Some years ago in my consultancy days I went to see, by request, a potential client, a significant Chief Executive.
The business was a large, £300M turnover, manufacturing organisation , a subsidiary of a US parent company, which was going through what they called a minor reorganisation. Specifically the UK Operations Director had been appointed Chief Executive to replace a retiring leader and plans had been in place for some time.
The new CEO, my contact, had been with the top team for some years and was a long tenure employee, coining up through the business.
On the face of it, this was a sensible appointment. The new CEO appeared to be well regarded at all levels, highly experienced and had a good reputation as a forward thinking leader. As it happens, this was universally seen to be a necessary and progressive move.
So what was his problem? Although he had made it clear to colleagues that “his door was always open” in fact he felt that he was being ostracised for some reason. His board colleagues would speak to him but were manifestly reluctant to talk to him.
It was a classic “symptom or cause” dilemma and he was at a loss to understand why it was happening. The symptoms were all too obvious and he felt that they were having a malign effect on the atmosphere in the business.
The cause was rather more difficult to identify positively. It could stem from resentment at his promotion, a general antipathy to authority, a false personal reading of people’s opinion of his abilities, even a “gang up” or possibly an equally false view of the relationship that the previous incumbent had with colleagues.
If the latter was the cause then it seemed to be a matter of ingrained culture that was so prevalent as to be almost normal. Indeed whatever the identified cause, it certainly meant that if the situation were to be corrected then a seed change in the culture was essential.
Easy to say but that statement alone has its effects. I am strongly of the opinion that even in a constructive and collaborative environment, one of the very few “top down” functions of leadership is the responsibility for designing and ensuring compliance with the culture of the business; the need for everyone in the organisation to understand how we do things around here and to work together with a universal sense of purpose.
Great leaders know well the difference between objectives which are measurable and purpose that is the inherent driver of what we are, who we are and where we are going.
It is not just a matter of semantics. It is the leader who articulates that purpose, explains it in simple, transparent and straightforward terms and then constantly ensures compliance. That alone can be the raison d’etre of the leader. Virtually everything else can be delegated to the operational management with the possible exception of ensuring that the business employs only the best possible people.
It’s as easy as that!
Postscript: Sadly I don't know the outcome of my incipient foray into the cultural problems of my prospective client. Some months later the parent company in the US decided to close it and to move production to the Far East.
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