I took a two-week break over the 2020 Xmas-New Year period; the first I’ve had in a while.
By ‘break’ I mean I wasn’t writing. I still had one eye on my emails and social channels, because, you know, that’s what’s expected these days. But I’m glad I did because there was an article on Linkedin which caught my eye.
Alex Moss, who heads up the team at Brisbane-based Canaria Technologies, announced that the company was restructuring and that she was relinquishing the role of CEO.
Initially, I was surprised to read this. I knew, from interviewing Alex recently for Engineering & Mining Journal, that the company had a great year in 2020.
The team used lockdown wisely and accelerated their technology development schedule to get almost a year ahead of themselves. They had also secured their first overseas deployment and launched the Canaria-V, Canaria’s latest generation predictive biometrics system for the mining industry.
If you’re playing by the rules and it’s working, you’d stick with it wouldn’t you? Not if you’re Moss.
Seeing the potential for massive development during 2021 and, having set ambitious goals for the company, she set about exploring structures and strategies that would better propel and foster that growth.
Canaria is no stranger to innovative ways of working. The team already use their own technology to understand their physical strengths and limitations, and the data generated is used to optimise work patterns.
Upon realising that the traditional CEO-CTO organisational structure that suits large corporations so well was sub-optimal for a start-up looking to crack its beach-head market, Moss seized the opportunity to redesign it, eventually settling on a flatter structure.
Canaria now has a ‘figure of eight’ leadership structure where all heads of departments report to a commercialisation manager who’s remit is to co-ordinate deadlines between departments and streamline communication.
They, in turn, report to the board of directors. This means that although there are very clear role requirements and tasks across team members, there is no singular leader in charge of the company.
From theory to reality
It was a bold move and Moss made a convincing case for the reorganisation in her Linkedin article. The piece had obviously been meticulously researched and I had many questions, so gave her a call in January.
“I had some time over the holidays where it was quieter than usual,” she explained. “We have new grant funding coming in and very clear milestones that we need to hit over the next 12 months as well as multiple levels of accountability.
“Although it’s great that we’re going through an expansion, it’s still a limited-resource expansion, so we need to make the most of what we have and work within constraints.
“We have 15 team members now and we’ll probably have 25 by year end. I was looking at how to maximise everyone’s productivity over the days they were putting in and realised we were not making the best use of our time.”
The decision was driven firstly by the need for greater time efficiency and, secondly, by the growing disconnect that Moss felt between public expectations of herself as CEO, and what she and the company were doing day-to-day.
“I was feeling increased levels of pressure as the CEO of the company, and I couldn’t work out if it was because I was becoming fixated with being a Steve Jobs-type figure and good at managing a thousand people,” said Moss candidly.
“I had started picking up the term CEO in rap lyrics that I hadn’t noticed before, then there’s the whole #girlboss movement… I wanted to know why the term CEO was coming up so much, so I did a Google trend history search and discovered that I wasn’t just going crazy. There really has been an uptick in the use of the word CEO over the last 40 years.”
The rise of CEO culture
There is indeed an entire industry built around CEO culture.
Moss goes into intricate detail in her own article explaining where this obsession came from and why, so I won’t rehash that discussion here, but to briefly summarise: the position of CEO originated in the military and was appropriated in the post-war period as former soldiers re-positioned themselves in civilian roles.
It gained prevalence because there was such an ingrained relationship between masculine military culture and corporate life, eventually culminating in the CEO of the 2000s. Today, the average tenure for a CEO is only five to seven years.
“I was appalled to read that,” said Moss. “Burnout is so prevalent now.
“Through investigating the history, whilst also knowing that we could be using our time better, I decided to just scrap the structure we were working to and come up with a completely new approach.”
Canaria’s new management hierarchy draws inspiration from agile product management theory.
It creates very clear lines of reporting and communication, which is useful because, if for whatever reason something doesn’t work, it is well documented and can be analysed and improved. Conversely, if it’s successful, the team will be able to link that success to their new roles using metrics.
Following adoption of the new structure on January 1, Moss is now chair and head of creative at Canaria. She was honest about the fact that, despite precedents for the structure working in other sectors, she still felt a degree of fear around the change at first.
