What We Stole From Undercurrent

We believe that sometimes the best resources we can create are actually just reconfigurations of really successful designs implemented in other places.

When I came on at PCR a few months ago I was tasked with examining, developing and refining our business processes. We view ourselves as a sort of crucible for the development of great people, but to this point much of that has been a product of the leadership and vision of the CEO rather than the raw structure of our organization. As we continue to grow, it has become necessary to formalize that element, but in a way that preserves the spirit and empowerment of Drew’s approach.

In most flat orgs an intense degree of emphasis is placed on the value of team members, which is consistent with Drew’s and my beliefs about the work environment. However the division of labor necessary for product and service fulfillment in an agency like ours necessitates slightly more structure and identification of seniority. This is the one of the primary issues I am addressing: how do we give the level of growth support and incentive that exists in flat organizations while recognizing that our agency ultimately benefits from a hierarchical framework?

The answer seems to be coming in three main forms. The first is mentorship.


Instead of using language such as “boss” or “manager” to describe the relationship between levels of our organization, we have identified orders of mentorship. As people move through our ranks, they take on a much higher degree of responsibility. Not only for the metric performance of their department, but for the growth, happiness and development of the members of their team. The word “manager” is something we use to describe a job that oversees processes. The word “mentor” indicates the responsibility of servant leadership to the persons they oversee. Further, as our employees build out their roles they are able to become mentors for their team and even the greater community by speaking, writing, and engaging in the public forum.

Beyond an adjustment in diction, we have created a performance expectation that is based on the success and development of the mentees. A mentor at one level cannot expect to move up in our organization just because of personal success within their role. They must demonstrate that they are consistently driving their entire team to success and achievement beyond their local potential.

The second answer lies in pairing. This is a common theme in flat orgs; creating partner pairs of complementary but different skill emphases to address a wide number of problems. For us, servicing the account level and above involves pairing a strategy-focused team member (such as an Account Manager) with a process-oriented one (an Account Coordinator). These two work together with our clients to ensure that we are delivering excellence in both strategic consultancy and marketing product. This model carries even to the senior leadership level. Drew is the visionary, and I develop the processes and procedures that empower the fulfillment of that vision.

The final piece is probably the most exciting, but it is also a shameless ripoff. I am incredibly impressed by the innovations in business and strategy that come out of Undercurrent, so when I began thinking about values and development for our team members, I naturally recalled the Skills Maturity Matrix. I love the concept of creating a framework of essential skills for success in your environment, as well as defining benchmarks to track growth (maturity) in those skills.

First of all, Undercurrent’s SMM is positively brilliant. It is an elegant and nuanced approach to personal and professional development, and should be the envy of HR departments everywhere. That’s why I stole it.

However, there still remains the issue of how to make something that was designed for a flat organization be effective for driving growth in a multi-leveled one. I preserved most of the categories with minimal adjustment, as well as kept the 9 “levels.” I called them tiers because I believe the architectural language makes sense for our culture and implies the connectedness of achievement throughout the different ranks of the system.


We are using the matrix to better define the skills categories we believe are essential to success in certain roles, and additionally as a framework for people to own and build out their section of our company. I think that the notion that the only way to improve one’s station in an organization is to move up into management (or for us, mentorship) is a hamstrung position. An incredibly skilled Account Manager may not be the best candidate for the Director of Account Services because the necessary strengths of each position are not the same. We wanted to empower people to build out, not just up, and the essential skills matrix lets us define more clearly how we expect to see that happen. We try to hire people that are better at doing certain things than we are, and we expect our staff to approach their roles as sort of micro-CEO’s. Each person is over a division of the business, and the ESM allows us to define growth by empowering their autonomy.

By defining levels of achievement within skills categories for each role in our agency and making those available to anyone, we also let people clearly understand how they should be investing in themselves if they want to move into a different role. It impacts horizontal and vertical movement in our organization, as well as how we approach hiring. We bring people on because of skill and potential as demonstrated according to the matrix framework and tend to be perpetually unimpressed by the arbitraries like where you went to college.

These are our skills categories (again, much credit to Undercurrent):


The ability to withdraw and consolidate information from the outside world and reindex it into meaningful content that answers key questions.


The ability to interpolate ideas, concepts, and information and then present them in a way that digestible to a specific audience.


The ability to create novel work product in known formats and the eagerness to learn new formats.

Insight & Synthesis

The ability to synthesize intellectual product from internal taste, knowledge, morals and patterns.


The ability to successfully deliver the PCR message and work product in any setting.


The ability to actualize and implement the actionable opportunities identified through our strategic analysis.


The ability to draft and drive excellence from diverse groups toward any goal.

Counsel & Consultancy

The ability to strategize and consult with senior-level clients on any aspect of their business, regardless if it relates directly to our scope of work.

The people who will achieve the most in our organization are the ones who seek to be the industry archetype for whatever role they are asked to fill. We don’t just need account coordinators. We need account coordinators that our peers and competitors talk about when they ask for more from their employees. The giveback is that we are constantly trying to create value for our team members that they will carry far beyond their careers at PCR. Our job is to empower by singular commitment to vision and by developing a professional framework that stimulates creative approaches to strategy and artifact generation. We don’t just want to build a great organization. We want to build an institution from which the leaders of our industry are born.

Original article posted on Medium.

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