How many times have we heard the expression that the “hero leader is dead”? Yet how often do we set heroes up in the media and in our organisations through our ways of viewing, judging, assessing and rewarding?
In responding to the VUCA world and the possibilities and uncertainties of digital disruption to existing business models, leaders and commentators talk about orchestrating across an ecosystem. Even within businesses, the focus is increasingly on connecting and energising a network of people aligned to an overall purpose, rather than command and control.
What is needed from leadership is the ability to connect and energise people with purpose, inside their business, in their stakeholder community and across their ecosystem.
I recently worked with a senior team who were not delivering. The business was the result of a merger in Europe between 2 entities in the Information Solutions space. Through the acquisition, the business had a new client group in addition to its traditional focus.
Performance was disappointing in terms of growth and profitability and there was internal faction fighting, mutual blame and a confused presence in the market. The leadership team had a mix of experienced and capable people; some had been with the parent company for a long time, others from the acquired company and some new joiners. Most were locked into past ways of working and existing relationships, into their overseas HQ, across tribes in the workforce and out to clients.
There was a lack of trust and coherence, with each focused on delivering their own operational objectives. The only point of connection was the CEO who was working excessive hours to firefight current business issues, maintain confidence with the HQ and engage people in a longer term vision.
For future success, team members needed to let go of the past, and of their operational focus, generate and embrace a vision for a different future together. This meant they needed to be open and honest with each other about how they saw themselves and the business; understand how they were each part of the problem and could be part of the solution. To share their fears and vulnerabilities about change and the support they needed.
Without changing the team dynamic, the business would not achieve its strategic potential. To help change that dynamic they needed to hear the views and future needs of their different stakeholder communities; inside and outside the business (the wider system).
Confronting this was the start point for a challenging journey that we went on together. We helped them to hear what others needed from them and develop the collective KPIs to grow the business. Joint ownership of these required some intense dialogue between them; to recognise and change their own patterns of behaviour – so that the team provided the leadership needed rather than leaving it all to the CEO.
In a modern, large, complex business, it is simply not possible for a senior leader to hold the reins on the continual flow of change, especially at its margins. Dynamic organisations both shape and are shaped by their environment. Systemic change cannot be purposefully led, owned or determined at the “top” by a single leader. Senior leaders may be at the “top” of traditional organisation charts but this does not mean they control things. Indeed very many businesses have stopped using organisation charts because they do not helpfully reflect agile ways of working.
Executives do have some very specific accountabilities for the enterprise as a whole but in making things happen, they are nodes in a network that extends through and beyond the business. They are influencers within a open system rather than people who can make things happen in a closed system. To maximise their influence a significant part of their role is to shape and articulate purpose, context and the culture that enables others to deliver results, including the changes needed.
Dynamic organizations both influence – and are influenced by the environment
In our work in change and leadership with many businesses, we have found that it is leadership teams that energise and orchestrate change, rather than individual leaders. In the diagram above we deliberately focus on leadership rather than leaders.
A leadership team offers greater connections across the ecosystem so is more likely to notice “weak signals” and discern patterns. A team is needed for a diversity of perspectives, which is essential to sense-making, effective decision-making and generating action. This diversity is not just about such things as ethnicity and gender but different thinking styles and ways of working. The greater the diversity the harder it is to orchestrate a team but the more likely it is to be effective in leading change.
The role of the CEO or senior leader is increasingly focused on their leadership team, as the main way of generating and sustaining change. If the team is not working well, change is unlikely to happen.
Working together as a leadership team is essential for engaging people in the business and its ecosystem in the change agenda. For this, they must own collectively the vision and KPIs, sharing them consistently. They must also “live the culture” needed to breathe life into their vision.
Leadership does not stop at the leadership team but is essential right through a business. Great leadership teams engage with leaders across their business ecosystem, listening and learning as well as sharing. It is in this continual dialogue that strategy emerges, is communicated and refined. The quality of the dialogue influences the responsiveness of the business and the vibrancy of its culture.
In the last blog ahead of the conference, we will look at the role of Team Coaching to support the development of leadership teams in their role as change leaders.
Latest posts by Christopher Smith (see all)
- Systemic Team Coaching – Developing the Leadership Team for Business Transformation - October 10, 2018
- Leadership Teams are the Energisers for Systemic Change - September 12, 2018
- Thriving in a VUCA world - August 3, 2018