blog home > 4 Reasons Senior Teams Struggle to Work on the Business
Now, more than ever, leadership teams must come together to work on the business, not in the business. But if only it were that easy! Leadership habits, like all habits, are difficult to change.
Some businesses will thrive; their owners have already invested in building a cohesive team that can move with agility and purpose in these uncertain times. But for many, the lack of leadership alignment that existed before the Covid-19 pandemic will be further exposed. The current turmoil will either bring the leadership team together or, more likely, tear it apart.
If engaging your senior team to work collaboratively on the business has always been a struggle then you are not alone. In this article, I describe the four most common challenges that business leaders face when trying to get their senior team on board. I also explore how neurobiology and ‘Habit Theory’ can help you overcome these challenges and build better leadership habits for you and your team.
Across every industry, businesses have been blown off course. Some are still taking on water and remain at risk of going under. Others are being forced backwards, as they battle against a strong headwind. A lucky few are benefiting from a strong current that will help them reach their destination ahead of time.
Whatever the situation, exhausted and disorientated business owners are now working hard to ‘get out of the engine room’ so they can work on the business not in the business and start to make sense of the last few months.
Has their long-term mission changed or is this just a temporary set back? What does this mean for their business growth strategy? Does the business need a complete reboot or can it continue ‘as is’, with some running repairs? Should those that have benefited from new customers and new value propositions be raising their level of ambition?
The ongoing levels of uncertainty mean that any step back to work on the business can not just be a one-off exercise, nor is it something that a business owner should undertake on their own.
If your whole leadership team isn’t fully engaged in answering these questions and plotting a new course, then you are setting yourself up to fail: No-one else will be tuned in to your way of thinking; no-one else will be committed to the new mission and goals. No-one else will help you sense changes in the market and help you ‘course correct’ as you continue your journey.
Now is the time to establish new leadership habits and engage your senior team in a more agile strategic planning process.
There are four barriers that must be overcome before any leadership team can truly collaborate and work effectively ‘on the business'.
I’ve previously described how you, as the leader of your business, are swamped with ‘content’. But it’s not just you!
It’s the same for every member of your senior team. They, like you, have their own informal business network and a steady stream of emails, social media and blogs, all promising new ways to win at business. (None of us can resist the search for that magic solution!)
In a sense, everyone is ‘panning for gold’. But the problem is, it’s rarely done as a team. Each person consumes their own ‘content’ on a daily or weekly basis; if they find something that looks shiny and bright, they’ll shout ‘gold’ and bring it to everyone’s attention.
On its own, this can be disruptive and energy-sapping. But this often leads to the second problem.
There is a tendency to judge other people’s potential treasure trove with suspicion. It seems like we’re programmed to challenge its authenticity and effectiveness rather than embrace it.
This gets even more extreme when the promised ‘gold’ involves the use of external advisers. It might be a new business growth programme offered by your accountancy firm or a growth expert who someone heard speak at a conference. It could be that a new member of the executive team has suggested bringing in the consultant who worked wonders at their last organisation.
Either way, it typically results in what I often picture as a medieval joust. Each person sends in their consultant or programme to do battle armed with competing ideas and approaches. The result is often a stalemate, or if there is a clear victor, then this comes at the cost of alienating one or more senior team members. There are rarely any real winners in this scenario.
As the business leader, we aim to surround ourselves with experts across all functions. They are rewarded handsomely for making sure their department performs its role in the business.
This is all well and good. In fact, it’s essential for the business to be able to operate day to day. However, for many departmental heads, this can easily develop into an obsession with their own function that undermines the effectiveness of the senior team.
With their blinkers on, they tune out of discussions that don’t call for their functional expertise and only tune back in to perform their functional role or defend their department. They’re unable to take the broader, nonpartisan view that is needed for any senior team to work ‘on the business.’
Patrick Lencioni stresses the dangers of this situation in his book, 'The Advantage'1,
“When members of a leadership team feel a stronger sense of commitment and loyalty to the team they lead than the one they’re a member of, then the team they’re a member of becomes like the U.S. Congress or the United Nations: it’s just a place where people come together to lobby for their constituents.
Teams that lead healthy organizations reject this model and come to terms with the difficult but critical requirement that executives must put the needs of the higher team ahead of the needs of their departments. That is the only way that good decisions can be made about how best to serve the entire organization and maximize its performance.”
We all understand and readily accept this principle when it comes to the wider business, but it also applies to your senior team.
I’ve often seen business leaders coming back from a course or raving about a book on leadership, innovation or culture change. Whatever the trigger, their step back from the business had left them focused and fired up to work ‘on the business’ and make the changes needed to accelerate growth. More often than not, the rest of the senior team have seen it all before. They roll their eyes and wait for it to pass!
Almost without fail, three months later, the day-to-day challenges still dominate. The urgent has overtaken the important, the blinkers are back on and that fleeting moment of clarity and objectivity has been lost.
Whether it’s new consultants, new methodologies, the latest business bestseller that’s distributed to the board of directors: every new attempt to work ‘on the business’ is viewed with increasing cynicism and risks further sapping energy and confidence.
A more subtle approach is needed.
Given these four barriers, it should be no surprise that overloading your senior team with another time-consuming, ‘not invented here’ initiative that drags them away from their departments is almost certainly doomed to failure!
Instead, overcoming these barriers requires a level of subtlety and patience. This is where neurobiology and ‘Habit Theory’ can play its part in senior team development.
The following eleven principles neatly summarise what established experts tell us about forming new habits and changing bad ones.
1. Small improvements make a big difference.
Success comes from a series of small actions rather than a massive, once in a lifetime, intervention.
2. Developing good habits improves performance.
They appear to make little difference on any given day, but their impact over time can be huge.
3. Breaking bad habits really helps too.
Success is as much about recognising and changing bad habits than it is about forming new ones.
4. All habits are not created equal.
Keystone habits have an amazing ripple effect that produces many more positive outcomes. (and ‘working on the business’ is a Keystone Habit for any leadership team.)
5. Knowing how habits work helps you change them.
We're all slaves to neuroscience. So, understanding our 'Habit Loops' is half the battle!
6. Adopting better habits demands a system.
It's no good just striving for goals, we need a system that creates better routines.
7. Keep it simple.
You'll seriously harm your chances of forming a new habit if you make it too complex or demanding.
8. It's important to make a plan for when and where you will perform a new habit.
Research consistently shows that desire or motivation just isn't enough.
9. Outcomes are not immediate.
That’s why many business leaders fall back into those bad ‘in the business’ habits that provide instant rewards.
10. Reward the new routine.
As business leaders, we must create measures that provide a sense of achievement when we work on the business.
11. It's easier with a group. Don't do it alone.
Bring your senior team with you and work together to develop new habits.
Quarterli® applies these eleven principles to help business leaders establish a new Keystone Leadership Habit for themselves and their senior team. It does so gently, over time, without the need for expensive, and potentially divisive, external support.
This new, quarterly routine is described briefly below:
1. Personal Introspection
The new routine starts with you. "Introspection" means 'looking inward: an examination of one's own thoughts and feelings'. So, as CEO, Managing Director or Managing Partner, you reflect on your organisation’s likelihood of success. A simple online survey helps you assess how your organisation measures up against 13 Growth Probability Indicators (GPIs); each critical to achieving profitable and sustainable growth.
This introspection helps you establish where you believe the business sits on the Growth Probability Matrix. But Quarterli® is more than just a business health check.
2. Senior Team Survey
You then choose whose opinions you want to canvas and invite them to undertake the same introspection, anonymously. This is typically the Board or the senior leadership team, but you might also include trusted external advisors or an up and coming member of the management team - it's your choice!
It’s not just their ratings that are important, it’s the comments they add to help explain their ratings that provide rich, actionable insights.
3. Improve Leadership Team Alignment
The Matrix introduces a simple framework and a common language that helps you gently surface different opinions and assumptions without the need for external consultancy. Once the results are in, you’ll be able to see how well aligned you are:
Your first priority is typically to improve alignment on one or two GPIs. This might require some analysis or simply setting aside some time to promote a healthy discussion. Whatever it is, set a handful of initial Growth Objectives to make sure these activities take place and you’re up and running.
4. Establish Shared Priorities
Building consensus on where you are now should allow everyone to work together to address any areas of relative weakness. The team can agree which GPIs need improving most urgently and commit to taking meaningful action. Growth Objectives are set using the best practices described here. These are embedded in the Quarterli® system.
Be careful, you can’t do everything at once, so don’t set the bar too high at this early stage! Remember, your goal here is to establish a new, quarterly habit for you and the whole senior team; it’s not a one-off intervention.
5. Improve and Validate Ratings
Every successfully completed Growth Objective helps you maintain alignment and increases your chances of success. You’ll gradually climb towards the top, right-hand corner of the Matrix. Periodically, you should seek external input to validate one or two GPI ratings.
This helps ensure that the senior team isn't just deluding itself!
This simple quarterly cycle allows you to make, measure and celebrate progress before recalibrating, reprioritising and repeating. This improves team cohesion and leads to more effective execution.
If you're a CEO, Managing Director and/or Business Owner then it’s critical to work 'on the business' with your senior team. This involves building a shared view of where your business stands today and what you need to do differently to fulfil your growth potential.
This is not a one-off activity, it can no longer wait for the annual planning cycle. It should be a regular, structured dialogue that aligns the senior team behind a clear mission and promotes 'healthy conflict' in order to identify, prioritise and close the gaps that need to be addressed.
Engaging the leadership team is crucial but complex. An understanding of the four barriers reinforces why this is something that you should own and initiate rather than outsource to an external consultant or adviser. Yes, they can provide expert insight and help with specific interventions but it’s your job to engage and lead the senior team in this activity.
If you recognise the need for better 'on the business' habits, then it's important to understand that when it comes to developing better habits, motivation alone, isn't enough.
Quarterli® is not a magic remedy that will cure all ills in these uncertain times, but it is an approach that supports leadership team development and will increase clarity and team alignment on critical issues.
It produces more effective board meetings where, together, you learn how to sense and then respond quickly to changes in your environment. That critical capability will strengthen over time and will ultimately provide you with a competitive edge that will help you scale your business..
Like all new habits, it might take some practice before it becomes second nature, but over time it will change the way you and your team think, speak and act and dramatically improve your chances of business success.
1. The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business; Patrick Lencioni; John Wiley & Sons; 2012
2. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones; James Clear; Random House; 2018
To understand how Quarterli® helps increase leadership alignment on critical issues and then keeps everyone pulling in the same direction, read the second book in the Quarterli® series.