Where to begin when the executive team is broken

Last week, in a rush from one terminal to another in busy Atlanta Hartsfield Airport, I collided with Jake while dashing for the train. We immediately recognized one another, although it had been nearly eight years since we’d worked together.

Jake is an accomplished leader who recently landed an executive role with a long-standing privately owned corporation that was seeking fresh talent to take the business to the next level. They’d found a gem in Jake. He has deep experience at three multinational companies and knows how to create cultures in which employees thrive and teams excel.

As fate would have it, Jake and I were on the same flight and arranged to be seated together so we could use the time to catch up. He spent most of the three-hour airtime sharing the challenges he inherited with his new position, chief among them the need for a major cultural change across the organization.

Startling lack of clarity, action among the executive team

“What I am most surprised by is the history of autocratic leadership at this company. Although everyone I interviewed with, including the CEO, told me they want to change it, they don’t seem to be willing to do the hard work required to shift their behaviors,” Jake lamented. “On top of this, there’s a woefully lean slate of succession candidates for the executive team. They’ve done little to develop people beyond the manager level. And except for me, everyone on the executive team is approaching retirement age.”

When I explored the situation further, I learned that company leadership had been conducting yearly employee surveys that continued to highlight dissatisfaction with rigid leadership policies and the command-and-control mindset at the top. This feedback had been flowing in for three years, yet nothing substantive had been done to address it. So, I wasn’t surprised when Jake told me they were having difficulty attracting and retaining talent, especially as new competitors were moving into the same geography and offering better cultural environments and remote work options. This trend was only going to exacerbate the succession challenges Jake described.

“Before I joined, the CEO promised employees that they would initiate more leadership training at the management level,” said Jake. “They did a basic one-day session for first-line supervisors, but nothing else has been implemented in the two years since. I’m worried that we’ve lost any momentum that we may have started. Where do you think we should go from here?” he asked.

“I’d begin first by facing the reality of where you are as a company, and then work to fix it,” I replied.

Finding a fix for 5 realities

As I saw it, the organization was facing some major challenges that, left unaddressed, would compromise its future. It also needed a plan for reversing the negative impact of its toxic culture. Jake and I discussed five important realities to address, all of which began at the top.

  1. Acknowledge that leaders at executive level are set in their ways. The CEO would need to make some tough decisions about what culture he wants to shape and analyze who among his current team could be partners in that process. Those who couldn’t be contributors would have to step aside for new talent that could. That meant some tough conversations were ahead for the CEO and the board. It suggested that an unbiased assessment of the team from an outside expert would be essential.\
  2. This is more than a leadership training issue. This is about mindset and capability. Consequently, I recommended that the next year be spent focusing on top leaders and establishing clarity around the purpose of the organization. Their work was to define the culture, behaviors and values necessary to achieve that purpose and then establish policies that align with it. Old behaviors could no longer be tolerated or ignored.
  3. Leadership needed to own its role in the eroding trust employees had in the company and in the executive team. That issue needed to be openly acknowledged and addressed. For example, the company had been collecting survey data for years, asking employees for feedback and doing little to address what they heard. As a result, employees began to believe that asking their opinions was a performative exercise that would result in no change. “Don’t ask for their input if you’re not willing to act on what you learn,” I advised Jake. “Make it clear to employees that you have heard them by connecting the actions you are taking to the feedback they gave you.”
  4. To assure senior leadership is clear on their responsibility for shaping culture and delivering on the behaviors that align with it, hold them accountable through metrics. If a division is consistently the source of employee complaints, concerns or excessive turnover, it’s time to re-examine the leadership players in place. Like all business goals, what gets measured gets attention.
  5. Realize that even the best of leaders live in a bubble. Their perspectives on reality are shaped by the people around them. If they aren’t consistently reaching beyond their immediate staff for input, they’re probably only hearing half of the story. Leadership insights are gained from people in the trenches, not from colleagues in the C-suite. I suggested that Jake expand the group of trusted advisors to the executive team and include employees who had closer contact with customers, vendors and the teams responsible for delivering daily results. These advisors could become partners in championing a new culture and expanding enthusiasm for the company purpose that leadership defines.

Finally, appreciate that the organization didn’t get to where it is overnight, and it won’t reverse course in a week, a month or a year. But start now rather than later, and enlist staff responsible for hiring and developing talent to work with the senior team to structure retention and succession programs that deliver results. Given the demographics among the executive team and the gap in talent within the development pipeline, addressing succession is a crucial concern for future success.

This article was first published in SmartBriefs, May 2023.

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