The pandemic has changed many things, but not all of them. Some of the challenges related to leading organizations remained identical to the ones before the pandemic. Like the fact that “it is lonely at the top”. There are many reasons, here I will only expand upon one: the CEO’s team. The CEO’s position is a special one also because the CEO is the only person for whom the team he leads is his only team. All the members of the leadership team have another or some other teams they lead or are a part of. This creates an asymmetry which more often than not generates tensions and frustration, resulting in a group dynamics which ultimately affect the performance of the organization.
One of the most difficult tasks for a CEO is to find or to grow people in his leadership team able to step from a function, department or division leader into an organizational leader role. That means the leadership team would have to be not a group of function leaders, but a team of organizational leaders.
At one of the clients I work with, the CEO recently decided, in order to create space for more autonomy of the leadership team, that the team’s weekly meetings should no longer be led by him, but, taking turns, by each of the members of the leadership team. What happened is that, in each meeting, over 70% of the meeting time was dedicated to topics important for the function led by the one organizing that meeting.
The CEO’s intention was to increase the team’s autonomy, but the result was the increase of each of its members autonomy, separately. The initiative was a good one, but the result was not the desired one. The leaders’ autonomy is desirable, but the team’s autonomy to lead the organization’s destiny doesn’t spontaneously spring from it. Achieving the team’s autonomy needs a transparent, coherent and consistent process.
There’s yet another element which plays a significant role in this dynamics. In Western, individualistic cultures, people are much more inclined to take responsibility related to the organization, as a symbolic relevant entity. In Eastern, collectivist cultures, attaching responsibility to generic entities is much more difficult, almost inexistent. Our cultural reflex is to attach our responsibility to the closest relevant group, which is usually small.
From this perspective, each division director usually attaches his/her self esteem and primary responsibility to the success of the team from the division he/she leads. The leadership team is seen rather as a market place where ideas, projects, resources are being negotiated and allocated, but these are qualified as good or bad primarily based on how they serve or help the group each leads. That is the best case scenario. I have witnessed less fortunate situations, when, during board meetings, the members of the leadership team acted like some sort of union leaders, defending the interests of their direct reports at any organizational costs and taking great pride in returning to their people after having obtained as many things as possible for them, even if some of these were in the massive detriment of other colleagues.
A CEO has a lot of things to do, but this is a cornerstone. To inspire and educate the people in the team to change out of the team leader clothes and into the organizational leader ones.
That is to understand the interests, constraints and intricacies of the entire organization, to take decisions within the leadership team while bearing them in mind, and then go back to their teams with the share of contribution they chose to undertake, sustained by the pertinent motivations and explanations.
From my experience in working with clients in CEO roles and with their leadership teams, some members can take this step, others can not. The challenge is that any CEO wants to have a powerful team around him, but not any CEO is willing to give up on people who can not be team players at the organizational level, because they are very useful as function directors. The distinction and the clarity of choice between a team in the true sense of the word at the top of an organization, and a group of performing functional experts at the top of an organization decisively differentiates high performance organizations from the rest of the organizations.
This is also because, predictably, a correct team model at the top has chances to disseminate correct team models around it. The paradigm is fully replicable also in the situation of a division leader who leads a team made up of departmental directors of that division. The ability to create performance teams is indispensable regardless of the field or level of impact, and is not at all a natural consequence of the individual performance of the members.