When your car’s tires have an alignment issue, it is not only difficult to stay on course but it wears your tires without noticing. The same is true for your company. If everyone isn’t aligned to the same goals with the same strategy — if someone is pulling a little bit more to the right or to the left—you won’t stay on course and you will end up wasting a lot of resources.

Misalignment happens when leaders are not on the same page in terms of visions, strategic goals, or priorities. Left unresolved, misalignment is the silent killer of growth. Just like misaligned tires, misalignment on your company’s goals and strategies may not be obvious to identify – but it endlessly wears your organization if you don’t address it.

What is wrong with being “misaligned” as a leadership team?

The cost of misalignment at the leadership team level can be significant: “Many versions of the truth lead to people running in different directions,” Gravitas coach Mike Goldman explains in his recent book “Breakthrough Leadership Team”. “Conflicting visions, goals, and priorities can do worse than slow you down; they can have you move backward and cause A-players to run for the doors.”

Even though you may assume that your leadership team is aligned, your organization may think differently: according to the Partners in Leadership Workplace Accountability Study (a multi-year study involving over 40,000 participants), “85% of survey participants indicated that they weren’t even sure what their organizations are trying to achieve. About 33% feel their priorities change frequently, creating confusion.”  That is an alignment issue.  How can people be aligned if they do not know where they are going?

Similarly, a 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Report (a survey of more than 11,000 business leaders) found that “respondents at organizations with the highest level of CxO cross-collaboration were the most likely to anticipate growth of 10% or more. Stunningly, however, 73% of respondents told us that their C-suite leaders rarely, if ever, work together on projects or strategic initiatives. 54% of the respondents told us that their companies are not ready, or only somewhat ready, for the level of executive-team collaboration they believe is now required.” The report concludes: “The message is clear: senior leaders must get out of their silos and work with each other more. Company’s top leaders must act as one.” Easier said than done. How can you put this mantra into practice?

As Gravitas coach Mark Green points out in “Creating a Culture of Accountability”: “In an organization clarity and alignment only flow in one direction: down. The farther away from senior leadership, the fuzzier those elements become. When there is poor clarity and alignment at the top, by the time you reach the front lines, you are usually looking at a train wreck.”

Misalignment is such a pernicious issue because it is often invisible: Even though you may think that your leadership team is aligned, they often are not.

Why are people not aligned?

Misalignment can take different shapes, like:

  • High-level, fluffy conversations: The leadership team discusses an important topic and agrees on the way forward at a high-level – without discussing the implications on a day-to-day basis. As soon as they start implementing the decision, they realize that they are absolutely not aligned on how to implement it and/or on the consequences of the implementation.
  • Yes-nodding: this happens when you make the call as the CEO, and your management team simply nods in agreement – even though they don’t agree. You know that there is an issue when even the team members who are typically unafraid to challenge you become quiet.
  • Zombie issues: the leadership team knows that they are not aligned and is trying to solve it, but they never come up with a solution. Or worse: they are so fed up arguing about the same issue, or afraid to create yet another heated debate, they don’t discuss the issue anymore. Mike Goldman describes that “this is a sign that your leadership team members aren’t communicating enough, aren’t communicating in the right way, or don’t fully trust one another. Teams that aren’t comfortable enough with each other don’t tackle and resolve tough issues. The issues they do tackle are often left with no resolution or a fuzzy resolution at best. This results in “zombie issues” – issues you think are dead but keep coming back to life. The result is frustration and confusion.”

What to do about it?

Goldman identifies five key steps to tackle team misalignment.

   1. Surface the misalignment

In some cases this is the most difficult step, because many misalignments remain hidden for a long time. Asking at the end of a leadership team meeting “Are we all aligned?” clearly doesn’t help: everyone on your leadership team may think that the team is aligned, even though you are not.

I like to ask each leadership team member of my clients a direct question, like: “If this initiative is successful, how much revenue will it generate in 3 years?” or “What are the strategic priorities that this company should focus on?” – or simply: “What should this company achieve in 3 years from now?” I ask them to write their answer individually, on a post-it note. If the team is perfectly aligned all answers should tell the same story. If the post-it notes tell more than one story, there is a problem.

Another way to identify potential misalignment is to ask each leadership team member individually this question inspired by Gravitas coach Brad Giles, author of “Made to Thrive”: “What are the Elephants in the business?” (ie the big issues that people are reluctant to talk about, but that we have to iron out as a leadership team). This question often leads to much-needed conversations with the leadership team.

