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Why it is important to align top level management in companies

Santhosh Babu     July 21, 2014

Santhosh Babu
"The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church... when you pay your taxes." This is what Morpheus says to Neo in the movie Matrix.

While some kind of a matrix structure is present in many organisations, managing the structure, making use of it effectively and performing can be a challenge for many senior leadership teams. Top team alignment is a concern even in non-matrix organisations but matrix organisations make it even more complex. Would you say some of the following things hold true about your executive team?

>> All team members are not 100 per cent on board when it comes to our aspirations, or pulling in the same direction.
>> They do not demonstrate a unified team face to the rest of the organisation.
>> They do not talk the same language.
>> The conflicts in their style ad strategy is known to many other people in the organization.

We all know that a leader's job is to create a vision or aspiration, set the strategy and role model to the rest of the organisation. Yet we have seen senior leaders agree on one thing but do another, behave only as functional heads and put departmental loyalties before corporate priorities and allow personality and ego clashes derail organisational priorities.

Is it possible to evolve top teams to a highly cohesive, trusting and aligned leadership team that walk the talk?  Building effective teams at the executive level is critical to achieving organisational goals and creating a strong organisational culture. Creating alignment and open collaboration in the executive ranks is also critical to advancing the vision and mission of the organisation.

Some of the dysfunctional traits in the top team can be the results of CEOs engaging with his leaders in a non-transparent way without building shared leadership. CEOs understand the value of each function and their priorities. Precedence of one function could be to manage risk. Another function could be to increase sales, which could lead to a creative tension between them. This tension is required to be productive. If the leader is not able to make each functional head to understand this, and collaboratively creates their strategies, there could be conflicting priorities among the team members. Some level of conflict and challenging is useful in top management teams and any work groups. When a top team moves into a groupthink prowess and stop challenging each other, their performance gets adversely affected.

The problem underlying the groupthink phenomenon is a narrow-mindedness that precludes the decision-making group from considering diverse alternatives. Groupthink emerges in groups that, whether intentionally or not, suppress minority opinions. K. Ramkumar, Executive Director on the board of ICICI Bank, mentioned to me that the CEO has a role to play in aligning his team. He would need to allow more collaboration and positive conflict among his top team and help them effectively resolve them and take decisions.

Team members of the top team often get caught up in their functional priorities and their pledge to add value to their function. This often blinds them to the overall purpose of their team. Once a logical and business conflict arises with another team member, it often turns personal where both team members lose focus on the bigger purpose and treats the conflict as personal.

Barry Oshry, who teaches how to look at organisations from a systemic point of view, says that "when problems hit, not always, not every time, but with great regularity, we suck responsibility up to ourselves and away from others. The more critical the issue, the more likely we are to suck it up. It's not like a choice we make; more like a reflex. It's crystal clear that we are responsible for resolving the problem." Ramkumar says that non-alignment in top team occurs most when the organisation is going through a difficult phase. Success is a great glue and when things are not working for an organisation there would be more blame games and 'dysfunctionalities' in a top team though an effective team can use challenges as a glue to unite the team.

In order to get aligned, an executive team needs to learn to have an open, honest discussion about the company's future and alternative courses of action. Without straight talk and good listening skills, potent debate is not possible. Team members must learn to effectively push against and pull from each other in order to both have mutual understanding of where things currently are, as well as make effective decisions and fully commit to a course of action. Without the development of a guiding vision and unifying strategic objectives, team members will most certainly be rowing in different directions.

How would an aligned top team look like?

>> They have a shared understanding of what alignment means.
>> They know how the decision-making process works and have the skills to make faster decisions weather it s a matrix organisation or not.
>> They openly debate, bring up conflicts to the surface and share their thoughts.
>> Being committed to each other's success. They demonstrate shared leadership keeping the organisational purpose in mind.

If you are a CEO, a top team member or an HR head, what can you do to develop your top team as an aligned and effective team?

1. Align everyone around a clear purpose.
2. Clarify the decision-making process and conflict resolution methodologies.
3. Create norms around how the members would interact with each other.
4. Build shared leadership and shared ownership.
5. Help team members in collective meaning making and understanding of the whole picture.
6. Build powerful relationships among team members and leverage each other's strengths for achieving the goals.
7. If your CEO is not able to manage or sustain the alignment, talk to him, support him and coach him.
8. Make sure team members can resolve conflict without escalating to the CEO.
9. Constantly meet, use feedback, reflect and evaluate how the top team is being perceived by other parts of the organisation. 


(Santhosh Babu, a celebrity coach and speaker on leadership, facilitates organisational transformation. Buddha in the Boardroom is his weekly online column for Business Today. Bookmark businesstoday.in/buddhaintheboardroom and follow @BT_India and @hypnobaba to be alerted of Babu's columns.)


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