C-Suite Special Series Part 1:

What does being a great business leader really mean?

Mark Atkins, Intraversed


What does being a great business leader really mean?

We all know what its like to be “just one of the worker bees” in huge companies who’s C-Suite leaders don’t seem to know or care what’s really happening down on the ground of their business.

Those leaders only stay a few years, they make a few “quick win” decisions that seem to improve the bottom line but everyone knows those decisions will come back to bite the company in a few years. And we all know that no one will take the fall for that bite, because the responsible parties will be long gone when that happens.

It’s the curse of the shareholder-driven profit-only approach to measuring business success. If you want to be that kind of business leader, we can’t help you. You probably don’t need much help anyway, there’s not a great deal of skill involved, except to recognise when that big bite is about to land so you can get on outta there.

Leaders entrenched in corporate cultures where this happens repeatedly are unlikely to see any other option than to follow this pattern and to simply do a good job at face-saving if they have to become the passive fall guy, the one in power when the choices of the past come back to bite the company……no one wants to be that guy.

But are these the only two options?

A Third Way

We’re not so cynical yet that we assume all individuals in C-Suite leadership have to become the cut-and-run guy or the fall guy.

If you’re one of those leaders who truly wants to leave a legacy of improved business function, happy and loyal staff and long-term growth security in your business, then the third way is for you.

It’s the way of tougher choices, longer term vision and slower, steadier growth.

And it starts with a realistic look at the problems you’re facing. Then a realistic concept of what it will take to solve those problems. And finally a great ability to convince those around you that the problems you’re facing as a company are serious and threatening business assurance, and the longer term solutions are better for everyone.

The Blind Spots of C-Suite Leadership

The hardest part about really solving big problems, from the C-Suite perspective, is to really see the problems.

If you’ve built or inherited a culture of fear around admitting struggle, failure and problems, you are unlikely to ever to get a true picture of your business from your direct reports.

A litmus test: are things always described to you in glowing terms? Then you’re likely not getting the truth.

Being a boss whose staff are honest about the performance of their division is more like a sports coach. He or she reviews the play book together with the team, going over game footage so that weaknesses and missed opportunities are identified and unpacked and the path to strengthening up those holes in the game is laid out and planned.

It’s an encouragement-based approach that understands problems exist and believes improvement is possible. It is not an approach of threatening punishment for poor performance.

If your staff trust that you’ll be on their side and helping them with the solution, rather than on their back, angry about imperfection, you’re more likely to get the truth from your team.

You can’t have solid business assurance without knowing the true nature of problems your business is facing. And you can’t solve a problem effectively without knowing the whole truth about the problem. So getting the truth from your team should be your number one priority.

A Solution-Based Approach to Every Problem

If you’re willing to be part of the solution focus, along with your direct reports, you’ll encourage a culture of identifying and solving problems.

And believe me, most of your staff want those solutions. They want someone “up there” to care about the amount of time they spend working around the organisation’s problems – problems often created because leadership never spoke to them, never asked what would work for them and spend ridiculous amounts of money on solutions that were never going to work because they weren’t addressing the real problems (which leadership didn’t know about because they didn’t ask).

And as a C-Suite leader, you’ll never know the real problems unless you build a culture of solution-focused leadership.

This means that you encourage honest discussion about what’s not working by listening, learning and asking for solution suggestions from the people who are actually dealing with the problem. This may not be your direct reports! Gaining a full understanding of reality within your business can open up dialogue about solving it.

We’ve seen huge reporting issues within very large companies that seemed inexplicable to C-Suite leaders, but could easily have been explained by those actually doing the data entry or the convoluted reconciliations on the conflicting figures.

Until leaders at all levels of the organisation are encouraged to ask, learn and engage with the problems their staff are addressing, such blind spots at the top end will continue.

But this culture starts at the top of the Org Chart.

So ask yourself – how do you talk about problems with your direct reports?
How to do react to hearing that things aren’t going well?
How much do you try to learn and understand the issues?
How much responsibility do you take for the successful resolution of issues faced by your down-line staff?

In short – are you in it with them, to solve the big problems?

The Source of The Problem

So far, we’ve been stressing the culture you’re establishing around issues management. And we know this is key to the ongoing successful resolution of issues within organisations.

But while a healthy issues management culture is half the battle, it’s not going to win the war. You do actually have to solve issues too.

We’re currently engaged in a multi-national, finance-based company, helping their data governance team establish an organisation-wide glossary of key business terms and metrics.

We’re astounded at how many businesses we enter that have not yet established such a standard language use across their enterprise.

Sure, there’s a glossary somewhere, which has been populated with every conceivable term and definition available at the time it was built (and likely never updated since), including multiple definitions for the one term, conflicting definitions, definitions derived purely from use in software and, our personal favourite, definitions that are written in such a convoluted way that no one can make any sense of them at all.

Such a glossary is a ridiculous waste of time to create and waste of space to store.

But glossaries are a cornerstone of effective issues resolution, and in our experience, the lack of an effective business term glossary is the cause of many of the issues plaguing businesses.

If we could give one piece of advice to any business leader regarding building long-term efficacy of business functions it would be to build a solid, effective, enterprise-wide glossary.

Differing definitions of the calculations of core metrics accounts for most conflicting or unreliable reporting.

Business terms with multiple definitions (definitions that include conflicting calculation formulas) create a great deal of confusion and wasted effort, not to mention business risk, because C-Suite business decisions use the reporting figures based on these terms and their definitions.

A common example, based in the current trend we’re seeing, starts with C-Suite leaders determining the organisational focus will change, using the slogan “we will be customer focused”.

You may think that the term ‘customer’ does not need to be defined – we all know who our customer is, right? Many leaders choosing this organisational focus don’t bother to even ask the question.

But here’s an example of why defining that term really matters: We met with a group of 20+ senior managers at a large bank and asked them each to write down how many customers the bank has. We got almost twenty significantly different answers, ranging from four million to over twenty million. It all depended on how the individual defined a customer.

When each division has a very different definition of what a ‘customer’ is, this seemingly inspiring business strategy of being “customer focused” translates to a massive amount of internal anguish over how to report on that metric within each context. In our example, much of that anguish could have been avoided if the C-Suite leaders defined ‘customer’ to begin with.

Being Willing to Climb the Mountain

Establishing a standardised glossary for your entire business can seem like an unclimbable mountain.

In very large and long-established organisations, language usage is so embedded into each division that using terms to mean differing things to each are really, really common.

Being willing to negotiate all the nuances of meaning to establish a standard understanding of each term requires no small amount of courage. Believe me, this is what we do professionally, and it can be HARD!

Leading a team out of their established use of language and into a new vocabulary to describe their work once a definition is decided upon can be even harder and can ruffle many feathers.

But it’s also true that, in our experience, when stakeholders actually sit down to discuss the various definitions of a term, they see pretty quickly why problems are arising and why clear definitions need to be established. They may not like the choices made, but there is a sense that it is a worthwhile endeavour because they can see the problems being created with the current status and the solutions to those problems that a single, clear definition will bring.

Other C-Suite Special Series Blogs

C-Suite Special Series Part 2: Why your struggles are your greatest strength (read it here)

C-Suite Special Series Part 3: Essential communication skills for CEOs (read it here)

C-Suite Special Series Part 4: Management and Governance – get clear on the difference (read it here)

Mark Atkins, Intraversed

Mark Atkins

Mark is a co-founder & Chief Development Officer at Intraversed, helping organisations establish the Intralign Ecosystem, an award winning information management & governance methodology, to achieve reliable information, stable tech spend & greater IT project success.

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