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Column: This is the 'Dangerous Cocktail' afflicts senior management teams the world over

Senior teams are very often the worst performing groups in the organisation – and I should know, I’ve spend enough time in one, writes Brian F Smyth.

Brian F Smyth

I FIND MYSELF very often being critical and hard on senior management in organisations. Now before you think I am a crank of some sort with a grudge against authority, let me tell you, ‘I was that soldier’, I too spent many years of my life at senior management level. So, what I’m saying here is the fruit, to some extent, of my own sometimes frenetic and often flawed behaviour as a senior manager.

I hope that gives me some licence to say that, in my experience, senior teams are very often the worst performing groups in the organisation. If you find yourself in violent disagreement with that statement, then rejoice that you are in the other category and well done to you. No need to read on. The reason I say that senior teams are often the worst performing groups is that most senior teams make up what I call a very Dangerous Cocktail. The ingredients in the cocktail can number four, five, or even six potent ingredients.

  • First ingredient – partial, insufficient or poor information

The first ingredient is Information, or more accurately the lack or poor quality of information. Senior teams are often somewhat removed from the reality they are managing. You know how it is – the top floor or the 7th floor or the 14th not referring to building geographics but to centres of power where tentative visitors read the words “Enter here, ye who dare” even if the words only exist in their own minds. But, you know the story and you have seen the divide or gap that so often exists between the senior teams and the rest of the organisation, which has serious consequences for the quantity, quality and nature of the information they receive. Yes, they get reports and yes they see graphs but this is always second or third-hand information that has been well filtered to ensure the message is well received and the messenger allowed to live. The unspoken rule is a bit like the Bob Dylan line: ‘If you ain’t got good news, then don’t bring me any. So, that’s our first Dangerous Cocktail ingredient – poor quality information.

  • Second ingredient - certainty

The second ingredient is a general principle that applies to all of us, namely that we love and seek certainty and latch on to it as often as we can, irrespective of how flimsy the basis for our certainty may be. Like the blind people around the elephant, we each form our own version of reality based on our own individual experience and then we absolutely believe that version even if our knowledge is only partial and quite limited. This is our second ingredient – certainty.

  • Third ingredient - authority or power

Our third and quite lethal ingredient is authority or power. Because we are managers, WE have the right and, indeed, the responsibility to make the “big decisions” and we can do that by virtue of our position without having to get anybody’s blessing for it or agreement to it, and certainly not seek consensus around it. We have the power and the right to decide per se. The buck stops with us and that is what is expected from us. So now we have three ingredients – poor information, certainty and power.

  • Fourth ingredient - ego/insecurity

The fourth one is one that you might think has no place on the 7th floor: insecurity and its first cousin ego. If you happen to believe this is so, I have really bad news for you – they are both rife and run riot in senior teams. And, the darn thing about them is that they go unchallenged as team members learn how to work around them, avoid them or pander to them, rather than ever confronting them, which might lead to spoiling thick carpets with spilt blood.

Ego and insecurity will always be at work among senior teams hiding behind the most laudable rationales and most convincing presentations. And the blood on the carpet stains the efforts of other personnel asked to put these decisions into play. Now we have poor information, certainty, power and ego/insecurity but we are not finished yet.

Throw into the mix a dash, of politics and top it all off with some group think and you have a pretty unreliable and unstable entity, the entity which holds the responsibility for deciding the direction for the company or enterprise and taking most major decisions. Scary? So, do you understand now why what I said at the outset about this group being the worst performing group in most organisations may be true? And, if so, do you agree that this has to be one of the most important issues to address in any organisation?

Doing so requires a bit of skilful work to help senior teams out of this abyss into which most of them inevitably fall. However, it is not the work itself that is most problematic but the question; ‘who will bell the cat?’ Who will say the king has no clothes? Who will say to the senior team that they need to do something and may need some help? Or who among them will have the humility and the confidence to recognise that they need to ask for some help?

At this point you might be thinking that it is going to require enormous help to deal with all these ingredients, all six of them! But it doesn’t. It only requires a touch of magic. And this is one occasion where that touch of magic, that helps, needs to come from the outside, from those who have the magic.

Like the Cocktail itself, this magic also has ingredients. These ingredients are: experience of working in and with senior teams, skills to build real teams, strong facilitation to get everyone’s perspectives and needs, belief and confidence to create a new dynamic, distance from being a detached outsider. Believe me, it works. But whatever you believe or do, doing nothing should not be an option. A former

NASA and General Motors employee, Brian F. Smyth has over twenty years’ experience helping organisations in different parts of the world to achieve new levels of performance and success. He is a founder member and director of Maybe International (www.maybe.ie), a consultancy firm that empowers organisations to be the best they can be. He also helps sports teams and individuals to new levels of performance and achievement.

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