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Case Study: Leadership alignment – achieving dynamic equilibrium?

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“I'm busy as hell, busting my ass every day, evening, and most weekends, and then I get a call from my boss who says we need an urgent meeting as I'm not adding the value as a leader that’s expected”

INTRO

I was engaged by a tech services business where the two co-founders had hired a third senior leader as the organisation had grown from 4 to 40 in just over a year.  Their hire was a great generalist who could turn her hand to the vast majority of tasks, both strategic and operational, that needed to be fulfilled to keep the business growing and evolving as it did.  An utterly safe pair of hands, she came with an impeccable track record and her commitment was assured.  

Despite settling in quickly and efficiently getting to grips with her portfolio, embracing the empowerment offered by the two co-founders, both of whom now had time to focus on product development and fundraising.  With a runway of some 18mths, they had milestones to address which they concluded were theirs and theirs alone to resolve.  

CURRENT SITUATION – PROBLEM STATEMENT

The epicentre of many organisations’ pressure points is often the intersection of the demands placed on us to ensure day to day business takes place alongside making sure we make the strategic gains that have been carefully planned and agreed.  This is hard and anyone suggesting otherwise maybe hasn’t actually been there.  It is too easy to be “busy as hell” and yet not be making the progress that is expected or needed.  

The problem was that the teamwork between leaders was dysfunctional, leading to ineffective execution, and despite everyone’s best intent had led to a situation characterised by frustration and doubt which was now threatening the wider organisation and its positive trajectory. The ramifications of a communication breakdown need no discussion here; we’ve all seen it, whether in our personal or professional lives.  

ACCEPTANCE THAT THERE ARE TWO SIDES TO THE STORY 

At the point in time I was engaged in this business, there had already been some deterioration in teamwork between the leadership, communication, masked breakdowns in relationships with brave faces being put on when needed, and with an underlying tenacity of “We’re not going to let this damage us”, which whilst laudable, bordered on being stubborn to a situation that wasn’t going to improve based on more of the same effort being expended, no matter how positive the intent.  The fact that someone was helping them, i.e., me, was all I needed to be fairly sure that this was a problem that certainly could be resolved.

There was no doubt that the attractiveness of the product, a buoyant market, the business was well funded and hiring plenty of needed people.  The GTM had worked well, with some high profile customers on boarded, and an appetite from the founders to go bigger, faster! This led to accelerated hiring, an aggressive earned PR campaign, various conference speaking slots, and most importantly, a plethora of ideas, needs, and suggestions from the high calibre talent joining at a almost a fortnightly rate.   This is a predictable situation for a successful start up, where chaos becomes the norm as the organisation battles into adolescence.  This “success” was where I pointed to, drawing on personal experience, as a potential source of the frustrations being felt by only a few, but that were also likely to quickly spread throughout the business unless the contagion was addressed – chaos and structure need to co-habit; empowerment and process governance can be helpful; “fluid direction” trumps everyone focused on their thing.  The amount of activity was becoming impossible to manage, remain focused, and yield the desired results.  To be fair, this was to an extent always going to be the case, which is perfectly fine, but how it was dealt with could be a make or break factor for the leadership team. 

WORKING TOGETHER AS A TEAM

No matter how insurmountable the task list, the demands of the roadmap, the customer expectations, and the periodic crises many of us will have faced, there are some things we can predict or adapt to, understand, and optimise that are wholly within our control. 

The first one that springs to mind for me is how we work together. The choices we consciously and subconsciously make about the way we interact with each other.  It sounds so obvious, and yet in my experience all too often we don’t spend enough time understanding each other so we can at least try with some success to get the best out of everyone when the going gets tough.  That applied here.  The leadership team were rarely in the same place for any length of time.  The three of them had markedly different historical relationships; they had built their relationships based on different contexts, during different times, with different priorities.  All quite understandable and pretty much impossible to avoid.  What they hadn’t done was calibrate, align, and actually become a team.

Peer leader relationships and relationships with bosses tend to be the most important ones to watch and the ones that can have the most impact – both positive and negative. In my opinion, a very good way of understanding this is by reading Lencioni and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  Told as a story, I pretty much defy anyone not to at some point nod in agreement as a point made in it totally resonated.  So, in  the interests of TLDR, what does Five Functions tell us?

