Alignment in the senior leadership team is only of value if a chief executive is open to debate and discussion. Anything less and an ‘aligned top team’ will merely serve as shorthand for a group of executives who either meekly obey a CEO’s every whim and command, or who nod politely and then pursue their own agendas.
It’s not a sustainable way to operate a business. Phillippa Crookes, Senior Relationship Manager at Criticaleye, comments: “The worst situation for a CEO is to think their leadership team is presenting a unified front, when in reality they are sowing seeds of dissent in the organisation.”
This inevitably has a negative effect on performance, as it results in a disconnect between strategy and execution.
Criticaleye spoke to a range of executives, including BIE's CEO Rob Walker, to find their views on how to ensure the team at the top is singing from the same song sheet.
If a CEO is never challenged by their senior leadership team, they need to ask themselves two simple questions:
In many cases, a lack of debate will point to a problem, either in-regards to the CEO’s own leadership style, or the personnel in the room (sometimes it’ll be both). Andy Hague, Group CEO of data security concern Cyberfort Group, says: “If you are fully aligned on strategy all of the time, there is sometimes a risk of becoming enveloped in a bubble. A constant cycle of positive reinforcement is no good if you are all wrong.”
Rob Walker, CEO of interim management and transformation specialist BIE, uses the term “dysfunctional harmony” to describe what can happen when alignment lacks integrity. He explains that this “is when you get people into a room and a policy is agreed, but after the meeting they immediately start disputing the decision and ignoring it because they haven’t spoken up”.
By contrast, “functional harmony” is when people are honest. “They express their views articulately say what they mean; that way everything is out on the table. There are far too many businesses running on dysfunctional harmony.”
The thing to remember is that ruling with an iron fist, so that people are unwilling to voice an opinion in meetings, won’t prevent them from airing their grievances elsewhere.
Bernie Waldron, a Board Mentor at Criticaleye and Chairman of a number of companies, including APSU, Nexus Vehicle Rental and Questionmark, says: “You have to listen to people and treat them with respect and give them their day in court when managing boardroom discussions.
"Everyone should have the opportunity to argue and disagree, but ultimately when a decision is made, you have to accept that and not undermine it.”
It’s up to the CEO to ensure the senior leadership team can articulate the strategy in the same way.
Rob comments: “If strategy is poorly communicated, misunderstandings start to happen and trust breaks down. When people aren’t properly informed they start to feel disenfranchised.”
Although it won’t always be possible, it’s useful to try and meet with individual members of a senior team to run through a particular plan or issue. “Prepare them for the meeting, tell them what is going to be raised. It’s not being Machiavellian or going behind people’s backs to speak to them individually; it helps to bring consensus together outside the room,” he states.
When it comes to strategy, Andy says that he likes the directness of private-equity backed businesses, as opposed to public companies. “You go into PE knowing that you are living and dying by your results and you simply cannot hide from that.
“The boards of listed businesses are often very sleepy, but in PE there is no space for misunderstanding starting to creep in due to poor communication.”
If the senior leadership team is performing well, it’s difficult to judge the impact of bringing someone new into the mix.
Andy says: “We make sure that anyone who is being considered for a position on the senior leadership team meets everyone individually, one-to-one, who is already at board level. It’s crucial to make sure everyone likes the new member. We do not interview by committee, but we certainly interview by consensus.”
A person may possess the technical skills that a business needs, however, this won’t count for much if there’s zero chemistry. Rob notes that “it can be reinvigorating to bring in new people, but you have to take the time to get to know them and the ways that they work”.
Executives feel the pressure when they are being pulled in multiple directions, and priorities start to blur. For instance, a senior executive may be focused on quarterly targets, but when they are suddenly told some of their top performers are going to be transferred onto a project to drive innovation, it will cause frustration.
It falls on the CEO’s shoulders to provide the broader context, ensuring there is an understanding in the senior leadership team of short versus long-term goals. According to research conducted by Criticaleye at our CEO Retreat, 58 percent of respondents thought their senior leadership team was too inward-looking and focused on the day to day.
Harvey Laud, CEO of waste management company Helistrat, says: “The matters that arise amid the everyday tend to be time sensitive, so they become the priority. Because of this, it is very easy to lose track and momentum when it comes to building and maintaining consensus over the long term.”
For Harvey, it is necessary to regularly review progress against the strategy at every board meeting. “Agree your long-term objectives thoroughly and record and review them. If you do that well, you will spend less time managing alignment.”
This article was first seen in CriticalEye's Community update.