When Leadership Alignment Becomes a Commitment


Kristin von Donop, Associate Principal
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There is a consistent theme in our work with the senior leadership teams from financial services, media, entertainment, philanthropy, and information technology companies: they need stronger alignment between business units.  The reasons vary, either for more speed, more innovation, or to collaborate to create market differentiation.  These leaders ask us:

  • How can we increase velocity in the alignment between divisions, regions, and functions?
  • How can we instill new ways of operating that are scalable?
  • How can we ensure we will adapt in the future?

My next few posts will address four topics that are key to addressing the questions above: focusing on the ideal state, getting the elephants on the table, sharing responsibility, and influencing across the matrix.  This post will focus on the defining the ideal state.

Many of the senior teams we work with want their managers to be nimble, work together, and move resources quickly to capture opportunities.  Unfortunately, many great ideas end up dying because of bottlenecks.  These blockages are prevalent, especially when leaders can’t figure out how to get horizontal and vertical engagement.

Earlier this year, we worked with a technology company that grew from multiple mergers.  I asked several people in this organization, “Whom do you work for?” Out of the x number of people I asked, y responded with the name of their legacy company, not the new combined organization.  These responses gave me a key insight: the company has an overarching strategy, but no real alignment.  There was no shared aspiration.

The senior team knew they needed to revitalize the organization and that people were their main source of competitive advantage, but  they struggled with how to get everyone on the same page and aligned to customer demand.  The path forward was unclear.  The only certainty was that the status quo was insufficient.

Getting it Right

A few years ago, the CEO of a successful global IT company convened the top 100 leaders in Florida for their annual strategic meeting.  This was shortly after our friend Mike was selected to run a segment that had high growth potential.  When it was his time to address the group, he started by sharing that he called his mom as soon after he was appointed to his new job. Her immediate response was “Are you nuts? Nobody in that role has been successful!”

He described telling her it would be different this time around because of the people who will be involved.  Then, turning to the audience, he called out Mark, who was in the audience, and said “with Mark’s commitment, we can win in this space” and then he pointed to Maureen, adding “Maureen has the horsepower in her team to get this right”, and on he went until he named ten different executives in the room.  These were the people whose alignment was essential.  They were the leaders of the key products, the regional leaders, and in corporate functions.

Mike then described the impact they could accomplish if they worked together.  He didn’t talk about the revenue, margin or other key metrics.  Instead he described success from the perspective of the customer’s customer.

First, Focus on “Why?”

Mike’s predecessors had small wins but were not able to instill a new set of repeatable practices.  If the quarterly results for any one unit were not up to par, they’d cut the investments for that segment. They’d debateendlessly..  In some cases, they’d escalateissues to the SVPs.

Mark took a different approach and unleashed the power of the ideal state.  His market segment was different than the company’s traditional customer base.  To capture this market, he needed to instill different approaches: more marketing investment, greater reliance on business partners, aand new product development processes to build a portfolio at a different price point.

That meeting in Florida was just the beginning.  Over the next year, Mike made sure conversations about the possibility were an integral part of the alignment work. He rallied his peers to sustain the investments in spite of their skepticism about achieving success in three or four quarters.

Second, Own the “Why?”

Mike’s next step was to create an extended leadership team that had the skills needed from across the organization.  Some of the people he invited were ones named at the meeting in Florida; others were the technical experts in their business units.

Being on the team didn’t create the alignment.  He led a series of focused conversations that addressed the question:

What is the unique value of this leadership team?

The discussions about this question galvanized these busy executives by focusing specifically on the team’s contribution.  It oriented them to what matters most for the customers and for long-term success. The purpose of this newly– formed senior team was compelling and consequential. They also explored the implications of the ideal state for each individual. 

Real change requires grounding people in a shared aspiration. It provides clarity and activates our achievement drive for success.  Relying on threats or danger when you need to catalyze sustained change across many groups isn’t going to cut it.

Leaders need to focus people’s attention on the most important issues without resorting to fear. Unleash the power of the ideal state to create alignment.  Describe what is important to you.  Then inquire what is important to others.  Find the intersections to develop a shared ideal.

As you activate people to do something differently, keep possibility and optimism in the front of your mind. Address what is important and describe why.  Be curious about why it is important to them. During the hard work of change, keep the aspiration alive by reminding yourself and others about the consequential nature of the work.

In the next blog, we will explore ways to strengthen and sustain alignment with a focus on putting the “elephants on the table” – surfacing the tough issues that get in the way of progress.

Congratulations to Professor Tushman

This weekend, our co-founder Professor Michael Tushman won the Distinguished Award for Scholarly Contributions to Management.  We couldn’t be more thrilled for Mike.  Now, he and co-founder Professor Charles O’Reilly have both received lifetime achievement awards from the AOM, reinforcing their positions as thought-leaders in the business world.

Mike Academy of Management Award

AOM Lifetime Achievement Award Winners (l. to r.: Michael Tushman, Philip Mervis, R. Edward Freeman, and James P. Walsh)