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September 2009


Much is made in talk of leadership about how critical superb execution is. And tomes on the subject seem to drown us in choking detail, clouding the essential challenge.

Our view is that leadership is largely about how we relate – to peers, direct reports, stakeholders of all stripes. Such “relationships” in turn live or die on the quality, authenticity and, at times, courage evident in the conversations in which they are anchored. To execute and get the right results, we must have the right conversations – consistently and passionately.

Beware Fake Conversations

If you were to audit the conversations that buzz around most workplaces, you would find that many things are audible by their silence. What do we mean? Sometimes the din of what is not said is frankly deafening. And when it comes to execution, this is particularly pernicious.

Why? Well, because companies tend to have strategic conversations with relatively greater finesse. But when they come down from the mountain top into the valleys to deliver decisively on this strategy, that’s when much of the trouble occurs.

Walk into a senior leadership meeting. Someone is presenting. Two people are fixated on their laptops as if the secrets of the universe were flitting urgently across their screens. Two others are whispering, and when noticed, straighten up with a strained smirk on their face that would do any high schooler proud. A few others are randomly doodling. And a minority are often nit-picking the presentation. Digressions abound, and often little is settled. For anything that needs action, very often private deals are then brokered in the hallways.

Is this a caricature? Maybe very slightly, but essential elements of the above are rife in virtually any organizational setting. There is, therefore, less going on than is evident at the surface, and far more going on, covertly. Thus in management literature, such “subtext” has been given the appellation, “covert processes”.

Very roughly we can divide these into four categories.

Outside the operating system — these are things that have developed into organizational taboos. They are just not brought up. I was working with a company where a prior consultant with a decade’s good work with them, couldn’t get them to seriously discuss that their 35% turnover in emerging markets, in a downturn (and that from their best talent) was an issue that required more than motivational workshops or the odd outing with senior management (if anyone can explain why senior managers consider it a reward for crazy hours to oblige their people to spend still more time with them, I’d love to hear it!). It just wasn’t something you discussed.

In another global giant, people weren’t supposed to be impolite enough to ask people to openly commit to tough calls. Instead you went around “selling” to numerous internal stakeholders, and when there was finally enough of a so-called “coalition of the willing”, action was taken. This was expensive, depleting, and led to glacial decision-making, with very measurable negative market impact at times. However, in the words of my previous Master at University College Oxford, “There are no rules. But if you break them, you get thrown out.” When one of their major stars violated this norm (this was a young leader who had helped transform a languishing part of their business into what is on track to be a billion Euro powerhouse in about 5 years), his career was side-tracked and he was packed off to the equivalent of a corporate Siberia.

Deliberately suppressed – here the emotional voltage is too high and under the guise of “false harmony”, or out of fear of emotional meltdown and team dysfunctionality, prima donnas are allowed to hold the group hostage by threatening either emotional fireworks, or by so palpably withdrawing at a time their engagement is needed, that everyone skirts anything that could provoke either reaction. We see this in marriages no less than corporate Board rooms. Rather than take the risk of emotional authenticity, for fear of derailing an “acceptable” if dull relationship, there is a mutual deal struck: you don’t rock the boat, and neither will I. The casualties are wonder, imagination, excitement, engagement and passion.

Secret wishes and desires – sometimes called agendas. Here we express only a part of what we’d like to. We are unwilling to admit our vantage point, and so try to sound objective, or team-oriented, even though we are driven by our sectarian points of view or our functional factionalism. When we are discouraged to share the full range of what we hope for, even what we fear, real dialogue is impossible.

Actually, there is no reason to suppose that sharing what I want, or confessing what I fear, means I expect to have the desire gratified or the fear fully consoled. Were we able to do this more freely, we could address these hopes or concerns, incorporate them where we can, and tap the released energy and direct it towards finding ways forward.

A burgeoning software company had high-powered Board members. For some this was a major personal financial investment and they were highly risk averse. Others were also on the Boards of iconic global companies and wanted aggressive expansion. Still others were chums of the CEO and wanted to ride the coat-tails of the company to success, and were still finding their way, despite being very technically proficient. Though it sounds fantastic to suggest it, imagine if all these cards could have been laid on the table, and the Board discussions could have truly looked at what was best for the company, while also being able to consider what key stakeholders were concerned about, or aspired to. Instead they had to tap dance around these issues, and dress up personal issues as quasi-strategic perspectives with all the inevitable obfuscation and cerebral fencing that entailed.

Stifled Creativity and Dormant Possibilities – this most afflicts successful companies in danger of perpetuating a plateau, or not adapting to a key inflection point. The past brought them to where they are. So they tend to do what they’ve always done, harder. When that backfires, they go for every technical panacea (new software system, planning methodology, restructuring) and fad that flits across the horizon. If they can raise enough cash, they can “do an HP” and buy up another company in pursuit of those ever elusive “synergies” (I say that because the impressive subsequent turnaround of HP happened by instead locating and releasing dormant possibilities and refocusing creativity accordingly – it is ever thus in turnarounds as varied as Nissan and IBM).

The conversations therefore that tend not to take place while the company is still relatively successful, are those that consider what the next legitimate breakthrough would be, how to continue to raise the bar in areas of greatest brand relevance and customer impact and how to re-imagine competitiveness.

Five “Execution” Interactions Hold the Key

While a university course could be taught (anywhere but at a conventional business school I hasten to add) on how to change the frame of conversations and thereby change the game — making it possible to shine light on these dark spaces, there is a simpler approach available.

There are five ongoing “execution” interactions that companies should have relative to making things happen. These interactions, or conversations over time, will in turn create results-oriented, collaboration-fostering and accountability-rich relationships. What is covert will become far more overt, and without a major emotional dirge.

Strategic Relevance

We have to first beware key tasks losing all strategic relevance because of how they are defined. Always ask of a high-level task what strategic thrust it is meant to further and ensure it is defined in a way that actually generates progress in that strategic direction.

A major communications company learned year after year from their internal engagement survey that quality of leadership was an issue, a “passion killer” in the terms we use at Sensei. They responded by instituting 2 day team leadership workshops across the length and breadth of the global organization – at staggering expense and even more staggering administrative wear and tear in terms of coordination. But of course legions of minions were kept happily at rapt attention, a flurry of palliative-like activity surged through the organization. The fact that the workshops did not address at all the strategic issue actually identified – namely that the CEO and his team was politically divided, did not engage their next level leaders, and were not creating the right type of leadership pipe-line, was completely ignored. As one senior leader told me, “This is an insult to my intelligence.” More than intelligence was frankly being insulted here…

So the first conversation requires us to reconcile means to ends, relentlessly, continuously, until there is a clear line of sight from tasks to the results we’ve agreed we’re going to deliver.

Factual and Diagnostic

In one of the debates leading to the recent US Presidential election, now Vice-President Joe Biden said to a political opponent, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.”

Interrogating reality, getting to root causes, dispassionately wading through competing versions of “reality” until facts are known, agreed and transparent is critical.

So, identify, based on the aim, the facts we have to know (rather than “assume”), the causes we have to diagnose, and have that done via a process that is unimpeachable.

Just one caution – facts aren’t predictions. They are a read-out. Everything that has been achieved of any impressive value, by entrepreneurs or companies or frankly any visionary in any field, was once improbable. George Bernard Shaw said unreasonable people work to make reality conform to their dreams, and that therefore all progress depends on unreasonable people. Indeed. But it does not depend on ignorant ones.

Knowing, for example, the difference between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, or that the Afghanistan insurgency is being fueled in part by starving Afghanis being paid $8 a day for “insurgency” work, or that the Vietnamese due to centuries of historical animus were never going to become too intimate with China, or for companies doing business in China that there are several Chinas (in terms of consumer tastes), or (based on some insights into how communities of excellence are created) that building “Internet City” as a real estate play in Dubai wasn’t going to spawn another Silicon Valley there by itself, helps us make enabling decisions and get on to executing on key strategies.

How well do we truly know the situation, and how well do we truly know what it will take to win in this regard? How do we know we know? And if we’re taking a swing, have we at least groomed the grass, checked our bat and balls, and made sure we’re facing in the right direction?

If we’re not sure, can we discuss and jointly generate possible scenarios based on the best facts and most in depth diagnosis or root cause analysis we can make available? Creating paths to the future, not imprisoned by current facts, but informed by them, is the key.

