Shock-waves: Avoiding Senior Leadership Team Mistakes

In her article Lessons from Team Fumbles, Susan Lucia Annunzio goes on to say “Once-venerable institutions such as Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Royal Bank of Scotland paid the ultimate price for the behaviors of their leadership teams.”

Some of the behaviors Annunzio is referring to includes:

  • Merrill Lynch and Company CEO was widely reported to thwart debate, ignore feedback from other firm leaders and fire people whose views didn’t mesh with his own.
  • The single biggest mistake the Bear Stearns leadership team made was its refusal to face harsh realities. The leadership was presented with multiple opportunities to cut losses and change course. For years, executives cautioned of coming problems.
  • A similar situation played out at HBOS, a U.K. banking and insurance group taken over by Lloyd’s Banking Group in January after a near collapse. Paul Moore, the former head of group regulatory risk for HBOS, was fired in 2005 after warning the bank’s board about the danger of lending money “to people who have no jobs, no provable income and no assets.”

Senior leadership teams have the most significant impact on organizational culture than any other factor. The way that senior leadership teams behave sends shock waves throughout an organization and impacts the way more junior leaders and employees behave.

Eventually, the things that senior leadership teams reward and criticize will be the same things that the organization rewards and criticizes.

If you are on a senior leadership team, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Yet why is it that so many organizations fail to recognize this?

I think the answer is pretty simple. It’s easy to appear to be a cohesive team when the economy is good, the organization is profitable, and the new business pipeline is strong. It’s much more difficult, however, when times are challenging.

And, when times are challenging cohesion on senior leadership teams is most important.

But, today’s senior leadership teams are dealing with the most challenging environment in history. Business is moving at a tireless pace of change and organizations are constantly being called upon to do more with less.  The workforce is undergoing an unprecedented demographic shift that will soon impact the ability to attract and retain top talent. And with ongoing business uncertainty come restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and other changes that have a significant impact on employee engagement and productivity.

As senior leadership teams deal with these challenges, they all too often look for solutions on how to be more competitive and efficient while forgetting to consider the people side of the equation. They look for technology and systems improvements to solve people-related problems that often result in what I call  The Four Costliest Mistakes Senior Leadership Teams Make.

Costly Mistake #1: The Lack of Focus

Ultimately this mistake impacts a team’s ability to be effective. You might remember Steven Covey’s definition of effectiveness – the ability to get results in such a way that you can get the results over and over.

Without focus, effectiveness goes out the window.

The challenge in many organizations is that senior leadership teams get so busy spending time IN the business, focusing on the urgent day-to-day issues and minutia, instead of ON the business, focusing on creating alignment, coaching their people, and a nurturing a healthy culture.

Instead of being able to rapidly respond to new opportunities, unnecessary conflict, stress, and ambiguity of roles and accountabilities emerge on the senior leadership team.

Here are some symptoms you might see in your organization if there is a lack of focus on the senior leadership team:

  • The product road map isn’t clear beyond the next 90-120 days
  • Performance reviews are a “once a year” thing
  • The organization flip-flops between key strategies
  • Employees don’t understand how they fit into the strategic direction

People-First™ Factor #1: Alignment

To overcome the lack of focus, senior leadership teams have to be clear about the strategic direction for the organization. That becomes the foundation for everything else. Departmental goals should be created from strategic goals, and individual performance goals should be driven by departmental goals.

Secondly, senior leadership teams have to be clear about their individual roles and responsibilities.

According to Ruth Wageman, a visiting scholar in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and director of research for the Hay Group, “The work of a truly effective executive team should be focused on key strategic and tactical issues that affect the enterprise. Certainly the team must occasionally dip into
the mundane, but for the most part it should focus on broader, more significant organizational issues that directly advance the team’s purpose.”

To stay focused on the strategic issues, senior leadership teams need a structured approach to spending time together and staying focused during that time. At a minimum, senior leadership teams should meet weekly, have longer monthly team meetings, and quarterly offsites focused on organizational strategy and team cohesion.

While many senior leadership teams want a “silver bullet” in response to the challenges they face, I believe the answers are more practical. In Part 2 of this article, we’ll discuss two additional senior leadership team mistakes and focus on how to build cohesion to overcome those mistakes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *