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Tougher on the Top: Why I Hold Senior Team Leaders to a Higher Standard

Some people claim life is easier at the top, but I’ve never seen a management team at any level that was exempt from the regular challenges of humanity: confusion, misdirection, politics, posturing, and the general worry that the decisions being made together aren’t as good as what someone could have accomplished alone. The problem of getting a management team of any sort to act nimbly and deliver optimal results for the organization is a tricky one. I’ve written this book (and others) on the subject, I’ve made a whole career helping leaders do it well, and I’m here to tell you: I don’t think it’s easier at the top – I think it gets harder. To make matters worse, I expect more, too: the higher in the organization I’m working, the tougher a grader I become for my clients.

Why? First, because whatever the content of the conversations, the human side of the work – never easy in any group – is often hardest at the top. Ideally, management is a group of humans who come together in such a way that they develop accountability for their own results, a clear understanding of each other’s work and how those results relate, a direct interest in seeing all that work succeed (as opposed to just their own), and a set of habits that keep them focused on what’s coming instead of what’s already happened. All of this is challenge enough. Add to that in senior teams the more complex coordination of whole organizations, the additional layers of management over which information is distributed, and the increased cost of mistakes – to say nothing of the strength of the personalities involved – and it’s that much more treacherous. If you’re running a team of senior managers or leaders, and you’re not extra careful to do it well, you’re quite likely to do it poorly.

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But that’s not the only reason I hold senior leaders more accountable to management processes. Heck, it’s not even the biggest one. I’m tougher on upper levels mostly because those team meetings act as prototypes for subordinate levels. I’m not speaking metaphorically – this is something I’ve seen first-hand, in real life, multiple times and in multiple companies. It looks something like this: I attend a senior leader’s staff meeting that uses, let’s say, a particular template for a mundane function like tracking open action items.  Then I attend a subordinate’s staff meeting and notice, hey, this person is using the same template. Then I attend the staff meeting for one of those team members. I’m now two levels off the original meeting, and lo and behold, the same template appears again. The senior leader doesn’t instruct or even expect subordinates to propagate the template, the subordinates don’t directly ask the senior leader for it, and the second-level employee has never even been to the senior meeting.  And yet, they’ve all “agreed” on the template – which is to say, they’re all using it voluntarily.

It’s a great example of my favorite operating definition of organizational culture: patterns of behavior start as solutions to practical problems and then become unconsciously repeated as “normal.” I need an action item tracking template, my boss has one, I copy it, my subordinate sees it, she needs one, she copies it, and on down the line. Pretty soon it’s no longer a template we all use – it’s simply the template.

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More importantly, it’s not just the template being replicated, but the associated behavior. Think about it: the act of recording action items isn’t something that happens in every staff meeting, though I’d argue it should. It is something that happens in every meeting run by someone who adopts that template from her boss.  She sees her boss doing it, decides it would work well in her own meeting, and picks up the practice. This is the very definition of cultural propagation of behavioral norms; it’s how the senior meeting makes the whole organization run better in ways the leader may never even notice.

Well, maybe it makes it run better. Let’s talk for a minute about quality. If that senior team routinely captures action items in such vague terms that nobody knows what they mean a week later, I promise you’ll see the same thing happening in the junior teams. But if the senior team does a good, diligent job of capturing the relevant agreements and holding people accountable to them, with enough detail and without going overboard recording every word, and if everyone takes the time to review and understand what’s been agreed upon, well, then…

Then, uh, the subordinate teams will do so too. Right? Right?

Sometimes. Sometimes they’ll do just as good a job as the senior team did. Sometimes, they’ll do a little worse. Sometimes, they’ll do a whole lot worse.  But they’ll almost never do better. The downward duplication of patterns of management behavior is something akin to making copies of copies of copies on your office machine. If the originals are high quality, the copies will all look ok. But the fuzzier the originals, each generation of copies deteriorates. The real reason I’m so careful to make sure my senior team clients run their meetings well is that their subordinate teams probably won’t execute better than the modeling they get from above – but there is a good chance they’ll do a little worse. So I want the initial example to be as strong as possible.

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Now I may not be harshly grading you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t harshly grade yourself. If you run a team at any level of seniority – meaning you have managers reporting in, or especially managers of managers – remember: You’re not just running a staff meeting, you’re producing the example of how you want all your subordinates to be managed. Ask yourself what you want that to look like, and then do your best to make it happen visibly and obviously in your own staff meeting. Tell people what you want, yes, but also show them what you want. Hold yourself to the highest possible standard. Because if you don’t – if you just take the approach of, “whatever happens in my meeting happens, and everyone else will figure it out,” then you’re consciously making the choice to set up an organization of chaos, confusion, and noise.

Of course, if you’re concerned you’re not a strict enough grader, don’t worry. Just call me. I’ll have a look at what you’re doing, and I promise not to let you off easy – not even a little.

Want an easier way to be a tougher self-grader? Visit IterateNow.com and register for access to the Assessment of Iterative Management Practices.

Originally published on LinkedIn

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