Who is your boss? At a glance, it seems like a straightforward question, but scratch below the surface, and things get confusing fast. Consider Mark: He’s a senior leader reporting to the EVP of Operations for a global manufacturing company. As Mark describes it, “I can never get a straight answer from anybody. In theory, my EVP should be making the final decision about staffing, resources, and priorities. However, in practice, he makes a decision, then another EVP wants us to go in a different direction, and because they aren’t on the same page, it creates a big headache for me and my team.”
What Mark is describing is an incredibly common scenario that slows progress, and worse, can leave talented leaders feeling frustrated and demoralized. In part, we can attribute this dynamic to today’s matrixed organizational structure, where employees report to more than one manager. However, what Mark is describing is less a function of company design, and more about the unspoken level of agreement and alignment that is required at an executive level in order to get work done, move the needle, and deliver results. Put differently, if your senior executives don’t agree on a path forward, it isn’t happening.
Between A Rock and A Hard Place
It’s a scenario Brenda knows well. Rather than spend the bulk of her time focusing on key projects or initiatives as Chief Digital Officer for her company, she finds herself devoting hours each week navigating tricky dynamics between the CIO and President. “Each has a strong point of view about our digital strategy and investments, and rightly so, but the problem is that they aren’t on the same page about our path forward. I’m often caught between a rock and a hard place, because until they can find common ground, I can’t take much action.”
Getting Your Senior Executives on The Same Page Is Actually Your Job
It’s well understood that getting the support of key stakeholders – including senior executives – is an expectation and core skill that comes with the territory of being a senior leader. What is often underestimated is exactly how much time is actually required in order to do this aspect of the job effectively. As most leaders will tell you, this isn’t just a part of their role, it really is the job, because it’s just so difficult to get anything done without it.
If this feels like a familiar scenario, consider the following to change the dynamic.
- Use and apply 180 thinking to help leaders find common ground. In order to know where your executives do see eye-to-eye, you’ll want to have a firm grasp on the real concerns – spoken and unspoken – that each holds. To uncover that, use a simple concept called 180 thinking, where you view the specifics of the situation through the lens of each key stakeholder. What are the questions on their mind as they listen to you? More importantly, what are the questions behind their questions? You can’t help your executives find common ground until you know where each really stands and why.
- Play the role of clarifier. One big advantage that comes with dealing with different stakeholders simultaneously is that you’re in a great position to listen and help clarify others’ thinking. This is particularly true when you find yourself leading a meeting or discussion for an audience of senior executives who are not in agreement. While you may be the less senior leader in the room, you can play a valuable role in helping senior executives get aligned and see where they do agree. Examples of clarifying language might sound like:
What we do agree on is that that A, B, and C are our priorities. Given that, the key decision that’s needed from this group today is ______.
We agree that the timing for this is X. The one area that we aren’t yet in agreement on is funding for that – it sounds like that’s what we need to determine next.
“What I’m hearing is that there are 3 question we need answers to – they are X, Y, Z.
- Remember, there is only so much you can do. Sometimes, the right answer is to simply point out to your senior executives that unless and until they get on the same page, you’re in a holding pattern. After all, is always the job of the CEO to hold senior executives accountable for getting aligned and in agreement as appropriate, and it isn’t your job to play referee. What you can do is influence, provide a strong flow of information that is shared transparently and consistently across your executive stakeholder audience, and do everything within your power to move the needle.