Execs and Leaders: 3 Reasons Why the Ship Doesn’t Move When You Turn the Wheel

— March 1, 2019

You’ve got the title, the corner office and the perks. But most of all, you’ve got a realistic picture of the job: to be an executive or senior leader is to be the person with whom the buck stops. Small, isolated problems arise and are solved all over the place, but when things go systemically wrong with customers, suppliers, employees or shareholders, you’re on the hook. You take that responsibility seriously and do your best to run an organization that acts intelligently and proactively in the best interest of those stakeholders — to steer your ship to the deepest, clearest waters.

Everyone agrees with this. Yet when you attempt to move the steering wheel, even a little, you face overwhelming resistance. Want to explore a new offering? Your team cries “great idea,” then lines up presentations on why they can’t possibly. Thinking of improving customer service? Nervous employees are up in arms over what the changes entail. Trying to reprioritize resources among programs? Competitive department heads duck and cover, rendering it impossible to determine actual spending.

You’re left evaluating your steering wheel inputs in terms of pain rather than utility. Small ones aren’t worth the hassle. And for big ones — where you really have to grab the wheel and make a hard left turn — you’ve got a change management campaign on your hands. A spate of experts materializes from thin air to confirm what you already suspect: that steering wheel you’re clutching is mostly decorative. If you want your ship to turn, get busy visiting every part of it personally and talking people into doing their part. It’ll be time-consuming. It’ll be exhausting. And you’ll need colorful posters.

There’s nothing wrong with change management, of course; it’s essential for giant shifts with broad, deep impact. But for everything else, before you dive full-on into engaging the hearts, minds and emotions of every employee, solving three problems will make your metaphorical steering wheel less decorative and more functional.

1. Silos isolate; teams coordinate. Are your people working toward your goals, or their own? Answer carefully. You’ve taken care, of course, to set clear expectations with your direct reports. But as soon as you set up Subordinate A to chase Goal Set A, and Subordinate B to chase Goal Set B, you’ve put yourself between competitors. When the inevitable resource shortage or tradeoff arises, A argues for A, B argues for B, and you’re the judge. Multiply this over six people and your whole job becomes refereeing turf skirmishes, while theirs is selling you on their importance over the others. Any change you want to make is immediately evaluated through each individual lens: “How does this impact my interests?”

Separate interests are an illusion. The team has but one set of interests: yours. Goal Sets A through E have value only to the extent that each is a slice of the pie you’re trying to produce — let’s call it Pie-ABCDE. Give your employees their goal sets, sure, but then put them to work on yours. Tell them, “We succeed or fail as a group” (and mean it). Tell Subordinate A that Goal Set A is her team’s job, not hers. Hers is to run that team and share its output with her peers in pursuit of Pie-ABCDE. Hold everyone accountable to your own output plan, and instead of refereeing warring factions you’ll find yourself facilitating a meeting of intelligent people working together on what you need done.

2. Let teams manage their own priorities. A close cousin to the fallacy of separate interests is the fallacy of linear goal alignment. It’s a compelling fairy tale, to be sure: If Direct Report A has Goal Set A, then her five team members have goals A-1 through A-5, and each of their team members have subordinate goals accordingly. Somewhere at the bottom of the organizational chart, goes the story, you’ll find someone working on A-5-b-iv-delta, a goal which tracks perfectly up the management chain to you. In this worldview, any adjustment you want to make must be cascaded down through this goal network and reconciled with what’s already in it. All you can do from the top is push harder on one set of goals or another.

Many goals have linear linkage, of course — but many don’t. Your people do a whole bunch of stuff for peers, managers and others that you don’t need to know about at your level. The only entity that must understand this is the person’s local team. Focus on your team at the top. If you need something done that will require help from functions C, D, and E, you’re allowed! Put the new thing on your plan. Make the priority clear, and assign primary responsibility to whoever’s best qualified — maybe Subordinate A. She’ll head it up, and since the whole team is responsible for your plan, Subordinates C through E will quickly share their resources, because they don’t want to fail. Let those subordinate teams figure out those adjustments in the same way your team figures out yours. With every team working toward its leader’s goals, everyone is looking up so you don’t have to look down.

3. Turning takes practice. Not making a small adjustment may seem convenient in the moment, but the cumulative effect of a number of ignored of small course corrections is the need for a giant one. Those hard left turns are tough on everyone anyway — that’s why change management exists — and it’s that much worse with groups in which even a small adjustment is a major disruption. If nothing ever changes, change is a big deal, and if change is a big deal, nothing ever changes until the need is overwhelming. It’s a vicious cycle you simply must break.

If your metaphorical steering wheel works, even a little, get in the habit of using it. As it starts to work better, use it more. Don’t buy into the popular mythology of reserving your silver bullets when it comes to steering your ship. Also, don’t allow your senior staff to convince you that how they run their departments is their own business and not yours. Run your team as outlined here, and make sure each person on it runs his or her team this way too, on down the organization. Then, make regular small tugs at your metaphorical wheel, and actively address any problems you discover with the organization’s response. You’ll reduce the number of difficult “hard left” turns you have to make, you’ll make them more effectively when they do arise, and you’ll be steering your ship calmly while printing only a minimum of colorful posters.

Previously Published in The CEO Magazine

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Author: Ed Muzio

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