Tactical Alternatives

Three things apply here. First, ideas should be at least partially generated by those who are going to execute them. So here we have to check whether the conversations are only taking place by a small cabal or also with those talents we expect to find a way to deliver what we’ve identified.

Second, we need to look at what could go wrong relative to each major tactic identified. And where possible create hedges, alternatives; proactively design out the downside to whatever extent is feasible. Yes we have to be willing to fail, and to respond on the basis of what we learn…but not owing to negligence.

Third, we have to beware of prematurely falling in love with ideas we’ve minted. As the old saw reminds us, “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it’s the only one you have.” Always ask how to make good ideas better. And again let a cross-section of the organization that is invested in the outcome, participate. This is far better than hearing later, “I could have told you this would happen.”

By going deep and wide, by anticipating and preparing for downsides and exigencies, and by seeking to challenge compelling ideas with an aim to amplifying them, we ensure that tactically we are ready to execute.

Mobilizing and Aligning

People have to be engaged and enrolled. In short they have to understand why they are doing what they’ve been asked to, the purpose and the relative importance, and we have to invite their commitment by inviting them to help define an approach.

Once that’s done they have to agree on roles, accountabilities and commitments. This is not about a referendum, but it is about letting people exercise their freedom to, at least to some extent, define their participation. Moreover, they have to be helped to understand and appreciate the roles and participation of other people.

Very critically the chief operating principle has to be a commitment to the success of everyone in your group or team. What is the difference between a group and a team? The first is an assemblage of people who will do discrete work…but all the work is needed, and so they have to rely on each other to that extent. The latter, is a community of people who collaborate to produce a work product that cannot be created simply by aggregating individual effort. Winning the World Cup in Football is an example of the latter. So is usually a major brand repositioning or global expansion or moving from a product-centric organization to a customer-focused solutions provider, in corporate terms.

And this in turn means some dialogue re how the group or team will work, the behaviors and standards expected, frequency of input, nature of things that people will consult regarding (as well as the timing of the consultation to avoid acrimonious rework and endless reconciliations later in the process), and specific ongoing opportunities for mutual feedback and much more importantly feed forward (future-based requests and expectations).

Course Correcting and Tracking

Finally, conversations need to be structured and staged with prime-time attention dedicated (not pro-forma box ticking reviews) where agreed metrics for the success of these key strategically mandated actions are reviewed, facts again interrogated, necessary re-calibration or course correction done.

We advise that reviews include business impact, progress towards strategic intent, steps taken versus steps forecasted (the shifts are often for good reasons, due to emergent realities, but we have to ensure that’s the case, not selective apathy), time-lines and pace, how the team or group is faring (do members have to be shifted, do key sponsors have to be confronted relative to their delegates in the group or team, has someone shone and so deserves public kudos or other recognition?), learnings to date and immediate next steps.

Too many things are kicked off with no tracking. I was working with a senior leadership team who said one of their biggest issues was to lock decisions at a certain point in time and then unleash their people’s energy accordingly. In the desire to get it 100% right, they were missing opportunities, or causing panic, or focusing too much on the short-term…they were courting burn-out pursuing the oldest myth in the book: perfection.

They all confirmed the shift was critical, but six months later, they asked me to check and let them know how they were doing! So I surveyed and interviewed people and found that there were huge improvements overall, though in a few key geographical regions, some persistent bottle-necks remained. But my shock was as to why they wouldn’t have gathered this input periodically themselves – it would have taken 30 minutes to get a quick round-robin at their management meetings. Unless some specific conversations are habitually part of your leadership interaction, namely to take on the greatest untallied cost in organizations – untracked commitments – all the rest is just conversation.


Three things will signal that your leadership has evolved, your relationships have matured and that your conversations are more genuine and results-furthering.

  1. You will see your Vision (assuming it means something and isn’t just a gossamer web of rhetoric) tangibly advanced. This assumes your strategy and vision are meaningfully intertwined.
  2. You will deliver key results with less wear and tear, more collaboration and more robust dialogue and debate relative to things that matter.

  3. You will notice relationships building that, beyond the specific execution at hand, will ripple out in all kinds of positive yet unpredictable ways and anchor a stronger culture of achievement and partnership in the organization.

It’s high time we had these conversations, built these relationships, and created the results we’re after. Why would we settle for anything less?