Alignment Is The Cornerstone Of Great Leadership Teams

alignmentWhat is leadership team alignment?

In very simple terms a leadership team is aligned when all members of the team work in sync to accomplish a common purpose. More specifically, an aligned leadership team debates well, proactively supports each other, is laser focused on what is most important, and is committed to learning and improving. Perhaps most importantly, an aligned leadership team has confidence in its ability to get back in sync after inevitable periods of dysfunction.

Leadership team alignment is critical to the health of an organization. According to a recent AON Hewitt Global Best Employer Research Report ‘Engagement is derived from the way a senior leader connects with other senior leaders in the organization and how effective and accountable (not necessarily how nice) they are as a unit.” In other words, the rest of the organization is watching how the leadership team challenges each other, holds each other accountable and leads with a common purpose.

Impacts of an Out-of-Sync Leadership Team

After a short time working with the leadership team of a government contractor, it became obvious that the team had an alignment problem. During a strategic offsite the new CEO asked his team to list all of their internal and external initiatives. He then reminded the team of the organization’s top 5 business goals and asked them how many of the initiatives related to the goals. Fewer than 50% of the initiatives had any real relationship to the business goals. How did this happen? After much digging the team came to the conclusion that individuals interpreted the firm’s vision very differently. The team also seemed unable to productively challenge each other on the most important issues facing the organization.  The result was an obvious misuse of resources, fractured relationships among team members, and cross-unit infighting.

Why is it difficult for leadership teams to stay in alignment?

The opposite of leadership team alignment is chaos and dysfunction. Time and resources are wasted on issues that fail to productively drive performance, team members and their units work unintentionally and sometimes intentionally at cross-purposes, and the discretionary effort of managers and staff declines significantly. This dysfunction doesn’t happen over night. Rather it is like an insidious disease that chips away at the fiber of an organization.

No leadership team is perfectly aligned all of the time and a number of dynamics contribute to teams getting out of sync. Individual team members have diverse styles, come from varying backgrounds and experiences, and are motivated differently. For example, executives who are motivated by a passion to act quickly and decisively to get results are often at odds with executives who are motivated by having sufficient data and facts before making decisions. Quite naturally team members interpret situations, make assumptions, and come to conclusions based on these factors, which can sometimes be at odds with their colleagues. Additionally, the fast pace of leading an organization often disrupts communications and interactions among team members. Finally, some leadership teams lack the necessary discipline and structure (i.e., meeting management, communications, etc.) to stay in alignment.

Levels of Leadership Team Alignment

As illustrated above, maintaining leadership team alignment is not easy and is further complicated because alignment is needed at multiple levels. Strategic alignment focuses on what is necessary for driving the understanding and agreeing to the actions and goals necessary for driving the organization to achieve an agreed purpose and vision. Cultural alignment is critical to leadership team success, as it requires team members to commit to behaving and making decisions in a manner that reinforces the organization’s values and principles. As organizations grow maintaining a conscious focus on culture is very important. For example, one of our consulting clients founded the firm on work life balance reflected in its limited ‘nights away from home’ policy.

However, as the firm began to grow it was challenged with making tough business development decisions restricted to selected regions. Perhaps most importantly, leadership teams must work in concert operationally to ensure that the actions and decisions one unit of the organization takes support those of other units and vice versa. This often comes to life with some of our professional services clients where those who deliver service are sometimes frustrated by the scope of services that is sold.

In our work with leadership teams we often encounter teams that believe that they are working in harmony but when they have time to reflect on a few simple questions they discover that there are important disconnects that need to be addressed. The sidebar to the right highlights some of the key alignment areas that should be assessed.

Suggested Approaches for Leadership Team Alignment

There are several approaches for assessing leadership team alignment and for taking action to help teams get back in sync. These range from the CEO/leader managing and facilitating the effort to bringing in a consultant to support the effort. Regardless of the approach there are a few important actions that should be taken – assess; engage; commit.

Assess

Assessing leadership team alignment should start with the team reflecting on how well it is performing to move the organization to the next level of performance. Interviews with each team member or an electronic survey are mechanisms that can be used to help individuals reflect on the team’s level of strategic, cultural, and operational alignment.  Questions might include:

  • “What do you believe are the organization’s top priorities?
  • How well does the team challenge each other?
  • How well do business units work together?”

After compiling the information gathered in the interviews or survey, the team should meet to seek to understand the perspectives of their teammates and to collectively assess the level of alignment/misalignment. Realignment can only begin when the team takes what for many is the first real look they have ever had at themselves as individuals and team players.

Engage

With this newfound outlook on the team’s alignment, the CEO/leader should engage the leadership team in a dialogue about the connection between alignment and learning/performance and the power of tapping into the teams full potential. Once the team begins to envision is potential, the hard work of diagnosing the root issues behind its current level of misalignment begins. Sometimes the diagnosis points to relatively simple structural issues such as the need for greater clarity on goals and accountabilities or more discipline in how the team manages meetings and communicates. Most often, however, the issues relate to the effectiveness of the relationships among team members. Do they trust each other? Are they able to challenge each other productively? Do they proactively support and hold each other accountable?

Commit

Committing is the most important step in the realignment effort and is often the hardest.  Once the leadership team understands the root issues behind its challenges it then must make the necessary structural and behavioral commitments for tapping into the team’s full potential. Making commitments is hard work and requires diligence and ongoing constructive support and feedback from teammates.  It also requires team members to suspend judgment and allow their teammates to make mistakes as they practice new behaviors.  Finally, the leadership team needs to commit to including periodic ‘alignment checks’ in their natural management rhythm.

Leadership Team Alignment is a Differentiator

Leadership Team Alignment is not some conceptual exercise or feel good encounter.  Rather, it is a serious and thoughtful outcome of the reflection and hard work that team members put into fulfilling their potential as a team.  Great teams are in sync on the most important issues, are able to debate and challenge each other productively, and model behavior that engages managers and staff drive performance.  We believe that great leadership teams can be a key differentiator as organizations work to achieve competitive advantage.

A Realignment Success Story

In the fall of 2014 the leadership team of a consulting firm seemed to focus all of its attention on internal issues such as leverage, staff training, decision rights, etc.  Close to the end of the year when reviewing the 2015 pipeline the team realized that growth would remain stagnant at best.

During this same time frame the team began an effort to strengthen their effectiveness as a leadership team.  Through a few heated but constructive work sessions they agreed that they needed to stop churning and avoiding difficult discussions about market development, begin to address important issues as a team rather than relying on the CEO, and improve fractured relationships with teammates.

The work has not been easy but the outcomes have been tangible.  Earlier this year the team agreed that their primary focus needed to be on market facing issues.  Their leadership team meetings have improved dramatically.  They debate with less defensiveness, resolve important issues and move to the next, and coordinate business development initiatives more effectively. 

While the team often feels like they take steps back after some progress, they realize the importance of working to stay aligned so they can lead this very promising firm to its full potential.

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Jack McGuinness
Jack McGuinness is co-founder and managing partner of Relationship Impact, a consulting firm focused on helping great leaders build great leadership teams. After serving as an airborne ranger with the U.S. Army’s prestigious 10 th Mountain Division, he helped build a successful boutique management- consulting firm where he served as COO for 13 years. Jack also served as CEO of a contract packaging company, where he developed a passion for unleashing the leadership capacity of teams throughout an organization. In 2009 Jack joined forces with a West Point classmate to form Relationship Impact. He serves as a Senior Professional Instructor at the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business where he teaches courses on strategic management and human capital. Jack holds an MBA from the Hagan School of Business at Iona College and a BS in Engineering Management from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

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