Relationships and status are the keys to success

The sheer size of Fidelity Investments, with many global offices, investor centers, and over 44,000 employees worldwide creates a unique leader-follower relationship, or rather, numerous unique relationships. Although Fidelity is referred to as one entity, the company is truly a conglomerate of multiple companies and business lines, each run by their own President. Each division acts autonomously with overall direction provided by the Chairman and CEO, Abigail Johnson. The Johnson family name, and Abigail, or Abby as she is often referred to, have become synonymous with Fidelity, given her large ownership stake and influence in the privately-held company. Compared to a small organization, few employees at Fidelity have ever met Abby in person, or have developed a personal relationship with her. However, most employees view her with a mix of fear and admiration. In Theories and Models, we discussed how leaders often have a certain level of psychological distance between themselves and followers, being both feared and admired at the same time. At Fidelity, this is largely true, as Abby is both admired for her leadership efforts, but her direction is also obeyed. I have seen in meetings that someone saying, “Abby has approved this” can quiet any remaining dissenters.

While Abby is the Chairman and CEO, a variety of other leadership roles exist. Beyond the Presidents of each division, there are numerous Senior Vice Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Directors, allowing many decisions to be made in a decentralized manner. Given that Fidelity is such a large company, very few people have a unique title. For example, your official title can be the Vice President of Marketing, though you are responsible for marketing of 401k retirement plans for the Northeast region. Likely, you share the role with several other people, all who have the title “Vice President of Marketing”. Furthermore, different titles mean different levels of responsibility at different divisions of the business. Some divisions have Executive Vice Presidents, while others have a “Head” of a division. Sometimes “Head” is used to refer to a President of a division as well. Thus, at Fidelity status is less about one’s title or position within the company, but instead about their tenure and personal relationships they have cultivated during their time at Fidelity. Many employees spend decades at Fidelity, often at a variety of roles, most of which are received through other friends or connections within the company. Therefore, influence at Fidelity has more to do with your personal relationship with your boss (and often those above your boss), than your specific role and job responsibilities.

This rather unique structure, where success is determined more on a relationship, than task basis, creates a unique way of working at Fidelity. It is not uncommon to discover that at the end of a project, two other teams in different divisions have already finished the same project. As a result, it can be difficult to feel a sense of accomplishment in a company this size. Given the company’s size, one of the challenges people face is communication through the different business units. Recently, Fidelity has begun transitioning to using online, cloud-based, software systems to assign tasks and improve coordination and communication among employees. Most of the work is done using virtual teams, and I have yet to be in a meeting where someone is not calling in through Skype. On the team I am working on, roughly half are based in North Carolina, and the other half are based in New Hampshire, where I work. As such, many people have never personally met all the members of their team in person, but instead only communicate in virtual ways. While this allows Fidelity to have a large global presence, it also limits people’s interpersonal interactions across the company.

One thought on “Relationships and status are the keys to success

  • June 14, 2019 at 11:39 am

    And so picking up on your last sentence, it sounds like limiting interpersonal interactions is a challenge/weakness – why? What is lost when this is limited? Go that next step. Clearly, there are other named leaders beyond the CEO, though titles vary; how about individuals without assigned titles in the hierarchy, to what extent are they able to make contributions, influence/create change? Doesn’t sound as though the CEO is feared exactly, is she revered? Is her approval (in the example you provide) simply obeyed or is it respected?

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