Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 45;   November 9, 2005: Empire Building

Empire Building


Empire builders create bases of power within the larger organization. Typically, they use these domains to advance personal or provincial agendas. What are the characteristics of empires? How can we navigate through or around them?

Will noticed rapid movement across the empty cafeteria, and looked up from his coffee. Marian always walked fast, but now she was walking fast even for her, so Will knew something was up. She slid onto the bench opposite him in the booth, and said, "They're spinning off Metronome as its own company."

Bison on the U.S. National Bison Range in Montana

Bison on the U.S. National Bison Range in Montana. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Will was a little stunned, but more than that, impressed. Metronome had begun as a skunk works, and gradually morphed into a division and then to an operating company. "Lamson did it," he said finally, referring to Metronome's founder, then general manager and now Chairman and CEO. "He got so big that they couldn't hold onto him. Amazing."

Lamson had built an empire. Empires come in several varieties:

Trusts are empires built around critical capabilities upon which much of the rest of the organization depends. An example is the IT director who uses the IT function as a power base, doling out favors to allies and punishment to the rest.
Empires can be
costly to
the organization
Blobs gradually consume ever-larger segments of the organization. At first the consumed segments "make sense" but as the empire grows, it becomes more heterogeneous. Blobs tend to grow when there is a shortage of able leaders.
Federations are alliances of peers. Usually one of them is dominant, and the others follow his or her lead. Although they retain formal independence, the reality is more like the structure of the former Soviet Union — a dominant central power surrounded by dependent clients.
Colonies begin life as outposts isolated from the parent organization. They gradually grow in importance, until the tail wags the dog. Lamson's empire was a colony.

Empires can be costly to the organization. Their rulers can shade decisions in favor of their empires, which can subordinate organizational interests to the interests of the empires. To maintain control, empire builders often duplicate functions that already exist elsewhere. And talented employees who happen to be attached to business units that suffer under the empire might be more likely to voluntarily exit the organization.

Empires present both opportunities and risks to the people in and around them. For the people of Metronome, the financial rewards and career opportunities can be significant. And shareholders can benefit too. But this is the brighter side of empire.

Empires can make the organization less competitive, and less able to offer opportunity to its employees. If the problems become obvious enough, interventions can include reorganization, replacement of management, or even disciplinary action. If you're working in an empire now, prepare for that future day. Refresh your network, and search for alternatives. Be ready to move much sooner than you think you need to. If you wait too long, you might become part of a stampede. And then you'll have to walk even faster than Marian. Go to top Top  Next issue: In the Groove  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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