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Does the sentence in bold mean "When we are in our best state/condition, our salesmen are the most important because they decide the result of our business. Meanwhile, our competitor operates in the opposite way"?

The company relies on acculturated “Nordies” to induct new employees into customer service the Nordstrom way. Newcomers begin in sales, learning traditions from the ground up:“When we are at our best, our frontline people are lieutenants because they control the business. Our competition has foot soldiers on the front line and lieutenants in the back

(Spector and McCarthy, 1995, p. 106).

(Source)

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  • Would you mind showing us you have researched this? I am 100% sure that your language has the same basic military terms. Sales people never "decide the results of a business." – Lambie Apr 25 '19 at 21:48
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Yes, it means what you think. Lieutenants are important and knowledgable in contrast to foot soldiers. If they are frontline, they are with the customers, in sales. The competition means other companies. The quoted portion expresses the opinion that the company is best if the frontline people are more powerful than the rear people, also that the other companies do the opposite.

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Your understanding is correct.

Most businesses, armies, and other organizations can be described as a pyramid structure. At the top there is a single president, general, or small board in control. There are varying levels of managers or commanders in the middle, and workers or soldiers at the bottom. Generally information filters up the pyramid, and orders are issued down the pyramid. Those at the bottom have essentially no power or control, except to do as they are told.

Nordstrom is referring to a concept known as "flattening the pyramid". There are thousands of Google results for that phrase. It means shrinking the height, size, and control above the bottom of the pyramid, and expanding the distributed power and control across the base.

There are both advantages and challenges to this organizational style. One of the most important factors for success or failure is developing a strong and effective culture in the organization, where the lower level workers feel empowered, where they have a strong individual dedication to serving the organization as a whole, solid competence of the lower level workers, and an environment where localized speed and adaptability are more important than unified command and control.

Note that the quoted text mentions "acculturated", "traditions", and it refers to employees as "Nordies". These are all significant hallmarks of creating an organizational culture and building a collective identity for employees to work on behalf of the group.

Note: I have some interest and knowledge on this topic in connection with Wikipedia. Wikipedia takes the "flat" model to an extreme. New editors who are particularly bold can immediately participate in high level management processes. New editors general have a severe lack of knowledge and experience to effectively influence those deliberations, but even a new editor can have real influence if they spend the time to read Wikipedia policies and they provide particularly insightful or well supported input. Wikipedia works because there is a very strong community culture, and the highly active editors generally have a strong commitment to serve the project-as-a-whole. It's much more difficult for a company to get that kind of dedication and loyalty from low level employees.

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