From time to time I am asked by organization development practitioners what I think the essential ingredients are for developing executive-level leadership competencies and therefore healthy C-Suites. Here are my thoughts on how to guide clients in developing executive competencies with the views and behaviors that are needed to progress into and/or develop healthy C-Suites.
Change Management (The Power of Culture):
Organizations evolve cultural and technical process systems for data gathering, analysis and learning, cultural and technical process change, and institutionalization of change. The operational windows of these systems may be quite lengthy, and may be “iceberg” archetypes — the real work is going on well beneath the level that casual observation would reveal. The telltale markers for these systems are the use of organizational memes like invention, innovation, and productivity.
Let us go with the definitions that invention is an idea made manifest, while an innovation is an idea applied successfully in practice, resulting in incremental and emergent or radical and revolutionary changes in thinking, processes, products, or organizations. Put another way, invention is about “process” (including product), while innovation is about “culture” ( changes in attitudes, ideals, and behaviors). Then productivity, like invention, is also about “process”. But productivity improvement is about innovation (product, process, engagement method, and/or organizational method) — which is about “culture”.
To achieve organizational resilience in the face of internal and external forces, C-Suite leaders of organizations have to be able to map out, accommodate, and where possible, influence the internal and external cultural forces (value systems, needs, and degree of suffering and/or joy) that drive organizational behavior (quality, cost, design-delivery, service-support, morale-satisfaction). The larger the organization, the more complex and inter-meshed these relational ecosystems are.
So the key executive competency is the ability to hold, process, and act on simultaneous scalable systems views — in the face of persistent ambiguity. This requires being able to embrace and decode possibly conflicting signals from the external “market” (“Profit”) regarding value systems, core needs, desired greeds, and degrees of suffering and/or joy (as levels of resistance) at both a macro-level, as well as at a personalized empathetic micro-level. This requires being able to embrace and decode possibly conflicting signals from suppliers and employees (“People”) regarding individual and collective aspirations and actual sustainable performance levels. This requires being able to embrace and decode possibly weak signals from collateral parties regarding the actual total costs of and impact on individual and collective quality of life (“Planet”).
The developmental risk is that leaders becomes overwhelmed by the seeming enormity and complexity of the relational ecosystems — leading to either brash behavior, or non-action. A framework is required that allows for the discovery of the fractal relationship of these various systems — thus reducing their apparent complexity. To progress to a healthy C-Suite requires knowledge of how to intentionally “think & feel” C-Suite perspectives, and test and refine those C-Suite perceptions by gathering current data about some of the big “issues” facing the organization, and analyzing those issues as precisely as possible from some of the C-Suite perspectives:
- CEO: articulate and embody the vision, values, ideals (behavioral), conceptual integration, passion, communication protocols, and authority style of the organization;
- CFO: “dollarize” the resources, actions (systems-processes-tasks), and results (products-services-behaviors) that are required to address the issues;
- COO: identify and implement the strategies and tactics that address the operational excellence constraints regarding the performance costs of quality (defects), design (need), and delivery (schedule) aspects of the issues;
- CPO: identify and implement the strategies and tactics for addressing the human resource constraints regarding the supplier, employee, leader, and Board of Directors behaviors required to achieve the business goals while maintaining-enhancing the well being of the people;
- CIO: identify and implement the strategies and tactics for developing and maintaining the integrated balanced scorecard and operational systems (mission critical and supporting) representing the organizational relationships between the CEO, CFO , COO, and CPO strategic and operational metrics and measures.
The leadership development task is to to test those perceptions against the behaviors of both healthy and unhealthy C-Suite, and humbly check those resulting insights with internal sponsors, mentors, and coaches. Then begin to calibrate perceptions and insights, and skillfully use C-Suite “thinking & feeling” to influence and enhance understanding and performance. These two things are what will get noticed and lead to promotion. The motto is that you can’t get there (formally) until you have already been there (informally).
Wicked Problems (The Power of Ambiguity):
One major difference that arises as organization size increases is that the energetic connection and level of intimacy decreases between the leader and anyone outside of the the first two or three rings of the inner circle. In my experience, a leader can keep personal track of about 165 employees and can recognize up to about 600 people, with anything above 300 being “I think I have seen you before maybe.” This presents as layers of abstraction between the leader, the employee, the actual work, and the work experience.
In larger organizations, by the time an issue/problem requires C-Suite attention, it is an abstraction, and not the direct in-the-moment personal experience of the leader. Any specific (concrete) issues/problems are the responsibility of lower levels of management to identify and address. The C-Suite deals with “ambiguous” (abstract) issue/problem situations. I call these situations “wicked problems”. When a problem presents with both technical process and cultural issues, it falls into the “wicked problem” category. Thus, “wicked problems” are problems that simultaneously involve both “process” and “cultural” issues — where from the “process” side there doesn’t seem to be sufficient time, information, and/or resources to adequately address the critical issues; and where from the “cultural” side any solutions will necessarily be highly “cultural” in nature — requiring individual awareness of and changes in physical, emotional, cognitive, and/or spiritual models and behaviors (lifestyles) at both the individual and collective levels. They are “wicked” problems because the solutions must address consideration of imminent extinction of some sort — like losing a critical contract and starting down the steep path to insolvency.
