Improve your leaders to improve your organization

Published by Peter on

Yesterday I had breakfast with an old friend who described to me how his company was about to destroy their competition because they’d dramatically improved their product.

They hadn’t redesigned the product.

Instead, they had worked hard to make each component within the product more efficient and more effective.

You probably don’t need to redesign your organization

Leaders—especially CEOs—tend to be highly competent people. They also expect those around them to be highly competent.

So, when things aren’t going well or there’s conflict or discord in the leadership team, they typically conclude that they either have the wrong people, or they need to reorganize.

Much of the time, what they really need is to improve the leaders they already have.

Improve each component, and the overall product will improve.

Each component needs to be the best it can be.

Two mistakes CEOs make

Even when a CEO believes in their top leaders, they often fall prey to two critical mistakes:

First, they believe everything can be fixed by a retreat, a consultant, or a training.

If the leadership team suffers from conflict, miscommunication, infighting, or inefficiency, a lot of CEOs hire a consultant to run a retreat. The consultant might assess communication styles or strengths, do a role-play exercise, or force courageous conversations and airing of grievances.

Turning to a consultant is not a bad idea. In fact, having a professional, independent facilitator is the only way to get an unbiased and objective look at your team and organization. Progress will be much harder if a member of the team facilitates.

The bigger problem, though, is that the insight gained in these sessions has a half-life.

Although these retreats may improve things for a while, their effect fades over time. People fall back into long-established habits and patterns. We are only human.

You need each individual to continue the work that begins in the group session.

Otherwise, it’s like holding a product redesign meeting and then never executing on the new design.

The other thing a group session does is dilute accountability.

It feels great to leave the room thinking “we’re all in this together” and “improvement is everyone’s responsibility,” but in practice that can manifest as “that other person isn’t doing their part to meet me halfway, so why should I do all the work?”

Improperly managed, the long term result of such a retreat can be deeper entrenchment of divisions and increased resentment. Not at all what you’re hoping for.

Second, the CEO fails to understand their own role in creating and perpetuating the dysfunction.

In business, we equate being at the top with being the smartest and best. If you’re CEO, you must by definition be better than everyone else. Otherwise, how could you have become CEO?

Instead of “I am in charge, so if the team is not performing then it’s my fault,” they take the attitude that “I am in charge, so if the team is not performing then something is wrong with the team.”

I see this bad logic at all levels of management. Someone gets promoted to a leadership role, and their behavior changes.

It’s like being in charge makes people lose sight of their own need for self-awareness and self-development. Then, they fall into patterns and behaviors that hold them back.

As leader, it’s your job to put the pieces together.

Looking back over my 30+ years building and leading high-performing and highly engaged teams, I can see moments where fell into that trap. Those moments were rare, but they happened.

(To my teams in the past, I apologize for those moments and wish I’d done better.)

This is why CEOs need to hire external one-on-one coaches not just for their leadership team members, but also for themselves.

Perhaps especially for themselves.

As a leader, you want your team to become expert at working with you, not working around you.

An example

One of my small corporate clients hired me to coach a few of their leadership team one-on-one.

I didn’t do any group facilitation. No retreats. The CEO hired me for the individual development of their leaders.

Through a few different assessments (e.g. strengths, 360, values, etc.) and many in-depth one-on-one discussions over several months, I helped each member of this team become a better version of themselves.

Each became more aware of how they showed up every day, the assumptions they were making about their coworkers, and the disconnects that were entirely preventable and fixable with small tweaks in their own behavior and attitude.

Because each of these leaders felt personally committed to becoming better, they were holding themselves accountable to their own standards. Mistakes were still made, but they were more easily overcome. In addition, the mistakes led to greater learning rather than deeper resentment.

Overall, even though I never held a single group session with the team, the team began performing better and continues to improve.

You don’t need to redesign the product if you can get each component to function at its peak.

I can help you, too

You’ve invested a lot in your leadership team. You did what was necessary to bring them on board. You are giving them the tools and resources they need to get the work done.

Don’t stop there. What you’ve done is necessary, but it’s no longer sufficient.

Give me a call and we can talk about your team, what’s going well, and what’s troubling you.


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