The senior leaders of a large and successful technology company I was working with wanted to improve their overall effectiveness as a team, including their communications and meeting productiveness.
The leaders acknowledged that their conversations and meetings were not effective and that included:
- The short-term fire-fighting always took over meeting’s agendas and the team never got to discuss the more strategic topics of opportunity and change
- When the leaders did get to the discussions the same few team members always dominated the conversation and other team members felt unable to contribute
- The team debated issues endlessly without reaching conclusions, alignment and decisions
- Important decisions that affected everyone were made behind the scenes with the same few inner circle team members, and
- When the leadership team did make a collective decision (especially change-related) leaders often didn’t comply, follow up and/or reinforce these.
The senior leaders were frustrated with their colleagues in the team. However, for the most part, they all blamed their boss, the CEO, for not making the meetings productive, and not empowering his senior leaders to make the key decisions.
Meanwhile, the CEO was even more frustrated. He expected his leaders to communicate, collaborate and work together behind the scenes between the meetings in order to address and resolve issues, align on strategies and plans, and hold each other to account for decisions that were made in prior meetings. Instead, the senior leaders were escalating all the tough issues to him, expecting him to resolve and make the tough decisions, even on issues the leaders were fully capable of and empowered to solve.
Because the leaders were not having the important and often tough conversations among themselves the leadership team’s meetings were unproductive because most of the time was spent reviewing and reacting to updates and reports, as well as confirming decisions and talking about other mundane topics that could have easily been handled between the leaders elsewhere. Needless to say, the leaders were complaining about these meetings too.
In short – The leaders were simply avoiding having the courageous conversations.
I see this dynamic at all levels of seniority in most (perhaps all) organizations. Leaders want things to change, they want more empowerment, responsibility, involvement and authority, but they are not willing to step up and have the courageous conversations that come with the territory of higher responsibility and empowerment.
Yes, courageous conversations can often be messy, unpredictable and uncomfortable; they could cause tensions, conflicts and even deteriorate trust temporarily or permanently. But the cost of avoiding them – for the leaders – is not being able to provide leadership, make the difference and drive change. And, for the organization, the cost is not functioning on all cylinders.
So, how do you change this?
It starts with leaders owning up to their avoidance of the courageous conversations and perhaps also to their lack of courage. It takes authenticity and courageous to admit that you haven’t had courage. Most leaders won’t do this. Instead, they typically come up with circumstantial excuses and justifications such as “it wasn’t the right time for the conversation,” or “We were too busy to talk today” or “I need to get them in the right mindset”.
Admitting that you have been avoiding the courageous conversation is a courageous conversation in itself, so it is a great start for generating change. Honesty and ownership always bring about fresh beginnings, which afford us the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment. In this case, it is our commitment to being a courageous leader.
That may be enough to get you back on the horse. However, being a courageous leader is a new space for you, you should make a list of some practical actions and practices a courageous leader would carry out and then take on the commitment to start behaving accordingly, even if you have to “fake it till you make it” in the beginning.
The great thing about being a courageous leader is that it is completely within our reach; we have the entire wherewithal to step up to this standard. It is simply a matter of making the choice, taking the stand and getting into action consistently.