A Quick & Dirty Guide to Corporate Hierarchy (And How It Affects You)

The Modern Survival Guide #51

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An Intro to Corporate Organization

Look, here’s the thing: all corporations are bureaucracies. Some are little tiny bureaucracies; some rival national governments in their complexity. All of them have their own local cultures, traditions, and outlooks. But they all more or less work the same way, and understanding this structure gives you power.

Line Workers

Line workers are the productive end of the organization. They operate the assembly lines, answer the phones, write the programs, make the graphics, and deal with the customers. They do all (or at least most) of the actual work that makes the organization money.

Line Managers

A line manager is a position that oversees line workers. These are your call center supervisors and shift managers, for example. They are typically given responsibility but not much authority or autonomy. Line managers are responsible for ensuring that their workers do their jobs with the maximum efficiency and minimum fuss. They typically have no or very limited budget authority, and cannot make corporate policy.

Middle Managers

Middle management positions are largely responsible for overseeing an office or program (we’re starting to climb the pyramid here). Middle managers are usually not directly responsible for line workers; instead they coordinate teams, direct the line managers, collect metrics, enforce standards, and deal with escalated or team-level issues. Middle managers typically have some budget authority and hiring authority, but do not have the authority to alter corporate policy, and do not have much autonomy to deviate from that policy. Middle managers are often the highest tier of personnel at a non-headquarters corporate office or sales location.

Upper Managers

Upper managers are the lower tier of the senior personnel in any corporate entity or bureaucracy. They are responsible for sectors of business, groups of regional offices, or large programs within a business. Upper managers are your vice presidents and director-level people, and they have both responsibility and authority over their areas of operation. They also have a high degree of autonomy in deviating from and creating corporate policy.

Executives

The highest tier⁴ of a corporate entity is its executives — the people with C-level titles (e.g. Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer). Executives are responsible for business operations across the organization. They have both responsibility and authority, but oddly enough not typically as much raw influence within the company as upper management because they tend to have a shallower list of direct reports.⁵ However, they make up for it with maximum autonomy — an executive is like royalty within their domain, and their word is the way it’s going to be.

What This Means for You

Knowing this basic structure helps you by showing you where to request (or demand) different things. Whether you’re inside or outside of a company, this should help you save time (and sanity) at some point in your life. It’s useful to know, for example, that yelling at a help desk person will not improve a tech company’s design philosophy, and I think it’s somewhat helpful to have some good expectations on what is possible when you ask to speak to a manager.

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