This is a blended case study. It is the outcome of working with many CEOs – some brilliant, some perhaps who shouldn’t have the job.
If you haven’t read Sebastian Salicru’s Leadership Results – How to Create Adaptive Leaders and High-performing Organisations for an Uncertain World, now is a good time to go and buy the book (published by Wiley, 2017). It is a courageous, ethical, informed and wise look at the reality of leadership in our world, and what to do about it. I appreciate there is a trap predisposing to a thinker who mirrors your own, but in this instance, it also mirrors the thinking of those who leaders seek to influence.
Here are some telling quotes from the introduction:
“(Only) 13% of people feel engaged. 86% of 1500 of the world’s best global leadership experts hold that the practice of leadership is in crisis.” (World Economic Forum, 2014; Outlook in the global agenda, 2015)
“The leadership failure is marked by 3Ds: distrust, doubt, dissent.” (Sebastian Salicru, Leadership Results, Wiley 2017)
“75% of employees surveyed in 2016 reported Australian workplaces need better managers and leaders.” (Leadership at work; Do Australian leaders have what it takes, Centre for workplace leadership, Melbourne University)
“Only 6% of executives said they felt ‘very ready’ to meet the leadership challenges.” (Deloitte University Press, 2016)
We are approached by the CEO and/or the HRD to work with the executive team. The team is described as competitive, siloed, not collaborating, and the business reflects this. Divisions don’t collaborate, they compete, stakeholders talk about the executive team critically, talent comes and goes (revolving door) and the HRD is often treated as an ER/IR functionary rather than a strategic partner. Money is not spent on leadership development (consistently) and there is poor data on engagement. The strategy is driven top down and, not surprisingly, there is little engagement. Operational plans don’t link, and KPIs for senior leaders reflect personal benchmarks, not the collective.
What we do
- The starting point is an audit – what we call an ‘Honesty Audit’
It requires in depth interviews with each member of the executive team. The interviews take about an hour. We track for patterns between the executive team members. Do they want the same things? Do they see the same strengths in the leadership team? Do they identify the same challenges? Do they have a common understanding of strategy? Do they understand and define company values the same way? Do they see the strengths in the business and the challenges through common lens?
We then pattern this information. We are tracking for alignment – anything that gives us a starting point where the world view is similar. We find something in about 80% of executive teams, ie. they want the team to be collaborative. Despite this, however, they are stalled along fracture lines; they find fault with others, often don’t respect members of the team (or the CEO), they don’t trust each other, and, in reality, their number one team is the team they personally lead, their direct reports, not the executive team.
Meetings are transactional rather than strategic, they are always around a ‘long table’, a typical meeting room/board room. People sit in the same seats, the CEO is always at the head of the table. The CEO chairs, whether they are good at this or not. Executives will say privately that they don’t like the meetings, they are a waste of time. People, if they are not directly involved in the conversation, are on iPhones, or iPads. If there is a ‘hot’ issue between the CEO and a functional area, everyone not involved breathes a sigh of relief and looks away.
The Honesty Audit reveals this, warts and all. It is the start of change.
- Key diagnostics are done for each leader
The tool/s are determined by the Honesty Audit results and, as part of this, the strategic direction of the organisation and what the CEO feels/thinks they aren’t getting from the team.
Why use tools? It always surprises me when people challenge this or shy away from it. Frankly, you would not go to market on a digital strategy campaign without knowing where your clients were ‘at’, as they say. The same is true for executives and senior leaders. If qualitative data (the Honesty Audit results) are given to dysfunctional executive teams, they will argue or challenge the data. They put themselves in the position of judge and jury when, in fact, they are part of the problem.
Good quality data, the right data, eliminates argument. Leaders (and we as facilitators help them to) see how they are contributing to the challenges the team is facing.
- We meet in a ‘human’ space – high quality time
We then make sure the CEO knows that high quality time is needed to support the transformation of the team. We would typically map out a 6 to 12 month path that includes anywhere from 3 to 5 two day ‘Advances’.
