The pitfalls of a smart executive team

Having the smartest people in the room sounds like a sure bet. How can you fail with all that intelligence and knowledge on your side? Pretty easily, it turns out. The list of major companies that have been routed or rendered irrelevant by smaller, more agile companies is long and well documented. Almost invariably these failed companies were brimming with the “smartest” folks around. Which suggests we take a closer look at the limitations of smart–and what it actually takes to sustain a high performing organization.

Smart is more curse than blessing when people equate it with knowing, having the answers, or with certainty. While knowing lots of stuff, having ready answers and conveying a sense of certainty may be useful in some situations, they also carry some profound and very practical limitations. First of all, they tend to be backward-oriented. Much of what we know is based on our past experience; the answers that we might confidently apply to today’s questions are often yesterday’s answers. Which wouldn’t be a problem if things weren’t changing so quickly these days.

At the risk of looking backward here to make the point, there is nothing new about this idea: More than twenty-five hundred years ago Heraclitus stated that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” It was probably ignored or glibly dismissed back then, too. Point is, to be truly responsive and effective in today’s world, we have to actually be here today; not following yesterday’s playbook. Clearly this is easier said than done, especially when your organization’s culture places a premium on being “right” and appearing certain.

When we have “the answers,” we tend to stop asking questions. We stop being curious about what’s going on around us and why. Even more importantly, we stop being curious about what’s going on “inside” of us and our team and why. We stop asking questions like, What might we be missing about what’s going on in the marketplace that may not be obvious from the data? Or, What might be some potentially harmful longer term implications of our proposed “solution”, even though it might address some near-term pain points? Or, How are the assumptions we are operating on that might be outdated or ungrounded? Or, How might the way that we executives speak and listen to one another be limiting our thinking, hindering our alignment or producing weak promises (in other words, creating the very conditions we all wish to avoid)? These are pretty timeless questions–they were as relevant 100 years ago as they are today–but the answers must be timely, fresh and alive in order to serve us well in the present.

One reason executive teams stop asking themselves these questions is that it makes folks uncomfortable. It can be awkward, embarrassing, even downright threatening to acknowledge that this “smart” group of leaders doesn’t have all the answers, and that the future truly is–regardless of how confident these leaders may appear–fundamentally uncertain and not knowable. (BTW, this dynamic starts well before the executive board room. We learn it in grade school and it’s reinforced right through college, as we are encouraged to study the “right” answers (instead of questioning the question or seeking alternative ways of thinking about the question), and are rewarded for what we “know” as evidenced by our standardized test scores.)

Another challenge is that yesterday’s answer seem so “reasonable.” They are familiar, comfortable and make sense within the historical (and now habitual) thinking that produced them. And when the rest of the organization, and often the rest of the industry, shares this “common sense” it’s very difficult to examine it carefully, must less depart from it.

To sum it up, when leaders already believe they have the answers, or that their past experience is an infallible guide to the future, they stop reflecting, stop challenging their own views. Feedback mechanisms are closed, dissenting views are avoided and unintentionally shut down. People cease to learn, which means that the present and future are no longer accessible to them or their organization. The best they can do is replicate what’s worked before and hope it will work again (while continuing to appear smart and maintaining an air of certainty).

Here are a few ways to get beyond “smart:” Try building time in your weekly team meeting to intentionally take on unreasonable or counter-intuitive viewpoints, and to challenge your team’s long-cherished assumptions, opinions and “knowledge.” Flip the focus from what do we know to how much we don’t know about this situation and how can we uncover more about our blindspots? Instead of hiring the most experienced, knowledgable person to fill a position, try prioritizing for someone with less experience who can think differently and learn voraciously (think Moneyball). Make sure to feed and care for your team’s ignorance. It may be the most intelligent thing you can do to improve and sustain performance.

How collaborative is your leadership team?

Put a group of smart, creative and committed leaders together and you don’t automatically get a high performing, collaborative leadership team. You’ll often get something that looks more like a polite cage fight, with each player jockeying for position, working hard to avoid losing and maximize winning (winning = more authority, recognition, control, territory, headcount, being right, whatever). These struggles can be pretty subtle, but the result is easy to spot: critical problems remain unaddressed; small-picture thinking; low accountability and trust; and of course, disappointing business results.

To be really collaborative, a team needs to consistently do three things very well together: Learn, Design and Commit. These are not platitudes—they each represent concrete and learnable skills and they are essential for collaborative performance. Moreover, they are skills that collaborative teams practice together day in and day out, just like the practices that sustain elite athletes, martial artists, musicians, dancers, soldiers, and high performers in any discipline that demands deep skill, precision, and coordination.

