Guest Column | March 14, 2018

How To Best Structure Your Team: Start With The Why, End With The How

By Kristen McAlister, President, Cerius Executives

Team Meeting

Take a moment and consider this scenario in vivid detail: Your entire team went in together on lottery tickets and found out over the weekend they had won the biggest jackpot in history! They all loved their jobs, but it’s celebration time and nobody is showing up to work on Monday … or Tuesday. Or any other day.

Once your panic starts to settle down, you realize you have an opportunity to rebuild your organization from scratch. Like software development, it’s easier to build it the second time (or third), and knowing everything now you didn’t know back then, you probably won’t rebuild the same way.

This shock to the system is an opportunity to focus on what your company delivers to your marketplace and how each role in the company provides support. And while talent is an important component of any company, it is not the best place to start when you’re designing a staffing plan.

The best staffing strategies start with the why — that gets you to the right who, which ultimately helps you to figure out the how.


Why does your company exist? One of my favorite phrases to use when I work with clients was, “Our company exists for the purpose of ….”

Once you can complete this sentence clearly and succinctly, you have your mission. Though this is one of the simplest and most easily grasped concepts, it is also the most challenging and time-consuming. Following are a few guidelines:

  1. Keep it to one sentence (without being an endless run-on of tasks, ideals, tangents, and specifics to make every stakeholder happy).
  2. Make it generally and easily relatable to all of your stakeholders (clients, employees, consumers/customers, etc.).
  3. Once you have it, put it on everything! Repeat, repeat, repeat.


The mission is supported by an organizational structure made up first of roles, not people. Roles are the part each employee plays in the success of the company — like characters who move the plot along in sitcoms, dramas, or plays.

Where company leadership gets led astray is confusing the people in the organization with their roles (aka title or position). Though the two are usually complimentary, they are in no way the same. Bryan Cranston, for instance, who terrified us for years as Walter White on Breaking Bad and then turned around and channeled LBJ on HBO, is actually much closer in real life to the role he played in Malcom in the Middle — silly, kind, and extremely funny.

The difference between person and role in a business context becomes clear when you start an organization chart with an employee list and, one by one, lay it out based on that list. What is each employee currently doing? Each employee ends up with a box and the discussion centers around who should be in which column, on which level, answering to whom. This then becomes the proverbial “tail wagging the dog.”

In contrast, the optimal org chart should be built in a process that’s more akin to rebuilding your software platform from scratch. First, you need to understand exactly who is buying it, what the value is for them, and how they use it. Only then can you select the appropriate technology stack that will work best in this situation, rather than building a solution based on the coding skill sets of your existing team.

Furthermore, if you don’t like or find existing titles helpful, useful, or worthwhile, give your organization’s roles more descriptive names such as “Chief People Officer” (aka Human Resources), “Revenue Generator” (aka Sales), and “S/he Who Keeps All Things On Track” (aka Operations). Descriptive names in an org chart (rather than traditional titles) can help remind you, as you are building it out, the purpose each role plays in the company.


Separately, go through your current employee base and make notes about their skill sets. Think through what makes them really good at certain aspects of their current role and which aspects are more challenging for them.

Now you can finally pair the what with the who.

Initially, fill in your new org chart matching people and their skill sets with the descriptive titles. Yes, you will likely end up with many people exactly where they were in the first place. But you may also end up with some gaps where people are still on the list, but not the org chart, and conversely, boxes on the chart, but no names in them.

This Lottery Exercise can help to identify some of the needs in your organization as well as skill gaps that exist with your current employee base. Let this be the launch pad for identifying a variety of necessary interventions: employee training and development, mentoring programs, future hires, and/or outsourced expertise.


A fundamental way to build a company’s infrastructure and support its growth is standard operating procedures (aka policies and procedures).

When companies grow by adding employees with little time or attention to defining roles and responsibilities, it often results in organizational chaos. In the absence of direction, humans make up their own rules. New employees figure it out on their own, the same mistakes happen repeatedly, and repeated processes take longer than they should. Although it may be clear to leadership what everyone is responsible for and what they should be doing, it often isn’t to those in the middle.

A few tips for sustainable and flexible policies and procedures:

  1. Upgrade and update your documentation. Make it more relevant than the employee roster when it was first written. Use the role, not the employee’s name.
  2. Let the employees have ownership of role documentation. The more they contribute to the records of their own roles and responsibilities, the more they are likely to keep them updated.
  3. Let current employees in the role have input and make suggestions for improvement. Without fail, their unique perspectives will offer will fertile suggestions for improvement.

Before going through all of the effort to recruit, on-board, and train your next employee, make sure you have a clear road map that begins with mission, the role the employee will play in supporting that, and how their individual efforts will help the organization succeed.

About Cerius Executives

As one of the largest North American providers of contract executives for part-time, temporary, interim, and consulting assignments, Cerius has a network of thousands of executives from Operations, Finance, Sales, Marketing, Manufacturing, IT, Engineering, and Human Resources. These executives are available to step into companies on short notice to fill a sudden gap in leadership, to run a key initiative, or to provide specialized skills and knowledge for a temporary period of time. Cerius serves clients of all sizes from virtually every industry and is headquartered in Irvine, CA.

Kristen McAlister is President/COO and Co-Owner of Cerius Executives. She has extensive experience in leading major acquisitions, sales and operations initiatives with small and large privately-held companies to publicly-held international companies. Kristen has spent the last ten years facilitating companies on how to market, sell, present and execute their goals with clients and adding value through operations, sales, marketing and entrepreneur coaching. Connect with Kristen on twitter @KrisExecutives.