Nowadays, as CEO tenure gets shorter and shorter, most leaders can’t ever afford to start thinking in terms of words like okay, good, or hunky-dory, let alone great. The pace of technological change and the real threat of disruption fuel a relentless pursuit of growth, a need to demonstrate momentum to the board, to shareholders, and to the organization. But even seasoned CEOs with talented senior leadership teams get stuck from time to time, as the reliable ways of operating fail to deliver the returns they once did. So how do you recognize that your senior leadership team (SLT) is running in circles and what can you do about it?
Mind the Gap
The most common place great organizations get stuck is where the path to growth leads further out from the core than ever before. Commonly, that path is some sort of “digital transformation” that nobody seems to have a roadmap for. This is a tricky place to get stuck because there is often an appearance of alignment within the SLT that covers up a lack of knowledge of the practical steps necessary to start transforming the business. If you’ve had digital initiatives on your agenda for a while, maybe commissioned research on areas ripe for change from a consultancy, or even created a senior digital or innovation-focused role without seeing much “transformation,” consider that you may have some significant knowledge gaps to close.
Recognizing that your leadership team is stuck is a positive step toward breaking up the illusion of alignment. While the group may all agree that a digital transformation (or other initiative) is necessary, it may be concealing the fact that none of your SLT agrees on where you are or where you should be. Ask the individuals for their perspective on the current state of the company. What do they each think is a realistic outcome from this proposed initiative? Misalignment here really just points to the lack of experience throughout the team with the particular strategic task at hand.
A third key signifier that your senior leaders are stuck is meetings full of buzzword salad. This means lots of conversations about big data, AI and cloud that never seem to have concrete follow up. Lots of big ideas, with no leadership to direct the implementation. In fact, you may notice team members advocating for plans that curiously assign responsibility to any domain other than their own. While the lack of results may be disappointing, all of this is a good sign that your leadership team is reading, thinking, and making effort to learn how to move forward but may lack confidence in how to follow through on their proposals.
Wisdom is an old-fashioned word that conjures up some mystical imagery, but wisdom is simply “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” To say that your SLT is stuck because they lack wisdom is not an indictment. All it means is that for this particular situation they lack the knowledge, experience and confidence to start executing change. You can lead your team to wisdom by helping them define their knowledge gaps, then accessing outsiders with relevant experience to help pressure-test your SLT’s proposals so that they can take steps forward in confidence.
The key piece that separates the advice below from any other ideation session is your willingness to reach out to other business leaders who have already tackled similar challenges. It sounds radically simple, but there is power in thoughtfully seeking out external perspectives. Not only do you get the value of fresh, knowledgeable eyes on your challenges but you demonstrate trust that your current team members have the ability to grow with a little bit of practical help.
• Develop a unified vision of where the business as a whole should be in 3-5 years THEN ask how your initiative (digital transformation for example) can enable that vision.
• What specific lack of knowledge or experience is holding your team back? If Digital Transformation is the central goal, create a common language about what that means. Break it down into major topic areas (data, operations, customer journey, cybersecurity) and identify subtopics that need further exploration.
• Use your networks: Find commonalities between the types of things your team needs to get done and initiatives at other companies.
• While you obviously can’t speak to competitors, businesses with similar models or facing similar challenges in other industries have leaders whose practical experience will translate well.
• Seek out people at those companies with similar roles or responsibilities as your team members and ask to connect.
• Encourage your SLT to have their proposals challenged through conversation with other operators.
• After some connections with external, wise people, have the SLT look for quick wins or pilot projects that can generate more buy in throughout the organization.
The key is knowing that not only can other leaders help you, most people want to help. You’ll be surprised at how willing people can be when thoughtfully engaged about their own work. It’s a stark contrast to the shallow networking many of us have become accustomed to and can often lead to the development of a real relationship and ongoing access to the resource of their evolving wisdom.