Posted: 04 Jun. 2020 5 min. read

Designing for horizontal collaboration in a vertically siloed organization: Walking a tightrope

Posted by Tiffany McDowell and India Mullady on June 4, 2020.

Imagine the tall glass skyscrapers of New York City. These pillars go dozens of stories in the air and inside them are thousands of individuals working towards common goals. But what if you need to connect these towers? How do you get the message across? Do you dig a tunnel underneath and relay on hidden or informal backchannels? Do you hire a private helicopter to shuttle a few select individuals from tower to tower, requiring great coordination and continued expense?

Such is the dilemma in many organizations today. Leaders have been incentivized throughout their careers on building the foundation, infrastructure, and resources needed to execute a particular goal in their own silo. Most leaders sit in vertical roles. Vertical roles are oriented towards functions or business units, such as the chief financial officer or a business leader responsible for a defined set of mature products and/or services with their own P&L. Horizontal roles are intended to integrate across these verticals, roles such as the chief strategy officer, the chief consumer or growth officer, or the chief transformation officer. 

Traditionally leaders have not always focused on working horizontally across the organization because horizontal efforts are difficult to track and reward. Many leaders swarm around overlapping horizontal problems with limited success. However, cross-functional collaboration is critical to enhancing the value of an organization in its totality. As organizations become more focused on their customers and communities, they need to organize themselves to intentionally collaborate and work both vertically and horizontally. 

This need has led to the addition of horizontal leadership roles. But how do you create a leadership role that will operate horizontally in a world of vertical accountability? 

This balance can be difficult to achieve:

  • Not enough support and this role will be little more than a suggestion, a center of expertise with no resources, funding, or accountability, unstable enough to achieve even minimal wins.
  • Too much control and this role will remove needed accountability from existing business units, taking away the resources and funds they need to execute on main drivers such as growth, eroding major sources of value for the business, crumbling the towers.

To strike the right balance and based on our experiences adding vertical C-suite roles to organizations, the first three steps are critical:

  • Define the role: Make sure the role is filling an essential gap or existing grey space in the organization that can only be solved with horizontal collaboration.
  • Share accountability: Agree upon a set of shared metrics and accountabilities for this role to own and how they will interact with their peers, this will allow all leaders to be successful vs. focusing on maintaining their silos.
  • Maintain balance: Give this role resources and budget to allow them to effect change, the same way you would for traditional vertically focused leadership roles.

Horizontal leadership roles require a delicate balance to be effective.  Make sure they are equipped to walk the tightrope and that there are collaborative partners on each side to support these leaders in their balancing act.


Tiffany McDowell is a principal who leads Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Organization Strategies market offering, with a focus on delivering operating model, organization design, talent strategies, and global change management solutions for large-scale transformations.

India Mullady is a senior manager in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Human Capital practice, with a focus on organization strategies and helping clients design and create more adaptable organizations.

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Tiffany McDowell, PhD

Tiffany McDowell, PhD

Principal | Deloitte Consulting LLP

Tiffany is a principal in Human Capital and serves as the national leader for Deloitte’s Organization Strategies practice. Tiffany has more than 16 years of business and consulting experience, delivering operating model, organization design, and talent strategies. She is a forerunner in delivering Organizational Network Analysis insights to clients. She holds a Master of Business Administration and a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology.