Leadership councils in a digital world
Every organisation of some standing has some form of a shared leadership platform or forum. These forums are called management committees or executive councils or leadership councils or executive committees. Typically these forums consist of the CEO and his or her direct reports.
At one level, belonging to such a form is a badge of honour. At another level, making such a forum really work is at most times an uphill task for its convener, typically the MD or CEO. More about this in a moment.
The purpose of these forums
Boards and business leaders realize that leadership is seldom a solo act. To align the entire leadership team, to get the organisation to benefit from the collective minds of all leaders to solve critical problems, to influence and include them, to co-create the future and to make the best decisions and shape the right strategies such a forum becomes the foundation.
In operational terms, these forums discuss and shape organisational goals and priorities, annual business plans and financial budgets, review progress against these plans, discuss a wide range of issues impacting organisational effectiveness, review talent and other matters relating to people. Needless to say, these forums are expected to stand together and deal with the many inevitable problems and challenges faced by the organisation.
These forums especially serve as important platforms for enabling functions like HR, Finance, Information Technology and so on to get support or draw attention to matters that transcend functional and divisional boundaries.
Simple functional organisations which roll up to the CEO tend to find it easier to secure alignment in these forums as opposed to organisations with business division structures where the head of one business division may find little interest in another business division other than getting to know or keeping others informed or sharing scarce resources.
A lot of my organisation Development work is to do with making such leadership groups work better! That says a lot about these forums, doesn’t it? We often witness either substantive or interpersonal differences among team members in these forums. While some groups do manage to move from forming to storming to norming and performing, small changes in their constitution including the entry of a new member or two or even worse a new leader can throw things out of sync and send them back to forming and storming.
While some will accept that they have difficulties in making these forums effective, many tend to live in denial and depend on a formal structure and the bureaucracy of the process to keep these forums barely functional. But in reality, many of its members just don’t enjoy being in each other’s presence.
Beyond all this is the larger question – in the age of agile working, rapid and disruptive changes, globally diverse teams and the advent of collaborative technology platforms, what purpose do such forums in their physical form with all the ceremonial trappings really serve?
Factors that impact effectiveness
If these forums are really so important, why is that many don’t work as intended? What comes in the way?
Decision making style of the CEO
If the CEO who in many ways is the convener of the forum is autocratic or at best consultative in style, he is unlikely to bring issues to the forum for real discussion or even worse have predetermined views on how things should be done and can make the forum look like a pointless charade.
Many CEOs seldom have the human process facilitation skills needed to make such groups self-sustaining.
Lack of trust and interpersonal comfort
Quite often, members of the forum struggle to get out of their role boundaries and connect with one another as human beings and individuals. Members may feel unsafe and uncomfortable to open up.
Lack of openness
Members may also not speak freely and openly or may not debate and disagree openly. They may also believe that it is best not to intrude into the territory of another peer lest he takes him on when his turn comes. ‘Why mess around with another’ might be the attitude. So, real discussions may not take place.
Lack of ownership for decision made
Often times, decisions may be made in these forums but not carried through. So, the same issues get debated again and again, making team members feel frustrated. Everyone might agree to do something while they actually don’t feel convinced. As a result, results are seldom evident.
Team members may not ask for help or offer help to their colleagues. Everyone may have the need to come across as self-sufficient or ever competent and not show their vulnerabilities. There may also be a sense of competing and winning.
Form overtaking function
Finally, the whole procedural demands of having meetings every month and filing reports may overtake the real function of shared leadership.
The good news is that these situations can easily be reversed should the CEO accept that there is an issue and have the will to set things right. The field of OD is full of methods, tools and frameworks to help in such situations. CEOs can also be coached to promote shared leadership.
Modern organisations in modern times
My real worry is not about making existing Leadership or executive councils effective. The real worry is whether these forums serve any real purpose in their current form. That might sound quite an audacious statement to make but let’s examine it.
At a time when digitization is radically changing the way information is processed and decisions are made, what purpose can a forum that meets once a month with a packed agenda really serve?
In other words, are leaders in these forums leveraging other real time technology based collaboration platforms to exchange views and ideas, debate on issues, brainstorm, take decisions, communicate with one another and truly demonstrate shared leadership?
In my view, the typical monthly meetings will need to transcend their current purpose and serve to build bonds, enhance trust and have deep conversations. On the other hand, these leaders will need to leverage technology to make their forums and councils truly real time and virtual and ensure that information, support, debates and discussions are real-time.
Of course, members of these forums will need to learn the fine art of having great conversations – an art form that is almost forgotten.
If these don’t happen, these forums are likely to look and feel like the way many boards do – become ceremonial occasions.