Staff vs. Line

Moving up through any organization is a tricky and non-obvious route.  Sure, some people have raw skill and natural talent; others have and adroitly exploit personal connections; still others leverage bravado or luck.  It wasn’t until I spent time at larger public companies working for professional managers that I was able to really understand how, generally, people move up through an organization to larger and broader roles/responsibilities.


Effective and disciplined business leaders typically follow a “Line – Staff – Line – Staff – Line” stair-stepping process:

1. Start off in a Line position.  A position where you focus on a specific discipline (Sales, Marketing, Engineering, Finance, etc.).  Focus on learning and expanding your depth of knowledge about that particular Line.  Stretch your knowledge and skill and find Line managers that are really good at what they do – learn from them – specifically what do they do that drives real and tangible results time after time.  In my mind it takes ~2 years on average to learn a solid level of Line discipline and skill.

2. Move into a Staff role next.  These jobs are by definition cross-functional.  This is tricky because it needs to be done explicitly as a stepping stone process with the goal to go back into a Line position when the opportunity presents itself.  Getting stuck in a Staff position is far too easy if you don’t constantly and incessantly try to make a noticeable impact on the business.  Staff positions enable you to see and work across multiple Lines, usually this is under a very senior executive or general manager.  The Staff role gives you visibility into how the different Line positions must work together to successfully execute against the business goals of the organization.  It helps you appreciate the importance of forecasting and delivering on results.

3. Find a Line position to move back to.  Your new found cross-functional knowledge enables you to take a higher position in the organization with more responsibility.  While you’re back focusing on a Line discipline, you now have the broader appreciation and understanding of other pieces of the business and how they work together.  If you can, switch Lines from your first one; i.e., move into Marketing if your first Line was Sales.  This later point is harder to do and may end up being a lateral move from your last position.  Again, this is tricky, so most folks will tend to stay in a particular Line as they move up.

Think of the “Line – Staff – Line” progression as a way to truly learn each discipline of a business.  Finding really good Line managers at each step is the key point. Learn from them, stretch yourself to try new things, figure out what works, what doesn’t, and why.

Thee ultimate “Staff” position is the CEO.  To be a great one, you have to have a solid understanding of each major functional Line discipline of the organization – and – you have to know how they work together and why.  In my mind there really is only one best way to get that in-depth solid understanding and that is to have done meaningful work in every Line.  Sure, there are those that short-circuit the process for whatever reason, but for the rest of us the Line – Staff – Line is the way to go.

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