When leaders argue with the time required, we have a simple response: are you serious about the change you want and the outcome you see by uniting your team? Do you really see the benefit of them collaborating, understanding the interdependencies at the executive table and the business benefits? Do you really think this can be achieved without a time investment?
If leaders accept this, then we say, watch what happens in the first two days. If we fail to make a significant shift, then we aren’t the right people for you BUT trust what we say, watch what we do, see how your people react, feel the difference yourself, and THEN make a call.
We rarely get an argument at that point.
- What happens in this high quality time
The magic is in the facilitation rather than a straight forward process description. In simplest terms, we get everyone to contribute to setting an outcome, we agree on the problem that brought us together, we allow every leader to share their world view (without argument), we put the Honesty Audit data on the table, we make revisions if we’ve got something wrong, then we lock this in as our starting point.
From this point we help leaders identify the critical changes worth fighting for, crafting their individual and collective intention to pursue an aligned executive team. Without this intention, nothing will change.
We put diagnostics into this context – come to know each other – what you find easy/hard, what you have to learn and process, and how you help each other. Dealing with real data bonds people. We all have our insecurities and vulnerabilities. This is not an issue – it is masking them that causes the disruption and frustration on a team.
We get leaders to spend time connecting as humans, and we do this in locations that have impact, match the intent, and are strategically selected to facilitate collaboration. Leaders stay for a night, they might do the catering for each other. There is a ‘no phone, no iPad’ policy.
Be present, pay attention, listen, learn, share, be vulnerable and open.
Within the first two sessions (often just the first), the dynamic of the team changes quite dramatically. Individuals move away from judgement and blame – there is a commitment to identifying with the executive team as the number one team. There is more kindness, humour and collaboration. Trusting relationships, the bedrock of high performance, start to be built.
Typically, the direct reports of the executive team notice the changes quickly. Sometimes they worry that it’s ‘fake’ change, not truly engaged with. As time passes, they feel relief and, of course, the leader can replicate the process in the next layer so people begin to say the change is real.
Over a year, with aligned internal processes, there is a feeling that the culture is shifting in a meaningful, measured and pragmatic way. Executives are enjoying meetings, making time to participate, and being prepared. Collaboration is more meaningful, divisions are more willing to share, and there is cross pollinating of ideas and resources.
Visible lead indicators of business performance take a marked up swing.
- And sometimes it doesn’t shift
Sadly, this happens. And it happens because the CEO doesn’t own the journey. They are working on short term measures (usually financial). They have come to the role because they personally make a lot of money, they’ve got a lot of power. The role’s public profile has a lot of associated prestige and/or they have built a reputation for leading rapid change, restructuring, merging, and acquiring. The CEO sees them self (let alone whether anyone else sees them this way) as tough, competitive, solo operator, knowing the answers, and not needing to change or self reflect.
When this happens, we have many tricks up our sleeve for influencing the CEO, including the collaboration of the executive team. However, an outcome of a CEO who’s not committed is that there is no follow through, no expectation from the top to the change opportunity, no role modelling. The CEO starts to miss pieces, the team will talk about the CEO in their absence, frustrated that the change is stuck.
The HRD is often the most frustrated. The very person who can see clearly what needs to change starts to recognise, not here, not now, not this team.
And that’s how it goes.
- And the inspiring data to change
A poll of 1,897 HR professionals and 12,423 leaders from 74 countries note that the impact to business bottom line of good leadership is significant (DDI 2011). The top performing leaders have a 50% greater impact on performance of a company, and their company is 13 times more likely to outperform competitors in the market (World Economic Forum, Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015).
The moral of the story
The performance of the company is a reflection of the culture. The engagement of the culture starts with the engagement of the executive team. The engagement of the executive team is in the hands of the CEO.
The brave CEO leads.
Note: This blended case study comes from some eight executive teams I have personally worked with in the last 24 months. From Tasmania to Queensland, from Sydney to Melbourne, from large to small organisations. The lessons are common, the issues too.
And of course, the opportunities if the change works.
Author, Fabian Dattner, Founding Partner Dattner Grant, Co Founder Homeward Bound