A senior executive of a large global service organization, whom I was working with, was sharing with me the challenges he and his peers were having in being able to address key challenges and opportunities as a senior executive team, through open, honest, authentic and courageous debate. The collective trust wasn’t there and as a result, the senior leaders either avoided dealing with key challenges or when they had the opportunity, they weren’t honest enough to reach resolution and alignment.
Needless to say, the senior executives often left the Executive Leadership Team meetings feeling dissatisfied with their outcomes and frustrated about the lack of debates and alignment.
It was hard for the senior executives to contain their personal frustrations and convey a unified front that things were good. In fact, the executives often engaged in back-channel conversations with other executives, and even with their direct staff. When I spoke to some of the leaders who report to the senior executives, they even acknowledged that their bosses often made sarcastic comments and sniping remarks about their colleagues and other businesses and functions when they spoke about company strategy and dynamics.
The senior executive described the dynamic as:
“We don’t debate things enough privately in order to be aligned publicly”
I thought that was a very insightful way to think about this.
One of the big frustrations and challenges I encounter in so many organizations is the lack of alignment of the senior leadership team. It’s always associated with a lack of real, robust debates and conversations. Needless to say, that when the top team is not aligned the disconnects, divisions and silos permeate throughout the entire organization. In siloed organizations communication and sharing doesn’t flow between divisions and levels. Everyone looks out for their own agenda and success, people protect themselves and this environment is typically a breeding ground for politics, blame, finger pointing, and overall cynicism and resignation.
Communication is the source of the problem and communication is the cure. You cannot grow and take a sizable organization to the next level without the entire senior leadership on board. And, you can’t get the entire senior leadership on board without open, honest, authentic, courageous and effective communication. It is naïve and irresponsible to think otherwise.
Strong CEOs may be able to turn an organization around through command-control. In a turnaround, people tend to be open to being told what to do by someone they trust who could rescue them from a bad situation. However, that mode won’t sustain and scale over time. Even if a CEO can continue to crank out great business results, the culture of that organization would most likely be one of fear and politics. People may be pleased to make money, but it would only be a matter of time until good people will want to leave.
In order for the senior leadership team of any organization to be genuinely aligned and on the same page about the important things the leaders must be able to debate the topics and reach alignment and decisions with high ownership.
In some organizations, the role of the senior team is to advise and give input to the decisions of the CEO. Even then the senior team has to be able to debate the important topics. The senior leaders have to feel that they are heard, and they are influencing the direction and decisions of the company. If they feel that way, they will be able to show up in the wider organization as a unified front and voice that owns the decisions. If they don’t, they will become resentful and cynical, and continue to perpetuate the negative environment. It is inevitable.