Aligning Senior Leaders in Times of Change
“It is pretty bad when only half the C-suite agrees on the same objectives.” – MIT Sloan Management Review*
Logic would indicate that alignment in the C-suite and senior leader ranks is imperative to corporate success. It follows that successful companies likely have strong alignment at those levels. However, research and experience show a different reality in which misalignment is prevalent amongst senior executives, even in successful organizations.
“Alignment plummets between top executives and their direct reports.” – MIT Sloan Management Review*
Any misalignment at the top is exacerbated further down in an organization. If senior leaders aren’t aligned, and those under them aren’t aligned, how does an organization progress? The answer is…very inefficiently, even if successfully.
In 1Q 2020 the world changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The stunning rapidity with which it happened was matched only by the colossal impacts of the change it forced upon us. Simultaneously, economies (locally and globally), industries and companies were pummeled in material ways.
Aligning senior leaders is challenging in the best of times. Arguably, it’s exponentially harder when executives have to deal with unexpected, momentous change (like a pandemic) and navigate toward an uncertain future.
If C-suite alignment was important during ‘normal’ economic cyclicality (such as the relatively steady growth period since the Great Recession), is it not even more critical in times of significant change? Without alignment, inefficiency, waste and chaos ensue.
Why is alignment an issue?
Alignment issues exist in every company. Anyone who disagrees hasn’t been part of / worked with / worked for / observed a leadership team. Misalignment is both natural and to be expected (i.e. human nature + team dynamics), and denial of it is naive and risky. That said, although its existence is universal, the degree of misalignment within organizations differs, as do its impacts.
Typically, misalignment isn’t due to a lack of competency on the part of a senior leader or a leadership team. Rather it’s a result of competing priorities, opportunity cost decisions and / or the lack of resources (time, financial, human) allocated to addressing it.
I’ve observed three main schools-of-thought as to how senior leaders approach misalignment:
Proactive mitigation through deliberate and intentional practices
Reactive acknowledgement without mitigation know-how, and instead the hope for minimal impact
Complete ignorance or rejection of its existence
Leaders in the second and third categories rely knowingly or unknowingly on inefficient brute force and luck to weather the misalignment storm. Misalignment does not always result in failure, but it does make the path to success harder than it needs to be.
Leaders are strategy-focused, but not always aligned. For example:
Just because a strategy exists, does not mean it’s being adhered to
Just because priorities are defined, does not mean they’re clear and understood
Just because a leader perceives something in a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s their team’s reality
Leaders are usually laser-focused on their own lanes of responsibility, which are the jobs they were hired to do. That becomes a detriment though when their focus excludes or blocks other key lines-of-sight to necessary synergies needed for teams to work together to fulfill the overall purpose of the organization. When this happens, leaders are misaligned and lose visibility to collective priorities and goals.
What is alignment?
Alignment is when two or more people have a common objective and an understanding of the approach to achieve it. In C-suite alignment there must be communication between leaders about purpose, priorities, goals, strategy, delivery and execution. In addition, there must be comprehension of each of those core business functions. Only when this occurs can there be productive alignment.
Importantly, alignment does not always mean agreement. Sometimes alignment and agreement co-exist, but it’s possible for alignment to happen without agreement.
Alignment can be measured…and it should be measured on a regular basis since change is constant. Whether that change is external (i.e. a pandemic) or internal (i.e. a leadership change), there is an impact on the organization and on alignment. For the CEO’s and senior leaders I work with, alignment is largely a known and valued but unexplored concept. It’s typically not an aspect of the business associated with measurement, tracking and remediation.
Through consistent measurement and focus, alignment becomes a powerful tool that senior leaders can continually sharpen for the benefit of all stakeholders. I love to hear “I didn’t know that” or “That surprises me” when working with senior executives on alignment. That confirms the value of establishing discipline in this commonly overlooked but highly impactful area.
How does alignment manifest itself?
In my experience, alignment manifests in five ways:
Communication: Clear and open communication exists
Acceptance: Acceptance of the defined path forward
Readiness: Individuals and teams know what to do, when and why
Viability: Belief, or at least trust, that the approach and results are feasible
Order: Individuals, teams and the organization are structurally set up for success
Equally as important are the five key identifiers of misalignment:
Inefficiency: Work efforts take longer, cost more and are less productive
Confusion: Individuals or teams don’t know what to do, when or why
Discord: There is conflict and dispute rampant throughout the organization
Waste: Mistakes are common, surprising and not easily remedied
Risk: Risks are not mitigated, not recognized or not acknowledged
What is the value of alignment to Senior Leaders?
Simply put, alignment makes life easier for CEO’s and their lead teams because of the increased efficiency it brings. With alignment comes:
Optimized teamwork: Everyone working toward the same goal
Improved communication: Everyone knows what, why, when and how
Better change navigation: Ability to recognize, adapt and progress efficiently
Informed decisions: Maximizing transparency and information relevance
What is the value of alignment to Investors and Board stakeholders?
Bottom line…Alignment accelerates investor ROI. While deriving value from the same benefits as senior leaders (see above), results for these stakeholders are particularly tied to the following:
Enhanced C-suite focus and clarity on strategy and delivery
Facilitation of the fastest path to success
Elevated awareness of the need for targeted (re)allocation of human and financial resources
Alignment is a prerequisite for navigating change. It happens when senior leaders are rowing in sync AND in the same direction. When alignment is achieved there’s a sense of effortless accomplishment in an organization.
C-suite roles are lonely when it comes to accountability and responsibility. The isolation in these roles can be as potent as the advantages. I haven’t yet met a C-level executive that can read minds. Having an alignment tool in the toolbox alleviates uncertainty, promotes open dialog and accelerates growth. As with anything in business, it’s important to measure it if you want to manage it…and alignment is measurable.
Brett Simpson, Managing Director of Elevate Simply, helps CEO’s measure and build alignment in the C-suite using a proprietary tool, Alignwell, developed based on his 20+ years of experience in large and small organizations, and as an entrepreneur, advisor and angel / venture investor.