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Great Leaders Work in Cubicles

While researching a recent post about CEOs-turned-politicians, I was struck by the importance some of them placed on being accessible, open, and part of the team. That got me thinking about a long overlooked critical success factor for leaders: accessibility.

Some famously successful leaders have not only made accessibility a cornerstone of their management style, they've also driven it into their company's culture. Here are a few notable examples:

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg runs the city much like the namesake company he founded, using a bullpen where everyone sits together in a large open room like a Wall Street trading floor. He presumably learned the practice as a trader at Salomon Brothers. It's designed to promote accountability and accessibility.

Meg Whitman, who recently won the republican nomination for governor of California, grew eBay from a young startup to an Internet giant from an eight-by-eight foot cubicle. But the practice of moving top executives out of the corner office and into cubicles probably began with Intel CEO Andy Grove.

In a 2001 speech, Carlene Ellis, Intel's former vice president of human resources, credits the company's much copied corporate culture with Grove's fervent belief that everyone be treated the same:

The Andy Grove I know is a leader who is open, honest, and direct. Andy has nurtured an egalitarian culture at Intel. A lot of people talk about it; he does it. There are no executive perks at Intel; no executive dining rooms, no executive washrooms, no special places to park. And we all work in a company where Andy Grove's cubicle - which I think is about eight-by-nine - is just like everybody else's.

That open environment that everybody jokes about - it is the essence of that open environment that allows people to communicate directly and solve problems in a collaborative fashion.

In fact, Intel's model has been replicated at dozens of successful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond. But despite its many benefits, an open work environment does have its challenges. Here are the five major obstacles and the creative ways companies have found to overcome them:
  1. Lack of confidentiality. Executives and others in functions like human resources and legal often have conversations that shouldn't be overhead by anybody who just happens to be within earshot. That's why companies with open floor plans have compensated with loads and loads of conference rooms, big and small.
  2. No place to park a huge ego. Let's face it; most successful executives have big egos, and that means they covet big offices. How is a company with an egalitarian culture supposed to attract that type of executive? It's not. The answer is to either promote from within or be open and straightforward about what you're looking for and keep an eye out for signs of a narcissist who won't cut it.
  3. Highly visible management practices. In the past I've confessed to having been a bit of a bully during my executive career. Well, guess what? If the company's culture doesn't tolerate that kind of behavior, it's pretty visible in an open environment. Frankly, it's a hell-of-a management tool for bringing poorly-behaving managers and employees in line.
  4. Lack of privacy. There is, and should be, no expectation of privacy at a company. Nevertheless, if you've got to have a private conversation, the solution is the same as for confidentiality: lots of conference rooms. Some companies, like Rambus, even have small conference rooms with comfortable furniture like couches. Nice.
  5. Noise factor. It's definitely hard to concentrate when you're sitting in a cubicle with conversations going on all around you. Folks in open environments usually keep their voices down, but try as we might, some of us loud and gregarious types can't manage to pull it off. To compensate, folks either use noise cancelling headsets or do their heavy-duty work in conference rooms or at home.
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