   2. Debate the issue in a safe, conflict-friendly environment

 Make sure that you have a safe environment where you and your leadership team can have healthy, productive, passionate idea-based conflicts – as opposed to personality-based conflicts. Idea-based conflicts are a good thing. They require what Patrick Lencioni calls “vulnerability-based trust” in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” “Trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another about their weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes, and requests for help.” Vulnerability-based trust implies that you are not afraid to openly admit to your team when you make mistakes or when you don’t know how to do something, because you know that your team members won’t shoot you in the back. This is different from “time-based trust” (ie “we have been working for 10 years together and therefore I can predict how you will react in given circumstances”). There are several ways to create and enhance vulnerability-based trust on your team. As the company leader you play a major role in this process by demonstrating vulnerability first.

Lencioni continues: “Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. Instead, they resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments. If you don’t get productive idea-based conflicts, then that fear of conflict actually ferments into personality-based conflicts.” On the contrary, “by building trust, a team makes [idea-centered] conflicts possible because team members do not hesitate to engage in a passionate and sometimes emotional debate, knowing that they will not be punished for saying something that might otherwise be interpreted as destructive or critical. Teams that engage in productive conflict know that the only purpose is to produce the best possible solution in the shortest amount of time. They discuss and resolve issues more quickly and completely than others, and they emerge from heated debates with no residual feelings or collateral damage, but with an eagerness and readiness to take on the next important issue.”

   3. Clarify accountability on decision-making

At some point in a healthy debate, once everyone’s voice has been heard, the person accountable for this area of the business needs to make the call. Who is it? It is not necessarily the CEO. This is where clear accountability is needed. The key question is: Who is accountable for each of the key functions and decisions in your company? Taking some time with your leadership team to agree on which KPIs/results each leader is expected to deliver is essential. Surprisingly these conversations on accountability often lead to the conclusion that more than one person are accountable for a given function (for instance: Who is accountable for customer experience: the head of customer service or the head of sales? Who is accountable for strategy development: the head of marketing, the CEO, or the CFO?), or that a key function hasn’t been filled by anyone at all.

   4. Agree to disagree and commit

The goal of healthy conflicts about ideas is not always to have everyone agree on the course of action: healthy conflicts help make better decisions thanks to the diversity of points of view. They also ensure that everyone’s opinion was heard and genuinely considered, so that people can commit to the decision. As Lencioni puts it: “By engaging in productive conflicts and tapping into team members’ perspectives and opinions, a team can confidently commit and buy in to a decision knowing that they have benefited from everyone’s idea.” Goldman concludes: “Disagree and commit is when, as a member of your leadership team, you go back to your subordinates and say, “As a leadership team we decided that this was the best option. Let’s talk about how we are going to make it work. No “They went with the option I was opposed to” or “I lost the battle.” As a leader, you can argue vehemently for your point of view. But once you have been heard and a decision is made you must, as a member of the leadership team, commit to making it work.”

   5. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Don’t assume that everyone remembers the decisions that you and your leadership team make on vision, goals, and strategic priorities. Your team needs to be constantly reminded. As Goldman puts it: “You can’t say it once or twice at a retreat and think everyone understands. You need to communicate so often that people around the table roll their eyes and mouth the words as you say them. At that point you might think you’ve overcommunicated. But, in fact, that’s the point where people might be starting to understand what you’ve been saying.”

Conclusions

Ultimately a team’s ability to prevent and deal with misalignment issues rests on its culture, and most importantly on its three key components, as identified by Mike Goldman:

  • “Values – a set of non-negotiable behaviors that anchor the company’s culture.
  • A shared vision – a clear picture of the desired, positive future for the company.
  • Vulnerability – which explores the importance of trust, commitment, and accountability on the leadership team.”

Goldman concludes: “The 3 elements of values, vision, and vulnerability cascade down from the leadership team to the entire company. A resulting sign that you have the right culture is when your leadership team develops camaraderie: leadership team members should like each other. Team members don’t have to be best friends, but they do want to build each other up and help each other out.

Your leadership team must be far more than an all-star group of talented A-players. If the team has this glue that binds them together, you can do more with a less talented leadership team than with all-stars who don’t embrace what’s most important.”

As a business coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Often their roadblocks include misalignment on vision, strategic goals, or priorities: even though all leadership team members have good intentions, they don’t completely agree on where to go and how – consciously or not. As a result, growth slows down. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.

What about you? If I quizzed each of your leaders about your company’s vision, goals, or strategy, how many different answers would I hear? Which steps do you take to proactively prevent and identify misalignments?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.