Overcoming The Challenges Of Developing Employees In Flat Organisational Structures

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Flat organisational structures have become increasingly popular over recent years instead of the traditional hierarchical structure. Removing several layers of management can have several benefits; faster decision making, greater employee inputs and a decrease in attrition.

However, flat structures do present challenges for companies who have ambitious, career-minded individuals who will not hang around if opportunities are not presenting themselves.

So how do you engage, develop and retain these talented employees?



It is essential that employees feel engaged in their career development. Regular and meaningful, career conversations are vital regarding employee retention.

One of the most impactful workshops on an Excel Communications leadership programme is about how to understand what motivates employees at a deeper level. What is it that drives them, why are they driven in a certain way and how can a manager use this personal information to inspire and develop their team member to realise their career goals?

When an employee is on the receiving end of this style of conversation, they feel connected, seen and heard. When a manager then works with their team member on a development programme and career path that is tailored personally to them, they are engaged and inspired.

Employees feel important as their manager has time for them and in return managers get a deeper understanding of the range of talents and abilities they have at their disposal for the company.

Be Creative

Lateral movements across departments

Companies with ‘flat’ structures are more likely to want rounded employees to fill skill gaps across their organisation. Promotions are classically seen as an upwards step. Moving laterally from one department to another and experiencing the business outside an employee’s core area of expertise takes them out of their comfort zone.

This helps them build a more comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the business, gain new skills and expertise and provides opportunities to increase their contribution to the company.


Short term secondments

While a permanent role may not be available in a different department, what opportunities can be created for short-term secondments or assignments?  This could be to cover an absent colleague, or to provide additional support.



Involvement in projects is an excellent way for individuals to:

  • Learn about unfamiliar parts of the company.
  • Use their expertise in a way that increases their contribution.
  • Develop their leadership skills by leading a project.
  • Build their knowledge and expertise as they collaborate and network with colleagues
    and moreover, other stakeholders.



When we think of sabbaticals, they are often viewed as time away from work to travel or study for a formal qualification. The technology company Buffer introduced learning sabbaticals. These are three months in duration, and the goal is to have the individual spend roughly three months learning and developing a new skill or ability so that they can adapt to the changing needs within the company.

How could this concept work in your company?

Explore External Opportunities


Secondments, job swaps and job shadowing with a client or partner organisation

There are also opportunities to explore outside your organisation.  Clients and partner companies may be open to supporting opportunities for your team member and one of their employees.

A secondment, job swap or reciprocal job shadowing opportunity is a great way to develop new skills. Similar, the ‘not for profit’ sector is worth exploring. I remember a manager once saying to me, “If you want to develop your influencing and management skills, go and volunteer in the not for profit sector. You cannot tell volunteers what to do.”


In Summary

There are many ways to develop your valued team members to ensure you retain their talent and expertise in the business and in a way that allows them to realise their career aspirations. Employees are taking more responsibility for developing their careers, and it means they will choose organisations that support them in this endeavour.

There’s no doubt that career paths are different today compared to many years ago. Managers need to adapt accordingly; they should engage and empower their employees, offer inspiration and be open to ideas, or risk experiencing the consequence.

With over 30 years of experience in global leadership and communication skills training and coaching teams, Excel Communications continues to discover that ‘developing talent is not always easy for managers’.

If you would like to discuss your organisation’s leadership and management capabilities further, our leadership training and coaching experts deliver programmes in various languages, across four continents. Get in touch today on +44 (0) 1628 488 854.


Best regards

Nic Hallett