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Case Study: Communicating to Succeed – Never Making Assumptions

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“Everyone knows the goals. I expect the team to work out what they need to do so we meet them, feed that back to me, and we’ll review them. I’m not doing their jobs for them”.

INTRO

I was approached by a business CEO who was finding difficulty maintaining alignment across her team.  The strategy appeared clear,  but nonetheless without her personally applying constant attention on almost daily basis, focus was drifting and in her opinion their execution was not being progressed to either a quality or pace that would work for their strategy which had been agreed with their board. 

CURRENT SITUATION – PROBLEM STATEMENT

The interdependency between a COO and the CEO (even when that role may be the same person fulfilling two functions), can inevitably create tension.   The everyday demands of the business, the COO’s “Noise”, contrasted against the CEO’s strategic requirements can sometimes seem to be a mismatch.  This is not uncommon and is perfectly understandable particularly when we consider the well used 2×2 matrix that considers Important and Urgent along each axis. 

Each person will have a different interpretation of what is urgent and important unless those criteria and the subject in hand have been clearly defined, explained, and agreed. As the saying goes, “You can do anything but you can’t do everything”, and this particularly applied here where the CEO and her wider team were indeed trying to do everything which was resulting in the business not making sustained progress, having misaligned goals sometimes conflicting with each other,  with ignorance being evident amongst the whole team.  The problem was that communication and accountability were not being explicitly agreed amongst what was a relatively small number of people. 

UNDERSTANDABLE DIVERGENCE OF UNDERSTANDING 

The organisation is a post-seed startup where the division of high-level accountability was very clearly defined.  The CEO was outward facing to investors,  conferences,  industry partners and regulators.  The COO was inwardly focused entirely on developing the business capability,  delivering the road map,  and building the team. 

This portfolio arrangement worked well and had seen the business grow healthily,  establish product market fit,  secure excellent funding,  win several awards,  and secure very high profile early revenue marquee customers.  On just about any measure it is doing very well and has a great future ahead of it. 

The CEO and COO focus however had led to a divergent understanding of what was important, what was urgent, and where the team’s focus should be with a common understanding as to why. I met with both of them individually to understand their perspectives.  The CEO had been consumed with finalising a fundraising round,  which ended up being oversubscribed (quality problem!),  securing and delivering papers at key conferences,  and working with thought leader potential clients to understand their journey and how the company would fit into it.  

The COO had been reassembling the team following the pandemic, establishing new working norms that would improve their outcomes,  hiring new key roles,  and accelerating the existing roadmap which was well documented and understood by everyone.   Throughout the pandemic the COO had shown great care in communicating thoroughly and frequently with the team so that they remained cohesive and did not lose the market lead they were already generating. 

Their largely separate worlds and agreed areas of responsibility inadvertently led to a divergence of understanding,  expectation,  and reality of what each other were doing.  Their trust in each other built up over several years meant they did not see any need to be frequently peer reviewing each other’s work.  Their assumptions about their plan,  based on a scenario that was now verging on ancient history, remained their single source of truth and frame of reference.  With no ill intent, working in relative isolation, they had both sub consciously iterated and morphed their interpretation of their strategic goals,  routinely tweaked them in very minor ways to accommodate their realities in their day-to-day working life,  their priorities, and team needs based on their individual unique environment.  It was a chance meeting and conversation that led them both to simultaneously question each other about exactly what they were doing. 

The conclusions of that conversation evidently shocked them both. They left what was an accidental discussion both feeling let down, very alone,  misunderstood,  and wondering what had gone wrong; trust had been breached.  Predictably, both wanted to critique the other’s position and both felt that they had not been privy to information and developments that were material to their personal responsibilities and portfolio.  As would be the case in any small team,  the ramifications of this conversation rippled leaving everyone feeling that the cohesiveness they believed they had was in fact a very unsteady foundation. 

THE SOLUTION: FINDING CONVERGENCE

We agreed on a three step process to reestablish the cohesive momentum that had previously existed.

STRATEGY AND GOALS – WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

First reflecting on Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy,  we worked on re-aligning  strategy and goals.  The challenge was to make sure that we had an end to end coherent and actionable plan that focused on the most critical challenges and opportunities.   The CEO had been focused on an emerging strategy whereas the COO had been focused on very tangible immediate goals.  In fact the COO wasn’t consciously aware that the strategy was still emerging.  At some point in the past strategy and execution were aligned and cohesive,  however over time, they had become very disconnected.  This was for a number of reasons. The environment in which the CEO was working had materially changed with new investors, industry partners,  marquee sales prospects and an increasingly interested regulator.   

The COO had been ruthlessly focused on the road map resourcing and milestone progress having put in place effective agile practices and brought the team back together from the overly remote working style we all became familiar with during the pandemic.   Meeting the milestone KPIs,  engaging the team,  hiring new people all demonstrated tangible progress.

Evidently alignment had been lost.  Drawing on John Cutler’s wonderful blogs,  he maintains alignment is a dynamic equilibrium and unfortunately my client had inadvertently frozen their alignment in the past and it was becoming increasingly less relevant as each week passed.  It could be argued that the CEO and COO had achieved a form of shallow alignment where without any malice, they were ticking an alignment box, characterised by a low stakes easy to achieve check that they subconsciously felt very confident about.