I think most fundamentally its message to me was that much of our communication as leadership teams is transactional at best and toxic at worst, though I’d stress not intentionally so.  The symptoms that Lencioni describes all seem to come about because we don’t invest in working with each other in a quality, authentic way.  If you’re not familiar with the Five Dysfunctions here they are:

  • Absence of Trust
  • Fear of Conflict 
  • Lack of Commitment 
  • Avoidance of Accountability
  • Inattention to Results 

Note – all of these are subjects in their own right.  I talk about them on my blog page. 

In my initial discussion with the leader whose quote is at the head of this blog, all five dysfunctions came to mind.  It seemed to me that her boss didn’t trust her.  That lack of trust hadn’t come about overnight and after our conversation it was clear that opportunities for discussion had occurred several times in the preceding months and both had in some way avoided them for whatever reason we’d yet to uncover. 

The commitment to targets and goals was at best ambiguous leading to an inadvertent lack of commitment with no malice intended.  Lots of targets existed, awareness of them was pretty good, and at the same time the collective pledge to them seemed absent.

The ambiguity of commitment so often leads to accountability being a problem and inevitably without clarity the results were not playing out the way the CEO wanted.  It’s a safe bet to assume that none of this was intentional – no one wants these challenges when trying to develop, grow, and even just run a business, but they happen often in many organisations to many of us. 

As such, each member of the leadership team was looking at the results that mattered most to them as individuals, not as a team, and it’s no surprise that there was collective inattention to the most important results, which led to frustration. 

We agreed that leveraging Lencioni’s work and applying it where the fit worked would be a practical and efficient approach, seeing what else, if anything we encountered along the way. It was also apparent that the way in which each of the leadership team saw the world and interpreted it was very different; their approaches, needs, expectations all had noticeably contrasting profiles.  To provide a foundation and catalyst to engage in a structured discussion about their strategy execution, and because the team very much wanted to repair this situation, explicitly understanding each other better was a fundamental foundation stone we had to lay.  

USING OUR STRENGTHS – KNOWING EACH OTHER 

Taking the time to better understand our peer group at an individual level and team level can be really useful.  There’s many tools that can help with profiling and the best one I’ve found is Hogan.  The reason I like to use it with businesses I work with is because it examines the person’s reputation as well as their own identity.  In any team setting, our reputation – that which exists in the outside world and created by others as well as ourselves is often more important than identity, that which we see of ourselves when we talk about getting stuff done.

Let’s take the example in this blog.  Both parties in the situation have created reputations over time with various episodes where they have come together.  There’ll be good, bad and a million moments in between that have built a complex, subjective, and as research shows, a consistent profile.   What we also know is that our ability to “see” our own reputation is not great and so we carry on doing things that aren’t helpful, often because there’s a lack of trust and a fear of conflict.  Teams who want to address their trust and conflict performance often find tools like Hogan a useful catalyst to break the ice so to speak and explicitly set out to learn more about one another, and especially what we may well experience when colleagues or ourselves are faced with stress and pressure.  

If there’s an authentic intent to work together, the vulnerability of having your reputation profile shared can be a powerful tool to both help people learn about one another and also quite probably avoid pitfalls like the ones we see in this example.  It strengthens teams and  provides organisations with a differentiator that is very hard to copy, makes them more attractive to work at, and increases their performance. And, yes. this takes commitment and some quality time, but the results give back over and over again.    

RENEWED UNDERSTANDING 

The Hogan process can create a safe environment from which teams can progress fast and cover ground easily that previously had been either implicit or explicit “no go” territory.  What first came out of this particular process was that the founders and their new leadership team colleague had entirely different views of their relationship. The new team member saw herself as someone to tend to that which the founders didn’t want to do, be a safe pair of hands, make sure that the growth profile was properly managed, and that details were attended to promptly and efficiently.  This in turn would enable the founders to focus on their strategic client goals and their investor community.  The founders on the other hand saw her as a partner, a third brain at the table to enhance and enrich the debate, contribute to the direction, and own the delivery and execution of the co-created strategy. 

So first the good news – some really useful overlap in understanding that provides a platform on which to work.  The not so good news was that the understanding of what was a priority was largely missing.  

