HITTING THE WALL ON THE EXEC TEAM
You are a member of the executive team, have respect for your peers, want to do the right thing for the company, care more about the greater good than your own lot in life…and you are ready to walk out the door. Try as you may you can’t seem to influence the CEO and the other execs to (pick all the apply) take some gutsy moves to break out of some set pattern or effectively address the horrible morale of the staff or shorten the distance between the benefits for execs and the staff or get the exec team to deliver the same message or set off in bolder directions…. You get the point. Beyond managing your own function, really having a leadership impact on the team and the larger organization seems to be a constant struggle.
One irony here is that the constant refrain from CEOs in their reviews of their direct reports is, “Take a broader view of the business. Stop just speaking from your functional corner and be more strategic about the whole business. Be more of a leader.” Many exec team members take this responsibility very seriously and repeatedly raise important issues in hopes of engaging their colleagues in earnest conversations and actions. I have more stories than I can count of unsuccessful efforts.
So how many times does an exec have to bloody her head hitting the wall before she says, I’m outta here? And what is really going on here?
We can talk all you want about coaching execs to get better at their skills of influence and persuasion but I think that’s bullshit. These are talented, articulate, savvy folks. They do just fine persuading others in different settings. So it really comes down to what the hell is happening on executive teams?
Ego. Ask yourself, what is my highest priority? Being sure that all the human efforts in this place create good stuff for everyone or that I have the title, money, reputation that I desire? Are you primarily interested in your own self interests or do you serve a cause that is bigger than that? The answer can be both. But if your own needs consistently trump the collective then your ego needs contribute to funky leadership dynamics. And then if you multiply that by 9 out of the 12 other exec team members then you get all kinds of posturing (and I’m cleaning up that word here!).
Case in point. The CEO is zealous about the mission and works tirelessly to do good stuff. But when challenged about anything she shuts down conversation, does not allow in new thinking, charges ahead…even though the organization continues to struggle. She denies the problems, dismisses the whistle blowers and lives in constant fear of the board removing her. Exec team members that have tried to raise sensitive issues privately or in the group now live in the Siberian fringe. Fat chance that more execs will come forward to keep trying.
Another one. The business had a horrible year and the CEO was in the hot seat. A majority of the exec team members have low ego needs and just wanted everyone to pull out of the hole. The team ran from crisis to crisis keeping things running and (shockingly) holding onto the best talent. At year end reviews the CEO chastised everyone for the terrible performance, the low morale and the team’s lack of foresight and leadership. He threatened to give pay cuts. Are you surprised that 3 execs are wondering if it is time for them to leave? They wonder if they can continue to work for someone who is more interested in maintaining his tough guy image with the board rather than appreciate the herculean efforts of his team.
And the most common one. Another SVP dominates every conversation with a raised voice, manipulated data and arrogance that the rest of you are idiots if you don’t do as he recommends. His “me, me, me” tactics are so transparent that no one is fooled. Unfortunately, even with other healthy egos in the room, this guy wins the day consistently. No one, including the CEO, can effectively take him on and so the team and the company ends up being led more by this SVP than the CEO and the rest of the team. The hostage taker who loves the power.
So what to do? Leave every exec team where the egos run amok? Good luck finding one where that isn’t the case. Beef up your own self interests and just protect your flanks? Then you would have a hard time looking at yourself in the mirror.
In reality there are very few exec teams that have just the right amount of strong egos and collective attachments that would result in meaningful debates and coming together on behalf of the entire well being of the organization. Before we arrive at the grown up table we think magical and great things happen there. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. So I say, accept that. You won’t have your greatest successes and highest impact leadership moments with the exec team. The best you can hope for is that you have a handful of peers that you really respect and can partner with to do lots of good stuff.
And then spend the bulk of your leadership efforts where it matters…with the troops. All those conversations, bold ideas, morale boosting activities, recognition…do that with your team and others around the organization. Go where they are thirsty and receptive to your presence and make things happen. There will be so few moments where you will really need exec commitment so just go do the right things. You will be so much happier. The staff will adore you…which your healthy ego will like. And…oh yeah…others and the company will thrive.
Use your influence and persuasion where it counts….out in the organization where the action is. Keep your title. Hang in there during long and unproductive exec team meetings. Find great peers to join forces with.
And stop banging into that wall.