So the key executive competency is the ability to discern and build strategy based on — “Destabilizing Competitive Intentions”:
* Multiple Competing (Possibly Polarized) — Ideals (“Normal” & “Under Stress”) among Stakeholders
* Multiple Competing (Possibly Polarized) — Motives (“Needs & Greeds”) among Stakeholders
* Multiple Competing (Possibly Polarized) — Customs & Norms among Stakeholders
* Multiple Competing (Possibly Polarized) — Responses (physiological | emotional | cognitive | spiritual) among Stakeholders
* Multiple Competing (Possibly Polarized) — Behaviors (“Normal” & “Under Stress”) among Stakeholders
* Multiple Competing (Possibly Polarized) — Understandings (Interpretations) among Stakeholders
And these will present as ambiguity and anxiety about time, information, resources, and/or commitment. The developmental risk is that leaders may fall into a “Unity Fallacy” or a “Separation Fallacy” (Johnson, 2012).
In a “Unity Fallacy”, the unchallenged assumption is that the opposite of “Unity” (uniformity, oneness, singularity, or sameness) is “Separateness” (solitary, individualistic, selfish, aloof), whereas the actual opposite of Unity is “Wholeness” (multiplicity or diversity). Thus in the aspiration for interconnectedness, and driven by fear of isolation (“separateness”) — the leader wrongly eliminates diversity (multiplicity), thereby extinguishing integrity (“wholeness”), creativity, and actual interconnectedness.
In a “Separation Fallacy”, the unchallenged assumption is that it is possible and/or desirable to view oneself (or one’s organization) as independent from the systems of relationships and dynamics that one is engaged in — such as an unbiased observer, an unaffected witness, a non-emotional leader, . . . ). Thus in the aspiration for autonomy, and driven by fear of being controlled by someone else (“coerced”) — the leader wrongly takes the physically and meta-physically impossible position that he/she/they can be “independent” of other systems (individuals and organizations), and therefore “control” their own “reality” and destiny.
These fallacies may show-up as the leaders unwittingly assuming that there is a uniformity of ideals, motives, customs and norms, responses, behaviors, and understandings — among Stakeholders. This could cause the leaders to miss the observation that an authentic protagonist in a narrative may in fact be acting as an antagonist agent. Leaders simply might think that there could be an intense “separateness” (actual diversity) of perceptions driving each narrative. He might further fail to discern that Stakeholders are functioning at different levels of abstraction in a “needs hierarchy”. For example, for a “Developed Nation” like the United States of America — a “survival-level” issue might be defined as securing energy resources; but for “Developing Nations” like Israel, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan . . . — a “survival-level” issue might be defined as securing water resources. These are two very different levels of abstraction in a “needs hierarchy” — and yield radically different individual and collective ideals, motives, customs and norms, responses, behaviors, and understandings. Leaders need to develop the competency to identify and navigate “needs hierarchies” — up, down, and sideways in organizational ecosystems.
Integrity (The Power of Wholeness):
Trust is the cornerstone of organizational effectiveness and efficiency. The “word” of the organization must mean something. So to for the leaders. The key executive competency is the ability cultivate “Emunah” (Faith):
- Capacity to Trust (oneself and others);
- Courage to Act (in the face of persistent ambiguity);
- Willingness to Commit (to action alone or together, but always clearly in behalf of the greater promise (“good”).
The C-Suite must sense into the whole-system of internal and external human ecosystems — to discern what is existent, arising, and becoming possible or impossible. This discernment is gridded against the flux of current and emerging ideals (values-in-practice), views, intentions, visions, goals, objectives, strategies, tactics, and resources. And the resulting activity ideally manifests wisdom, compassion, and skillful means as organizational health: efficiency, effectiveness, and resilience. This is the leaders’ demonstration of “integrity”.
I guess that I might sum up my thinking by suggesting that emerging and current executoves:
- Find and address the pain and suffering in the system (internal organizations and client markets);
- Intensively practice compassion, discernment, and skillful means in each and very interaction;
- Learn how to quantify and “dollarize” every organizational resource, action (systems-processes-tasks), and result (products-services-behaviors);
- Intensely study and practice the views and behaviors of healthy C-Suite from other organizations;
- Obsessively practice working with the “wicked problems” that are present and arising in the organization's relational ecosystems;
- Identify and skillfully challenge unchallenged assumptions, constraints, and fallacies in the organization;
- Cultivate emunah;
- And like in any committed relationship — directly address upset in the here-and-now (or the next immediately available opportunity) and don’t leave a meeting or interaction having triggered hurt feelings and/or resentment or having been triggered.
Johnston, C. M. (2012). Cultural maturity: A guidebook for the future
. Seattle, WA: ICD Press.