Learning Together – this entails the ability to listen astutely to the concerns, commitments and possibilities behind what people are saying; and, reflective inquiry, which is the ability to formulate and ask powerful questions—and to be genuinely curious about the answers. Reflective inquiry allows us to observe and respectfully challenge the underlying interpretations and narratives that always accompany the facts, assessments, assumptions and explanations about what is going on, why, and what it might mean. When it’s missing, so is important feedback and data about the business. Without this capacity to learn together, teams have a hard time making decisions and “designing” the future together. They often end up solving the wrong problems or solving the right problems in superficial ways that don’t actually work long-term. In addition, successful innovation is almost impossible, and the organization’s ability to respond quickly to changing conditions goes way down.

Designing Together – This is all about shaping the future. Collaborative teams integrate what they learn together into a shared picture, a narrative, about the future they want to create for their organization. This narrative spells out what success looks like, what milestones are important, and how to get there together (typically referred to with words like vision, mission, goals, objectives, strategies, standards, behavioral norms, etc.). Because they’re tuned in to their organization, the market and their industry (they’re continually learning together, remember?), high-performing teams understand that part of their job is to continually update and refine their narrative about the future and how to realize it. Nothing stands still for long, so neither should an organization’s ends and means. In addition to KPI’s, we like the idea of KLI’s—Key Learning Indicators, to help leadership teams stay focused on what matters and the key to what matters—learning, design, and…meaningful commitments.

Committing Together – this sounds pretty vague, but we at GJC are almost obsessively specific about the nature and practice of commitments. There are really just two ways that we human beings commit ourselves to anything: by physically doing it with our bodies (like throwing out all the sweets in the cupboard when we commit ourselves to eating better, or throwing our bodies in front of the bus to save our child, for instance), or by uttering certain words (through language). Words like Yes, No, Stop, Go, Because…, I will, We won’t, You may, I promise, Will you?…and the list goes on and on. But these are not just innocent throw-away words—the words we use to commit ourselves, our teams, our organizations, our assets, even our lives—can be as concrete and powerful as any physical move we might make to commit ourselves. And often much more powerful.

This is because language is the primary way that we get things done in organizations. For leadership teams (or project teams, management teams, or any other type of team), clearly understanding and learning to harness the “linguistic action” inherent in our everyday language makes the difference between alignment, accountability, and performance…and just hot air. There are several ways that we commit ourselves with language, but the one that is most obvious is by making a promise. As obvious as promises may appear however, there are all sorts of ways that individuals and teams can and do inadvertently weaken, confuse, inhibit and poorly manage promises (and therefore performance).

So learning to recognize, make and manage promises effectively (among other linguistic commitments) is not just a good idea. It’s the only way teams get the right stuff done together. As coaches and consultants, we have worked with lots of teams and organizations, and there has never once been a case in which poor performance was not linked to wea promises. (As you may be guessing by now, of course, weak promises are one of the casualties of weak team learning and design.)


Managers – Is Something Missing From Your Job Description?

There may be something missing, but you may not know it. You probably don’t think about it most of the time, but without it you wouldn’t get anything done. You wouldn’t even have your job.

Here are some hints…

  • We all do it all the time–with our bosses, our reports, our peers, our customers, our competitors (and with our friends, our lovers, our kids, and our neighbors’ kids).
  • It actually shapes what we see, how we think, and what we commit ourselves and our organizations to.
  • It’s all about action (but may not always appear that way).
  • Without it you wouldn’t even have your job.

The answer: You have conversations.

You’re attempting to stifle that yawn, but consider: As a manager, almost everything you do is conversational. Let’s take a closer look…

Obviously your meetings, phone calls, skypes, emails, blogs, texts, even tweets are conversations–somebody is speaking (or typing) and somebody is listening (or reading). So that also includes preparing and reading reports, articles, books, slide decks and the rest of it. Even if they’re not in the same room at the same time, there is still a conversation taking place between the speaker (or author) and the actual or imagined listener or audience.

You spend most of your time reviewing numbers, immersed in financials or dashboards? Those are conversations. You’re still “listening” to the person who prepared the report. That person is “speaking” to you, conveying and organizing facts, possibilities, predictions. Telling you a story in the language of numbers and graphs. And in response to their speaking, you’ll be forming your own story, and you’ll likely continue the conversation in some way, perhaps by thanking them for their work, asking for clarity or more supporting data, or making a decision based upon what they said.

