Where Senior Leaders Should Focus Their Attention

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As a team, we are often privileged to be asked to sit through senior leadership meetings at our clients. Right up to Board level, these peepholes into our clients’ workings provide valuable insights into the operations of our clients, but also (and most importantly) the culture of these organisations, too.

One abiding feature which concerns us greatly is how operational and tactical senior leadership meetings can become. This is baffling to us, but we think it relates to the comfort zone most senior leaders find in technical issues and authoritative expertise (see two blog entries we recently wrote on this issue here and here, as we try and explain the concept of adaptive leadership).

So it was with great interest that I read an article on HBR’s blog, “Four Areas Where Senior Leaders Should Focus Their Attention” by Peter Bregman (3 September 2013).

The author suggests these four focus areas:

1. Decisions that move the needle. Don’t waste energy talking about expense reports when you should be talking about mergers and acquisitions or a new business line or a reorganization. Incremental improvements are the purview of lower levels of management. One of my clients, the CEO of a company with revenues of a billion dollars, likes to measure this is by the number of zeros involved. Are we talking about a $500,000 decision or a $5,000,000 decision? If there aren’t enough zeros, the decision isn’t strategic enough and shouldn’t absorb senior leadership time. Senior leadership should be focused on fundamentals, not incrementals.

Captain of the ship2. The big arrow. Think of your company as one big arrow that contains lots of little arrows — projects, businesses, clients, business deals. The big arrow is your company’s culture, strategic direction, core competencies, and core values. The CEO and his or her leadership team own that big arrow. The problem is that, often, the little arrows point in different directions as people solidify their silos, bicker amongst themselves, and neglect the larger mission. Senior leaders have the responsibility to make decisions and act in ways that break through silos and align everyone with the strategic and cultural direction of the company. That’s how they can ensure all the arrows will be shooting in the same direction.

3. The next level of leadership. One of the most important roles of the most senior leaders is to engage the up-and-coming leaders, fostering their leadership and decision-making. That’s how a company grows. Talking about the next level of leadership, developing succession plans, pushing decisions to that level, including them in strategic discussions — those efforts are high return.

4. Undiscussables. Talking about the thing that no one is talking about is an almost foolproof way to improve company performance. Maybe it concerns another leader or maybe it has to do with the performance of a certain division. Maybe it’s about the CEO’s leadership style or a lack of trust among the senior team. Whatever it is, the mere fact that it’s important and not being discussed is a solid indication that it’s holding the organization back.

I’d certainly one more item, at least:

5. Disruptive change. Senior leaders should be focused more on “what else” than on “what we’re doing”. This means looking for the trends and factors that could significantly change your current approach and engagement with your market. This includes watching the competition, looking for new competitors and substitutes and seeking out new opportunities. Porter’s Five Forces model is a helpful tool here, but they must also consider weak signals and “black swans”. This means testing their own mindsets and orthodoxies, and being less concerned about benchmarking and more concerned about what might change. The task is to ensure the organisation is set up to mitigate the risks that might emerge and grasp the opportunities that will present themselves.

What would you add to this list?

Most senior leaders we know need to spend more time lifting their eyes to the horizon. In times of turbulence and uncertainty, this must be done deliberately, consciously, and often bravely. But it must be done!

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