We surfaced this and tailored our sessions to reflect the learning culture of the business.   Both the CEO and COO were very keen to genuinely understand what the hell happened!   Looking in the rearview mirror is always wholly analytical and does not serve our future in a direct way, but it is a great way to reflect and learn, and our time spent spotting the “Gotcha” moments were invaluable and led to a number of lessons being learned, heads being thrown into hands, and some laughs along the way too – all in a safe environment where vulnerability was required to maximise the benefit of the learning.   Over the course of just one day we listed a relatively small number of events that had caused the divergence over a period of almost one year.   It was not necessary for me to propose any detailed solutions as both people were very enthusiastic to apply their learnings immediately and problems were solved almost real time.

HOW WELL DO WE WORK TOGETHER?

The second thing we did was to examine the way the CEO and CEO worked together.  Whilst they’ve known each other for a significant number of years,  it seemed to me that they were using this period of time as a proxy for how well they knew each other professionally.    I turned to Hogan and proposed an assessment for both of them,  conducting individual feedback sessions and then bringing them together.  We completed this exercise and compared our findings to the lessons learned in the previous step,  which showed a strong  correlation and reinforced the value of their learning – more smiles, more insights, and a better understanding of each other for sure.  Their openness to conduct a joint session allowed us to safely and thoroughly evaluate working styles and traits that are likely to be exhibited when under pressure and examine their reputations in general.  For these two people, working closely together, this provided an elegant shortcut for them to better understand each other and avoid future trip-ups and also more importantly be able to augment each other’s strengths so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.   This was a highlight of the overall engagement and it was hugely rewarding to see how much value they both obtained from this process.

SHARING IS CARING!

Third, we turned to the wider team and looked at how they had impacted the situation and being impacted by it.  Drawing on Stan McChrystal, Team of Teams,  we discussed how a whole team having a complete picture of the overall mission can tangibly and positively affect the outcome.  We concluded that whilst they were very focused,  the majority, who worked with the COO had no sight of what the CEO was doing, what she was learning, and how that could affect their work.  The COO is a dedicated servant leader whose focus was the team, their well-being and of course the progress that was being made.   In short the COO/CEO relationship was a single point of failure in communication with a lack of real time information flow between them risking mission failure.  While it may not be necessary for everybody to have access to all information at all times, the risk in these circumstances of them not having access to that information,  is likely to be far greater than the risk of them having access to the information.  This needs a disciplined team to remain focused on their goals while scanning the wider environment for data and information that may impact their work.  We don’t want them commenting on everything,  but we need them to be aware of anything that could hamper progress – that maybe only they will identify with. 

The solution for this challenge was elegantly simple.  A broader sharing of information progress activities and insights would be explicitly shared as part of the weekly meeting.  Making this information share an accountable action rather than a casual update brought a focus to it that made everybody think more carefully about how they could keep each other informed at least and fully engaged at best.  Again drawing on John Cutler’s insights, alignment is always in dynamic equilibrium constantly adjusting and responding to changes. There is an overall balance but minute by minute and day by day things are shifting, adapting, bending and reconfiguring. In effect the moment you leave the meeting the system begins to recalibrate based on new information.  The team’s solution consciously recognized this hypothesis and leaned hard into it to make it work for them rather than the other way around.

REFLECTION

This engagement was not about turning strategy into action; that had already been done. It was not about focus or trying to do too much; that had already been resolved.  It was about two people’s best intent in developing their team and their business. They wanted to move as quickly as possible in an efficient manner by a division of labour where each managed a portfolio in parallel.  Their aims for efficiency unfortunately was not effective.  Effectiveness usually has a cost premium over the most efficient solution possible and sometimes that expenditure may be unnecessary. The challenge is that it is very hard for us to predict when that may be the case and where it is not, so finding an optimal efficient-effective path, AKA adaptability, seems to be a panacea we are all seeking.

By not attending to our needs as individuals to work together to the best of our ability, respecting that we may not know each other as well as we might like to think we do, forging forward can create speed yet not velocity.  An item oscillating about a fixed point has high speed but gets nowhere, just generates heat.  A projectile, on the other hand, moves from A to B at high velocity also creating heat.   It seems to me that very often in business speed and velocity are words that we may interchange without consciously understanding the implication. In this case, although inadvertently, speed was trumping velocity and unfortunately we didn’t know that was happening.  A chance meeting lifted a stone and lots of things wriggled out.  This trigger created an emotional response between two people causing a hiatus that was sufficient to potentially stall the company because trust had been breached;  expectations would not be met or at least be very flawed, time would be wasted, valuable resources used unwisely, and credibility damaged. Two very talented people were now increasingly locked in a cognitive emotive loop, knowing that they needed to find an “out”. Recovery had to be quick, reliable, with complete buy-in across the organisation. Failure to do so would risk customer dissatisfaction, raising investor concern, and hard won brand rep would be damaged.  

Rapid intervention, a sense of urgency, and an acceptance of a challenge knowing that it can be resolved were the key success factors in this engagement which lasted just over one week. Solutions do not need to be complicated or expensive to implement.  Blending the subject matter expertise and contextual knowledge of the CEO and COO,  alongside a broader experience base, and drawing on best practice academic and contemporary literature provided both an effective and efficient resolution and reinstated the solid foundations on which this successful business will undoubtedly continue to grow. 



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