An example was IT.  In a team of 4, it’s pretty easy, by the time you get to 40, hardware, software, security, licences … and so the list goes on, have now become an enterprise “thing” that someone needs to deal with.  The organisation had learned a behaviour that our new leader would take care of these things, and she did, very well.  The problem was that it was now taking time that was not budgeted for, that she couldn’t just stop doing it, and that the founders wondered why the hell was she the one ordering laptops and buying software licences. To her, if she didn’t do it, who could she pass it off to?  She had been forced into learning the ins and outs of their suite and to not do it would hamper people’s work, which would look bad on her, and so it would just be best to just keep doing it … after all it’s only “one thing”.

So whilst the very necessary IT ordering process was working just fine – with all the important benefits that brought, the founders were left expecting great things to start happening, for meetings to be arranged to refine and enhance the growth plans, only to be met with relative silence, because she didn’t want to be bothering them with more trivial matters and was focused on her goals that once in train would be revealed to the founders … once she had all the other things which needed fixing, fixed!

Assumptions had been made about priorities and the way delivery execution would happen by both the founders and their new colleague.  The collective understanding, alignment, and agreement about their goals and targets was largely missing until a more in depth discussion had taken place.  

THE SOLUTION 

The renewed understanding which helped each of them appreciate the reputations they held with each other (and across their wider teams), informed how best they could look to the future with a more robust, transparent, and resilient way of working.  

Re-sharing the business strategy to ensure their interpretation of it was aligned, that their execution plan was optimised, and recognising that delivery means many things for the whole to work together was a major step. As well as understanding the strategy, sharing openly their perceived implications for the delivery was a cathartic exercise.  For example, the volume of clients, coupled with the product development ideas, alongside the hiring plan looked exciting and everything they could wish for, and at the same time caused concern that things just didn’t add up to either being feasible.  

This led to a prioritisation exercise where the goals, objectives to reach them, and the metrics that would measure success were debated in depth, encouraging conflict to take place so that differing perspectives could authentically be exposed and understood.  The increased trust between them helped “push back” to happen, rather than tacit acceptance.  The challenge that remained was the day to day “Noise” that could not be ignored because it was a necessary overhead to run the business, but nonetheless, even when done perfectly, would not provide the growth that was the target.  Recognising how the “Noise” and the strategic priorities could cohabit with key improvement targets in place, whilst committing to very defined priority strategic goals took time and put the team through its paces.  Such circumstances are never perfect and compromise is essential as is the reality of what is needed and how it can be achieved. The road was still bumpy for sure, but at the same time the progress in the interactions was noticeable.  

A recurring problem that had led to the frustrations were the lack of a common means of measuring progress.  With the changes agreed to the priorities and delivery plans, having  a scoreboard that had the same meaning for the team was important.  The measures and targets would also be shared with the wider team and so the focus moved to solving this.  We workshopped a process to be clear on company level metrics for the revised goals and objectives, designed a scoreboard that made sense, was intuitive and could easily be shared.  Finally, we returned to the relationships in the team and worked through how the metrics and scoreboard would be used to ensure accountability.  This last part, always the hardest, demands that each person in the team puts the team before themselves, and that everyone is willing to call each other out where things don’t happen that were promised.  By supporting and challenging in equal measure, the team got there with a system in place that was uniquely tailored to suit them. 

LOOKING FORWARD 

An aligned leadership team provides the footings on which to build a cohesive delivery plan for the rest of the team.  In this case they role modelled their expectations and took a very hands-on approach to sharing the fruits of their work across the organisation.  Stand alone, this brought an improvement in clarity and focus.  Each team was then expected to work together to draft a delivery plan for themselves drawing on the company level goals.  They worked with the leadership team to develop their practice of improving their collective understanding of the business strategy, defining their targets and metrics based on clear priorities, and working through their models of accountability could all be done using the process the leadership team had developed with me.  Simple, but not easy.  

For example, this process took time, and whilst a valuable investment for the business, a demand that took away from the “Noise’ that had to be tended to every day.  The leadership team consciously recognised this and at the same time impressed upon everyone that this process was one they had been through and was vital that everyone else did, with the same commitment, so that they could all continue to build the business as they intended. The collective common purpose was accepted by almost everyone and amplified the pace and quality of progress.  Each team built its own measures, shared them with their peers and the leadership team.  By the end of the process, all 40+ people were clear, if not wholly in agreement, and committed to the roadmap and its measures of success.  Largely facilitated by the person who was the original subject of frustration, this case study is testament to her and her leadership team colleagues’ want to address challenges they knew they faced. 



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