“Would people think I’d been fired as the CEO of the company, or would they see the rationale behind it?” she wondered. “I didn’t step down as CEO; it’s just that there’s no CEO whatsoever now because it’s not appropriate for the size of business that we’re at.
“The new department head roles allow each of us to focus on exactly what we need to do for the next 12 months. We’re only a few weeks into the structure and there’s a sense of great relief already in the team.”
Playing as a team
That was my next question. How does the team feel about it? I asked.
“We’re so much more relaxed and efficient because we’re very clear on who’s in charge of what,” Moss said. “The division of labour is much better, and we’re being held to account by a very strict German product manager.”
The new structure not only allows the team to get on with their day jobs, it also removes (or redistributes) the weight of expectation, both on individuals and the company as a whole.
During her time in Australia, Moss had noticed a macro-disconnect within the Australian start-up/scaleup venture capital scene. There is an expected ‘tick-the-boxes route’ for companies to grow from pre-seeds, through seed rounds to Series A and beyond, again, with that CEO-CTO structure.
“That financial system isn’t really mature in Australia, so it sets companies up for failure by people,” she said.
“I’ve also noticed a trend of private equity companies in Australia marketing themselves as venture capital companies. What that does is create a culture of people who don’t have experience of venture capital pretending that they do, which again leads to this very corporate, top-down structure. That’s not how start-ups and scaleups operate at all.
“One part of the finance industry is saying that in order to grow you need to be doing X, Y and Z, which is a very restricted path to take. But when questioned, most investors said: ‘Oh, I haven’t done it before’.
“So, how do you know that this structure works if you’ve not done it before, and you’ve not invested in any companies that have done it?”
The great thing about start-ups is that they’re agile enough to restructure and are free from many of the constraints surrounding mid-tier and major companies, particularly in the mining space.
That’s not to say it’s impossible at scale, but there are significantly more hoops to jump through and a much longer time frame required, as well as clear, consistent vision throughout.
“It’s a huge privilege,” said Moss of the ability to take these fundamental types of decisions. “If we were even two years down the track from where we are and decided to restructure the company for 12 months and see what happens, it would be much harder to implement.
“I’m acutely aware that this is a really good time to be doing it.”
In her article, Moss mentioned that the name of the game was to speed time to market with Canaria’s solutions and increase their adoption.
How much faster do you expect that to be with the new structure in place? I asked.
“Good question,” she replied. “I don’t know, but I can already feel it. We’re going to be scaling internationally a lot faster than we originally planned to in 2021.
“Over the next 12 months, if we can hit the goals that we’ve set ourselves today and, if we can do that without having to work weekends and evenings, that means we’ll have absolutely maximised everyone’s time.
“It would be really unusual for a company to get to international scale and for its team members not to work weekends or do dramatic periods of overtime.”
I’m going to check in with you in 12 months’ time and see how that’s gone, I challenged her with a smile.
I wish more companies, not just in the resources sector but across the board, would take a step back and reassess like this.
Yes, in business, it’s hard to find the time. Everyone is running 24-7. But if there’s a way for the business to reach its goals without running 24-7, and for staff to take back some of their lives, then the company would be successful on more than one level.
Today, success is generally defined by a company’s financials: whether sales targets are hit, whether dividends are paid to shareholders, whether it’s financially resilient throughout business cycles, or even a pandemic.
Very rarely is success measured by how productive or fulfilled the workforce is and that’s why turnover and levels of burnout are so high. It’s critical that we address that in the mining industry and attempt to create some balance, given our dependence on people and the lack of new talent entering the industry.
Moss agreed. “There are definitely more efficient ways to work that allow a workforce to have greater wellbeing, and a more efficient use of time that’s focused more on real output rather than presenteeism.
“That has been validated by the research that Microsoft’s been doing over the last few years. The company reduced the working week of its Japanese headquarters to four-days and saw productivity increase by 30%.
“We’ll see how the new structure goes. Even if we fail, at least we gave it a go.”
Exactly. We learn through failure, and if we don’t try new things then we’ll never know, I said. Maybe it will be a roaring success… I hope it is.
“Me too,” said Moss. “I truly think we can live decent lives and do amazing things in our work day-to-day by just focusing more on high performance rather than presenteeism.”
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