This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
In 2015, a frenzy of fintech startups were already pushing out unprecedented products, banks were shacking up with incubators to find the next big thing, and fresh thinkers like Apple and Google were beating down Canada's door to get a slice of the pie.
It was the beginning of a monumental period of change.
When I joined Payments Canada that year, the company's role in this transformation was to revitalize and transform the underlying payments infrastructure, rules and processes to facilitate even more progress – all while maintaining the credibility and stability of the system as it processes $3-million dollars each second.
Needless to say, it's a big job. It needs to be done quickly. And there is no room for error.
My role was to make sure the organization was set up to support this. We started by attracting new leaders, building internal capacity, and carving out a new operational structure – dual-track.
The first two are intuitive but the dual-track operational structure was an uncommon choice for an organization like ours.
We chose it because we had seen it work well where precision, expediency and execution are paramount – in organizations like engineering firms, technology companies and even the military. Yes, it is serious, and yes, it is disciplined, but it also unlocks energy in people and unleashes the depth and breadth of expertise from within.
Dual Track in Principle
In traditional organizations, matrix models – with solid and dotted lines to multiple managers – still dominate, and collaboration is king. Of course, collaboration is important, but collaboration goes wrong when the lines of accountability become blurred. If everyone is responsible, no one is. Dual track creates clean, clear, static-free lines of accountability and capitalizes on the strengths of individual people.
The structure is characterized by two career development paths – the management track and subject-matter-expert track. Business managers build strong, accountable teams and ensure delivery. They are given the authority, the resources and the support to drive business objectives. Subject matter experts conduct deep research and analysis, provide unvested authoritative advice with powerful synthesis and briefing skills. They support the business and its leaders to ensure clarity and confidence. An environment is created where there is no organizational hedging or filtering of information from work being double-checked through solid and dotted lines to multiple people with diverse views and competing interests. Instead, individuals have focus, have a voice and are seen.
In a traditional structure, a promotion of a smart, technical individual often comes with responsibility for other people – direct reports. In dual track, a subject matter expert's growth trajectory is not limited by their interest or ability to manage people – because that job is being filled by someone whose skills and interests are best suited for the function – and vice versa. In dual track, the organization is more likely to retain great minds because there is more than one way up.
Dual track in practice
Dual-track isn't easy to implement. The subject matter expert stream is hard to navigate because the nature of their work can be more ambiguous and it relies heavily on personal disposition and performance – take a policy expert or researcher, for example. While the subject matter expert track may be the toughest grind in the initial stages of dual-track, it is often the hero in the long run. When subject matter experts are given space and accountability, they go deeper and their knowledge gets stronger. It benefits them and it certainly benefits the organization.
On the flip side, the management stream must play an important role in the construct and implementation of a dual-track model from the outset, which means it is often viewed as the preferred track at first. The true benefit for the individual in the management track is the development of management as a skillset, one that can be applied in any given scenario. For the organization, that is ideal because the skillset is transferable across business lines and it builds a stronger culture. There is a consistency across management and, as a result, consistency in the employee experience. Every manager is expected to have their own style, but the values remain the same.
Dual track at its finest is best exemplified with a medical analogy. Where a chief of surgery may orchestrate and motivate the attending staff for an operation and mobilize necessary resources to enable surgical procedures, the specialist heart surgeon is expected to arrive at the operating table focused and prepared – her only job in that moment to save a life. There is no giving advice to the chief of surgery and watching him perform the heart operation. She is the subject matter expert and it is his job as her manager to set the stage for her to perform at her best. The result is precision, focus and – let's hope – flawless execution.
The dual-track model is worth considering for any organization needing an injection of energy, a stronger alignment of capability and a greater focus on execution. Remember that there is flexibility. It could be 50/50 split between tracks or 90/10 – you can give the organization time to figure that out. Be transparent and open to how it is established and let it find its place. Once you decide to go dual-track, move quickly on the people leadership side to set up support. Let the subject matter expert side flow more naturally, but be sure to scope and frame its importance and role. And last, but not least, don't use dual track to avoid problems or people. It's meant to uplift and empower.
Dual-track builds deep intellectual strength and resilience. It ensures a disciplined and serious culture of execution, centered on high performance and reliable outcomes. It allows individuals to have focus, to have domain, to be seen, and to contribute to the success of the organization. It has released energy, powered progress and ensured resilience. In a dual track system, people are matched to their interest and their passion – wires are connected, energy is released, and power flows.
Justin Ferrabee is chief operating officer at Payments Canada, Ottawa.