Leadership Dim Sum
by Rob Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau

In this serving of dim sum from the authors of The Trusted Leader we start out with a piece that reminds us that sometimes being in the office makes us feel and act like adolescents, except that in this case we're talking about a clique based on organizational behavior, not personal whims. Next, we talk about the challenges of being the "outsider" who's hired into a top spot, inheriting direct reports who may be less than supportive. For the final course today, we discuss what happens when someone in the inner circle fails in a big way.

Leadership Dim Sum: The High-Level Clique

The group at the top of your organization works extremely well together. It's a tight team. Perhaps too tight. Somebody levels with you and says that people find the group way too insular, too much of a clique, apparently unwelcome to ideas brought forth by those not in the inner circle.

Things to think about: Can a group be too tight? Can that closeness hurt the organization in any way? Should others be brought into the inner circle to pacify the folks who are concerned?

There are numerous advantages to having a close-knit group of people at the top of an organization. Synergy. Momentum. Speed of decision-making. Ease of conflict resolution. Good humor. At the same time though, as Tom Valerio of CIGNA says, such a tight group can end up "selling each other hats" - thinking that the ideas they generate are great, but not putting them through the requisite checks and balances. "That's a lovely hat you have on." "No, yours is equally lovely." "No, yours is truly better." "No, yours is really superior." In other words, they run the risk of being so attuned to one another, and doing so much thinking in sync that they lose perspective.

Annie has lived this situation. And, as she puts it, "It's hard to resist the temptation simply to relax and enjoy the trust and closeness. It makes it great to go to work each day, knowing that you're aligned with your colleagues. The problem is that being so insular can distance the group from the realities of the organization at large."

Bringing others into the inner circle can help in cases like this. But there has to be a meaningful business reason for them to be there - something definite that they can contribute. Otherwise, they'll have a hard time breaking in - even if the group understands the situation and wants to help.

A better approach might be to create another inner circle that intersects with the one in question. Or at least to broaden the group's perspective (and connections with the organization at large) by deliberately building bridges to different parts of the company. Encourage them to call on a regular group of people outside the circle to offer their expertise and informed opinions on a variety of issues.

One top executive we know of - a member of just such an insular group - created his own advisory board, independent of the circle, to try to ensure that he was more attuned to the perspectives of those outside "the circle." He encouraged the others at the top to do the same. It was an effective maneuver.

Leadership Dim Sum: When You're the Outsider

At this company, the CEO had always been appointed from within. The company had four divisions - one of the division heads had always been tapped for the top job. That is, until two years ago, when its first top manager from "outside" had been hired. That hire hadn't lasted long ("It wasn't a fit," people said). And now a new CEO, also from the outside, is in place, with his work cut out for him. Of his four direct reports, two appear to be close allies of one another - almost to the point of being able to finish one another's sentences. The third is openly annoyed that the board has continued this trend of "going for an outsider." ("You'd have thought they'd learn from their mistakes - besides, it's a slap in the face to us four business unit heads," he's been overheard to say.) The fourth is an enigma - neither welcoming, nor resentful - just silent, with a perfect poker face.

Things to think about: Can you build a team at the top, or from those not "your own," when some people are openly resisting your presence? How can you size people up - quickly, but fairly? Where do you start, in such a situation? Should you cut resistance off at the knees, or can you afford to give people a chance to come around?

Our thoughts: Yes, you can build a team at the top from a team that existed before you, but think of it as a grafting process, which requires far greater care than straightforward assembly. And take nothing for granted. Move slowly, and carefully, to build personal trust with each member of the group, and with the group as a whole.

Unless you're dealing with a "bad guy." In that case, speed is important. And yes, you have to cut him off fast. But try, at the same time, to understand the source of his resistance thoroughly. Look for ancillary, or underlying, issues (which can come back to bite you if you don't ferret them out and deal with them, regardless of whether this person in particular remains in your inner circle.)

Do you remember Gunter Grass's allegorical novel, "The Tin Drum?" (It was generally used to explain how Nazi-ism grew.) The gist is that there was a character who had an annoying tin drum, which he beat constantly. But when people would take the drum away, he would shriek. The shrieking was so intolerable, they would relent and give him his drum back, and so on, and so on.

If everyone is resistant, visibly, you'll need to make a decision quickly as to whether it is worth working to overcome the resistance. If the answer is affirmative, then rolling up one's sleeves is what comes next. You might not have all the information you might like to make your decision, but you can't necessarily wait weeks or months for all the data to come in. It's fundamentally a gut call, and unless you love gambling, those calls are never easy.

Leadership Dim Sum: When Someone in the Inner Circle Fails

One of the members of your inner circle fails in a big way. For example, the reorganization they pushed so aggressively has resulted in a significant loss of business, and there is now an urgent need for a post-reorganization reorganization.

Things to think about: How should you handle the situation? How should your approach change if the failure is episodic, rather than a one-time event? How do you deal with the other team members' reactions and actions, whatever they may be?

You have to be open; in such a small group of people, you really have no other choice. You can't sweep failure at the top under the rug. Everyone will know anyway.

But if ever there was a place for a "teaching moment" this is it. This is what Franklin Jonath, a prominent Boston-based psychologist, refers to as an opportunity for "visible coaching."

What's visible coaching? A delicate and critical balance between providing support and showing some pretty tough love. You want everyone to see your response, so that they'll follow suit and understand your message (which is really directed at them as well). You want everyone in the group to understand that it is OK to take risks and make mistakes. You don't want to take away that freedom and that confidence. At the same time, you want people to understand that taking risks is not without risk.

It's important to gauge just how heavy a hand one should use. If the failure was truly a "one-off" then it really is a true teaching moment. If, however, it was either episodic or part of a pattern, it may be time to exercise some greater oversight over this person's decision-making until your confidence is restored.

Rob Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau are the authors of The Trusted Leader (The Free Press, January 2003). Robert Galford is Managing Partner of the Center for Executive Development in Boston, and has taught executive education programs at Columbia, Kellogg and Harvard. He is the co-author of The Trusted Advisor (with David H. Maister and Charles H. Green). Anne Seibold Drapeau is Chief People Officer of Boston-based Digitas and has held management positions at Pepsi, J.P. Morgan, and FTD. More information on the book and contact information for the authors is available at http://www.thetrustedleader.com . Take the Trusted Leader self-assessment test at: http://www.thetrustedleader.com/test.html .

The Trusted Leader:
Bringing Out the Best in Your People and Your Company

by Robert Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau
Free Press, January 2003

Many more articles in Creative Leadership I and II in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Rob Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau. All rights reserved.

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