How can we expect children to sit on time at the dining table and not to constantly daddle on their mobile phones when parents are not role modeling the same? What doesn’t work at home doesn’t work in business either. If the top team lives a laissez-faire or controlling mentality, this behaviour trickles top-down and will be imitated by department heads, team leaders and even the last employee. We constantly experience this phenomenon in our work: Executives don’t see their own shadow and wonder why things don’t work. One example:
The crux with role modeling in top management
The five-year-old subsidiary of an IT group was expected to finally be a success. But instead of harvesting a growing market share – products came onto the market far too late, growing competition accelerated marketing costs and departments started to be in heavy conflicts with each other. There was a lack of agreement throughout the company on the strategic direction, conflicts and scapegoat dramas were smouldering. Decisions were interpreted according to the mood and the discipline to implement jointly was going south.
All this did not come by coincidence, but was observable in the higher ranks: The CEO was in heavy conflict with the Head of Products and the Head of Technology – both previous candidates for his CEO position. Both drove him nuts through constant disagreement. Decisions were only possible if taken in private. This, in turn, led to a dispute with the CFO. And the others? The Head Sales? The Head of HR? They joined the cycle of mistrust with drooping shoulders. To keep the business running somehow, the CEO took a fatal decision and triggered an obstructive dynamic: for the sake of superficial harmony, he avoided critical discussions, replaced team meetings with bilateral discussions and silently accepted the unhealthy alpha drumming.
Under pressure, people turn towards authorities
None of those involved a lack of passion for the job, ambition or know-how. Everyone rightly focused on and fertilized his or her own area. But what was missing? Emotional quality, an understanding of team dynamics and the consequences of one’s own actions and those of others. The biggest blind spot: the awareness that if under pressure, people orient themselves towards authorities. Did the CEO and his Product Manager ever reflect what effect their entre-nous decisions would have? Has the Technical Director ever reflect what his executives thought about noisy verbal battles in the top team? Did the Head of Human Resources reflect on the consequences of heating up the unfortunate dynamics instead of slowing them down? On the contrary, the toxic behaviour gradually flooded the entire company.
Neurotic organizations are always a reflection of their top managers. Yet, slight traits of distrust, irrational anxieties, retreat instead of speaking up or depression are normal for everyone – even in the top team. But if these traits dominate daily management, the whole „fish stinks from the head“. Effective leadership always means synchronizing daily actions with the declared claim. A CEO who allows decisions to be discussed or softened again and again should not be surprised if next level managers implement decisions with their own interpretation and flavour. A board member who drives a zero-error tolerance should not be surprised if his managers shy away from taking risk and responsibility. And a CFO who insists on deepest details and decimal places in planning can be sure that he will paralyze teams in anticipatory obedience and “sand bagging”.
Small signals, big effect – it is your choice!
Whether they like it or not, top managers cast long shadows. It is usually small signals that have big impact. As role models, they are the compass for their team and the managers on all levels. Of course, also in the positive. Exemplary behaviour at the top level can turn into the strongest driver for transformation. So, if top managers want to harvest, they must set an example with exactly those behaviours they want to witness throughout the company. Cultural change – „the way we do things here“ – starts with behavioural changes in the team at the top. No doubt, this requires discipline. But once the worm in the apple is free, the harvest is half saved. With this diagnosis and insight, the top team of the IT subsidiary, too, finally managed a behavioural turn-around into a positive, self-reinforcing dynamic.
We wish you a reflective day!
Sincerely, Yours, Anke Houben + Kai W. Dierke
This Article is based on our book „Gemeinsame Spitze. Wie Führung im Top-Team gelingt“, Campus; Completely Revised English edition forthcoming in 2020: „Executive Rivals. How to Build Great Leadership Teams where Collaboration is Hard.”
Dr. Kai Dierke and Dr. Anke Houben are founders of DierkeHouben Leadership Partners – C-suite Coaches and Advisors with more than 17 years of experience in counseling and developing Top Executives and their teams. In addition to their consulting work they offer open enrollment programmes for Senior Executives. As Adjunct Professors they teach Leadership at HHL Graduate School of Management.