June 18, 2014
Get In Tune With Your Executive Team

Aligning the wheels on one’s car is an easy task to accomplish. Aligning the executive staff with the CEO’s vision and execution objectives is measurably more difficult.

There is no question that CEOs want to maximize their resources to achieve ultimate success. Executive teams are both personally driven and financially motivated to attain, if not also surpass, the CEO’s goals. These two goals help drive corporate culture but effectively connecting them can be difficult.

Due to human understanding, goals are often misinterpreted at every level of the communication process. What begins as vision and direction from the CEO can become chaotic if the alignment between the CEO and the executive team is off.

While many CEOs believe their vision is aligned with their staff’s goals, the reality is that the outcomes of many executive sessions take on lives of their own. Rare is the occasion when the entire executive staff clearly understands the CEO’s message and leaves key meetings fully aligned with the missions at hand.

More realistic are the various interpretations of what the CEO had conveyed and how to work those instructions into the daily structure of each attending executive. Some executives will certainly grasp the call to duty and perform accordingly, while others will make assumptions about the message and proceed with those views.

Sometimes, there are executives who not only missed the CEO’s message, but who might have actually been in disagreement with it and plan to perform in accordance to what they see as the best way. Hence a real need for close oversight to determine who is what type. Personal interaction not emails and memos is more effective in evaluating who is on board.

Further bringing things out of alignment is the “don’t ask, don’t tell” syndrome within executive teams. This is where no one wishes to look uninformed in front of their peers so they do not ask the pertinent questions that should be on the table. Additionally, many executives work diligently at maintaining the “honeymoon” with the boss and are loathed to actually bring the critical, gritty issues to the forefront during these meetings.

This is why the CEO needs to be a very good listener. He or she needs to pick up on the lack of questions, the quiet periods in meetings and at every chance accepting comments and criticism without quick replies in order to give staff an example of the CEO’s openness to input.

Given this potential mix of interpretations of CEO directives, driving the executive team forward cohesively and effectively becomes problematic. The result is that a CEO’s vision of the realities of the business is often altered and in some cases completely changed by the omissions of data from the executive team members.

In meetings with CEOs, I received a clear view of their objectives for the company and their operational mandates for the executive teams. I would subsequently meet with numerous executive team members after these meetings and often discovered they not only were out of alignment with the CEO’s views but that they had formulated operational plans based on their own misinterpretations of them. Why does the CEO miss this in his or her discussions with senior staff?

CEO alignment is a tough call unless a process is in place to truly evaluate what the executive team is thinking. Some executives who had clearly given no credence to the CEO’s directives did so more out of a lack of respect and self-serving egos than actually bringing any outside value to the plans.

The vast majority of executives did have a desire to meet and surpass the CEO’s wishes. If the foundational desire to perfectly execute is based on a misalignment of the CEO’s message, however, all expectations have a reduced chance of being met.

CEO alignment is a function that should be driven by the CEO to ensure that no misunderstandings exist within the executive team. Whether this takes the shape of more one-on-one sessions with each executive or interim team evaluations, both will measure the actual pulse of the team and required adjustments will be possible almost in real-time. Initially the CEO needs to manage down more effectively until he or she is sure there is alignment. Managing up and out doesn’t help if the team isn’t on board.

Post-meeting hallway discussions among executive staff can be a sign of not fully being aligned with what was just heard from the CEO. To generate an annual operative plan (AOP), make the appropriate adjustments based on executive team input to ensure a complete understanding of the CEO’s targets, defined strategies and desired paths to achieve them. Not having full alignment with these components among the executive team will become an obstacle to success.

Not knowing how an engine will respond when you push the accelerator to the floor puts your car at risk. In the same vein, when a CEO drives and pushes the AOP and is assuming full alignment when it does not exist, the plan’s performance is placed at risk and it often manifests itself with harsh mid-year adjustments.

One cannot predict the future but CEOs can certainly do more to maintain full alignment with their executive teams. Quarterly and ad hoc head-checks with team members where they are compelled to provide the facts about operational issues and other company challenges should be a regular occurrence. Additionally, creating a scheduled evaluation of the team as a whole will provide another tool to more fully align the CEO and his executive team.

In discussions with CEOs, the usual response is that “I know my executive team and they are in complete alignment with my plans.” While this might well be the case in certain environments, just asking the CEOs with a few questions opens up room for doubt and an interest in making sure that executive alignment is achieved.

John Runne
John Runne is a seasoned business advisor with over thirty years of experience in advising Fortune 1000 companies and their CEOs on strategy and corporate planning. Mr. Runne’s experience includes engagements with a host of leading public and private companies where he served multiple times as Chairman of Strategic Advisory Councils and boards devising and driving corporate strategic objectives. Mr. Runne has also advised and been actively involved in events leading to acquisitions and sales of companies. He has guided multi-billion organizations on their respective marketing, packaging and positioning of brand products. Mr. Runne has provided strategic counsel at the CEO and board level for both public and private companies through the M&A process.

Other Articles by John Runne:

The Ten Commandments Of Being CEO

The Cost Of A CEO Honeymoon