Being a C-level player has never been more difficult. Major changes in the marketplace, increased competition, and the ability to recruit and retain top talent are among the most daunting challenges facing executive teams. The balancing act of increasing competitive advantage while decreasing risk, of managing growth while bottom-proofing the company, and of maintaining the culture and community of a firm while moving it into the future is a difficult, yet essential process to manage.
Yet, while successful firms acknowledge the need for tremendous teamwork, most executive teams do not excel in open, higher-order dialogue with one another – even when stakes are high and change is rampant. It is not unusual for executive management meetings to be characterized by careful, deliberate presentations or report-out formats that are so well-polished that real issues never surface.
It is cliché to say it’s lonely at the top, but it’s a true cliché. Who does the CEO or president talk to? Senior teams are stocked with experience and talent, but most CEO’s do not utilize this skill base or leverage the loyalty formed from working closely together for many years. Who do members of a senior team confide in? While meetings at an executive level occur frequently, powerful, honest and open dialogue is rare.
The Need for High-Order Dialogue
Dialogue literally means an exchange of ideas. Effective dialogue is essential to produce the strategic thinking and implementation that create unique competitive advantage. But good dialogue is often hard to come by in executive team meetings.
There are four reasons for this:
- Culture is a shadow of the CEO’s style. A CEO tends to surround himself or herself with “yes” people, which creates blind spots and a culture of public agreement and private complaining. Problems get buried that could throw a wrench in the gears later. Open, honest dialogue keeps these problems on the surface and helps those at the top work through and resolves them.
- Old habits die hard. The old adage, “It’s the way we’ve always done it,” is detrimental in a new, more competitive business environment. If old habits aren’t questioned, analyzed and problems identified and fixed – even if it challenges organizational culture – effective dialogue will always be hampered.
- What if it gets worse? Many groups choose to keep a lid on organizational issues for fear that the dialogue will make things worse. This can serve to keep problems covert and unresolved, which can be more painful for an organization if they bubble up. And they will bubble.
- It is difficult to confront peers about their performance or their behavior. This includes the boss. But when performance and behavior are not addressed, including that of the boss including that of the boss, it leads to a team where trust and candor are low, key issues are not addressed, and the performance of the team will be limited.
Several years ago, a powerful and feared CEO of a large firm told me that he could not confide in, and therefore could not trust, any of his direct reports. He told me, “They are all afraid of me.” This is an example of where communication among leadership teams can break down. From a cost-benefit perspective, the cost of not having the benefit of effective dialogue among the senior team is enormous. Leadership sets the tone for candor or carefulness. If you cannot talk about it, how can you address it and continually improve?