Transitioning to Senior Leadership: From Compliance to Commitment

Consensus Compliance Commitment

Several months ago, we began our journey about the 4 shifts leaders need to make to successfully transition into senior leadership roles.  Shift 1: From Smart to Aware – was largely about the importance of interpersonal agility. Shift 2: From a Problem Orientation to an Outcome Orientation emphasized the future and valuing cross-functional communication and peer relationships as much as leaders typically do with the team they lead.

Let’s move on to Shift 3.

Our Research

As you may remember from the other posts, we conducted a survey of team members, senior leaders, and executive leaders to better understand the keys to transitioning into senior leadership. Here’s what we asked team members:

  • What is the biggest mistake senior leaders make?
  • What do you want to see more of from your senior leaders?

One critical theme bubbled to the surface: Communication.  Here were some of the team members’  candid responses:

  • Failure to communicate regularly and somewhat openly;
  • Not communicating, not being transparent, not trusting and empowering his/her people.
  • Breaking communication and trust with the team.
  • Being honest about the current status of the company and forecast of the business and ask for help if needed.
  • Not communicating enough with staff; not getting to know staff as individuals and understanding their needs and styles.
  • Not being engaged and communicative with employees.
  • Not caring about the team and being obscure in directives and never following through on accountability. Lines to who owns what becomes very blurred.
  • Lack of communication does not build trust or respect, and, believe it or not, transparency can be a good thing if worded correctly.
  • Not communicating why decisions are made, even if those decisions are unpopular.
  • Communicating expectations too infrequently and ambiguously.
  • Not leading by example and not openly communicating, including not providing real-time feedback.
  • Not staying in touch with there subordinates.  Inconsistent communications.

The Shift

Imagine a communication continua that describes two polar opposite communication styles. On one end, let’s say the left side, is an aggressive style. The opposite end is a passive style. This third shift to successfully transitioning into a senior leadership role is a dual focused shift depending on whether your leadership style tends to be more on the aggressive end of the communication continua or the opposite passive end. If your tendencies are more along the lines of being passive, the shift is moving from a focus on consensus to a focus on commitment. (If you’ve read my book Ignite! The 4 Essential Rules for Emerging Leaders, think about the character Darryl in the parable.) If your tendencies tend to be more on the aggressive side of the continua, the shift is to move from compliance to commitment (think Ben from Ignite!).

On the passive side of the equation, the tendency is to be a people pleaser, where the leader is overly concerned about making everyone happy and gaining agreement from all of the stakeholders around. There’s an avoidance tendency that comes with this style as the leader tolerates behaviors that are unacceptable in the workplace. Take, for example, the President of a fast-growing technology company. His Head of Finance is an extremely competent technician who knows funding and the world of IPOs as well as anyone. The challenge is that at times the Head of Finance’s behavior is often considered “abusive.” The President knows this, has experienced it in team meetings, and does nothing about it, at least not to anyone’s knowledge. He’s overly concerned about making his Head of Finance, investors, and leadership team all happy. For this leader, maintaining stability and a supportive environment is a priority. The challenge is that his over passivity directly gets in the way of the harmonious environment he seeks as he is overly tolerant of unprofessional and egregious out breaks.

The consequential decisions at the senior leadership level are too complicated to focus on agreement and making everyone happy. They involve too many constituents and stakeholders. So, the shift for the more passive leader is from focusing on consensus to gaining commitment.

The aggressive leader, on the other hand, with her laser-focused results orientation, tends to formulate her vision and immediately implement it. She is usually motivated by change, challenge, and controlling her environment and doesn’t spend much time getting peoples’ buy-in. Or, she recognizes that she needs others buy-in and asks for their input simply to garner support and not because she cares about listening to what they have to say. As a result, people tend to be compliant with her pushy style instead of owning and being committed to the direction in which the organization will move. It’s not uncommon for team members to manage what they say around this leader and to strategize on when to tell her the truth – all because of fear and her unapproachable style.

The consequential decisions at the senior leader level are too important to simply gain compliance from people. In the end, decisions will get revisited over and over again, and what’s most important to the leader – results – will ultimately take longer. So, the shift for the more aggressive leader is from focusing on compliance to gaining commitment.

Making this shift to focusing on commitment, instead of consensus and compliance, is ultimately about winning the hearts and souls of people. This is about building the commitment you see from employees at companies like Trader Joes, Apple, Patagonia, Google, and Method. At previous levels of leadership, it was easier as most leaders were focused only on their work team and they could get by with only a few people dealing with their dreaded dysfunction.  At the senior leadership level, though, there is a higher level of complexity as leaders often have to influence others with whom they have no authority, such as peers with different priorities or their executive leaders.

There’s more to come.

In our next post, we’ll outline three key steps to making the shift from consensus or compliance to commitment.