborative organizational structures has many advantages. The model fosters teamwork. It allows for more open and transparent communication. It brings new voices to the table for there is more involvement and participation in creating opportunities and problem solving. It leverages the knowledge and intellect of the team.

Beta companies have disadvantages if poorly implemented. Many leaders feel loss of control. Many employees, if not properly considered and self-motivated, feel role confusion. Coordination and organizational learning must occur or there will be confusion. Beta organizational principles are not suitable for all activities but collaboration and open communication is still a Beta cultural imperative. Beta organizations must evolve. Their success relies on self-awareness and personal responsibility.

BND: Will the new world of work be more efficient, without Alphas to lead the way?

D.A.: The new world of work will most definitely be more efficient. Technological advances will enable collaboration and data models will enhance decision-making. Beta organizations will still have strong leaders who are emotionally intelligent, self-aware and capable of bringing out the best in their colleagues.  Beta organizations will recruit and deploy teams of diverse skill sets. Companies can no longer live in a single private bubble. No single Alpha, no single leader can possibly guide a complex, constantly evolving networked organization. In "The Fall of the Alphas," I show that the Beta model becomes more efficient for it enables the leader to bring out the best from team members and guide their talents rather than command and control.

BND: What will work look like in 10 years? How will it be different?

D.A.: The nature of work is evolving. In the next decade the baby boomers will retire and the millennials will take over. For this generation traditional roles are “in play." These Information Age workers grew up texting, pinging and yelping. Their common language teems with e-pinions, tweets, pins, shares and viral forwards.  They work and think in groups. In contrast to the Alpha era where work was algorithmic and incremental, where experience mattered more than anything else, work for the millennials will be fluid and heuristic. Heuristic work stimulates inquiry typically by trial and error and discovery.

That is why understanding “The Fall of the Alphas” is essential for forward-looking businesses. Enterprises will be global and technology will continue to provide tools for collaboration and connectivity. Robotics will take over manual tasks. Knowledge workers and the craftsman economy will thrive. Companies will have small cores of high impact teams that take on strategic initiatives. These teams will represent diversity of thought and knowledge. 

Companies will be a connected ecosystem of other organizations that will partner with them and collaborate on many fronts. The new Beta leaders will be leading and following depending on the role they play. Strategic alliance and strategic investments will replace acquisitions. Companies will be defined by their cultures. Innovation will be a key driver. Organizations will be more reflective and self- aware and organizational structure and definitions of leadership will continue to evolve.

Originally published on BusinessNewsDaily.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth writes about innovative technologies and business trends. She has traveled throughout the Americas in her roles as student, English teacher, Spanish language interpreter and freelance writer. She graduated with a B.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University.