Successful Partnerships for Leading Change

Leigh Bailey | November 16, 2009 | Blog | Leadership Team Development | 2 minute read

Several of my clients are in the midst of significant organization transformations. The goals of the transformations are similar: increasing cross-functional integration (acting less like multiple silos); building stronger enterprise leadership teams to deal with new competitive and economic challenges; improving sales results; seeking ways to utilize talent more effectively.

One barrier to success is how to improve teamwork between the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) (the CEO and his or her direct reports) and the leaders who are one level down and are often referred to as the Senior Management Team (SMT). It is critical that these two levels partner successfully if the organization change initiative is going to be successful.

So what gets in the way of a successful partnership? At least three things:

  1. Most companies are used to operating hierarchically. The old rules have been that the senior leadership team dictates the strategy to the next level down and then expects them (the SMT) to execute the strategy. Unfortunately, when the SMT is not involved in setting the strategy and when the going gets tough (and it will), the tendency is for the SMT to sit back and criticize the strategy rather than pitching in as equal partners with the SLT to move the company forward.
  2. Senior leaders tend to over value getting tasks done and under value the people side of managing change. One of the predictable results of a major change initiative is that people in the organization become overwhelmed and discouraged. The old way of doing things doesn’t work and the new way is just that—new. So everyone works harder on getting all the tasks done. What leaders forget is that managing change is, to a large degree, about coaching people on how to deal with loss. Loss of familiarity, loss of old colleagues, and loss of a feeling of expertise are just a few. SLT members need to take the time to coach the SMT through their feelings of loss and disorientation so that SMT can get on with coaching their teams. Sometimes this involves tough love—recognizing when an SMT member is not able to get on with it and making a change in leadership. Getting these things right is not about doing tasks. It is about leading human beings. It might mean having to do tasks in the evening or on weekends for a while in order to have enough time for the people issues. So be it. At times, that is the price of leadership.
  3. The third barrier relates to the first. Many SLTs feel like their work is done once the new strategy is in place and would prefer to leave implementation solely to the SMT. But, in most cases, SMT members need more hands-on help and direction in order to fully understand what the SLT wants and needs them to do. The SLT needs to focus on being visible and creating opportunities for dialogue with SMT members and their teams to understand where lack of clarity exists. The SLT needs to help the SMT with converting the new vision into specific goals with metrics and timelines.

How is the partnership in your organization between the SLT level and the SMT level? What have you done that has helped to build this critical partnership?