Focus on Alignment

May 07, 2011 No Comments by

How can a leadership team stay focused and aligned over the long haul? I once worked with an executive team that used the following ground rule to maintain alignment over the course of a 2-year change project:

“Disagree in private – Support each other in public without quibbling, undermining or waffling – Without exception.”

Making a Behavioral Ground Rule Work: Their behavioral ground rule served them quite well – even when the hurricane-force winds of stakeholder resistance and “business as usual” threatened to batter the ship of change.  Today I’d like to break their ground rule down a bit and show why it worked.

1. Disagree in Private – Support Each Other in Public: Ordinary people become leaders by producing positive results in their area of business. That kind of success usually requires a great deal of dedication, hard work and passion for one’s area of expertise.

The downside to this internal focus: it may be interpreted as “operating in a silo” to someone in another business area. The sparks may start to fly when these internally-focused leaders are asked to join a representative team of peers to steer the implementation of a strategic change. (These groups are most commonly called executive steering teams, change leadership teams, etc.)

When it comes to implementing change, very few leaders who are passionate about their area of the business will always agree with their peers on how to make strategic change successful. Sometimes the approaches that work in one part of the organization would utterly fail in another part.  Good leaders know this, so the leaders of the different areas may clash in subtle or significant ways.

But where and how should this discord play out?

Real Transparency: The most effective change leadership teams are transparent with each other in a setting that doesn’t cause collateral damage.  I had a good friend who once said that real leadership transparency is not something you can claim to have – it’s something others see you demonstrate.  He also warned that the people he had seen talk the most about their own transparency were the ones who struggled the most to practice it!

Here’s is a question I like to ask leaders on this subject:

“What would others say about how open and transparent you are in a team setting?”

…and here’s a question I like to ask a given leader’s peers:

“Describe how <the other person> demonstrates transparency or a lack thereof.”

Not all leaders are open to even being asked these questions (let alone dealing with the answers) but when they are, the feedback is typically enlightening.

Put it into Action:

In practice, the most effective change leadership teams demonstrate the ongoing alignment practice of public agreement by:

  • Spending Quality Time Together: They create reoccurring opportunities to work through issues in private which could fatally damage the change process if they played out in public – in other words, they show up for their leadership team meetings ready to work on the real issues of the day.
  • Facing the Music: They hash out their disagreements proactively instead of letting them fester.
  • Being Real: They deal in facts when they make their points – instead of grandstanding or appealing primarily to emotions.
  • Being Apolitical: They avoid politics in a practical way by being clear about what motivates their stance on a given issue. They can just as easily identify with their peer’s position on most strategic topics.
  • Verifying Internal Alignment: They are not afraid to candidly ask for an alignment check with their peers in private before announcing the decisions of the group in public.

The practices above also imply that the most effective change leadership teams don’t say one thing in the room while attempting to sway the court of public opinion by making their case outside the room.

This is what’s meant by the second half of their ground rule:

No Quibbling – No Waffling – No Exceptions.

…which will be the subject of my next article.

-Steve

Questions for Chatter:

  1. What good methods have you seen to break through organizational politics and gain transparency between members of an executive change team?
  2. How much of the success of a good executive steering team depend on the talents of the individuals and how much can be built over the course of a project or through the course of several business cycles?

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