You like to sit quietly in your office, reflecting? (You do quietly reflect sometimes, don’t you?) Even when deep in thought, we are often still in conversation with real or imagined others. There is someone speaking and someone listening, although it happens to be one and the same person (us). If you’ve ever tried to meditate for even just 5 minutes, you know how constant—even relentless—your inner conversations can be.

I’m not saying that we don’t do anything else, but in one way or another, it all comes back to conversation.

We typically assume that our conversations are something to be tolerated in between the “real” work: “Enough talk, let’s do something!” But as managers, our conversations are the real work, because as my colleague, author, speaker and business consultant Dr. Rafael Echeverria says, “conversation is action; when we speak we act.”

That is in fact what many linguists, biologists, social psychologists and others now understand—that we human beings get things done with words—through conversation. We plan, evaluate, describe, seek help, offer help, hire, fire, learn, make promise, succeed and fail… with words. Our words even shape our emotions and our bodies (but more on that another time).

Through conversation we exert a force, we generate power in the world. But clearly some conversations are more potent than others.


What’s a good conversation?

Good conversations can alter people’s understanding and change what they commit themselves to. Good conversations can open up new possibilities that weren’t conceived of before. They foster meaningful commitments and strengthen relationships. They’re energizing. Good conversations set into motion a virtuous cycle in which we build trust with one another which helps us to be more open, cooperative and accountable with one another tomorrow and the next day.

When conversations aren’t good, they set into motion a different kind of cycle. They widen the distance between us, leading to misaligned actions, weak business results. Disappointment, distrust and defensiveness spawned by poor conversations can linger and accumulate like toxic sludge, contaminating relationships, teams and entire organizations. You’ve probably experienced a toxic organization at some point. You may even be working in one now. It’s not because the people themselves are screwed up, it’s just that their conversations are weak.

Here are just a few common symptoms of weak conversations…

  1. People around you are constantly fighting fires, feeling overwhelmed, heroically solving the same problems again and again.
  2. Everybody knows what the “real” problems are (the elephants), but these aren’t discussed with the people who can actually do something them. Or when they are raised, nothing changes.
  3. People complain about meetings, saying they’re a waste of time. Meetings sometimes even make things worse, destroying what little trust and morale people may be clinging to, and further widening the distance between folks who are already hunkered down in their silos.

When you know what to look for, you can trace each of these symptoms back to weak conversations. And it’s pretty common.


How common are weak conversations?

For years, my colleague, author, speaker and business consultant Dr. Rafael Echeverria, has been asking business executives around the world how many of their daily conversations they felt are ineffective, as in do not produce satisfactory results. Ready for a shock?

These highly successful, highly paid CEOs and VPs from widely diverse companies, industries and cultures consistently estimate that more than 50% of their conversations are not effective. These estimates jive with my own informal polling of executives over the years.

What do you think the cost of these ineffective conversations is to your organization? The wasted meetings, lost business opportunities, misaligned actions, poorly kept promises? What if you could improve these conversations by just 10% or 20% (You can improve them by much more than that, but let’s be conservative).

Try this exercise: For the next week, pay close attention to your most important conversations, noting…

  • How people (including you) are listening to each other. Are they checking their own listening with others to be sure they’re actually getting what the speaker is intending? Are they each leaving the conversation with different ideas of what was decided and who is going to do what?
  • How people (yourself included) are thinking or feeling at the end of the conversation versus at the beginning. Are people letting themselves be influenced as much as they are trying influence each other?
  • What is not being talked about. What might people be avoiding? And why do you think that may be? (It’s usually because we don’t feel confident about having conversations in which people may feel uncomfortable.)
  • The mood and energy of the conversation. Are people open, curious, appreciative of others? Or do you notice defensiveness, resignation, or antagonism? Are folks leaving the conversation energized or deflated? (These are just a few examples. You may notice many other moods.)

Observing your conversations more closely, you may notice things that you haven’t seen before. You may see all sorts of room for improvement.

If you do, know this: You can improve your conversations–dramatically. You and your team can develop good conversational chops. But it doesn’t just happen by itself—you’ll have to treat it like any other skill and make it a priority.

Get some coaching, learn about what works and what doesn’t work in effective conversations. Set time aside in your team conversations for practicing and exchanging constructive feedback about how your conversations are going.

Which brings us back to your job description. Even though it’s probably not spelled out, one of your key job responsibilities is to have really good conversations. Because that’s what makes you a good performer.

With so much riding on your team’s conversations, you might also want to start including “fostering effective conversations” in your organization’s job descriptions. At the very least, it could be a good conversation starter.