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Creating Executive and Leadership Team Alignment
If you want to see real-world examples of effective team alignment, Aad Boot, the founder and managing partner of HRS Business Transformation Services, recommends looking at organizations that go through tough times and manage to come out strong. “It is not in good times that you see the value of team alignment, but in difficult times,” he says. “Teams that manage to navigate successfully through difficult situations, that face disruptive changes and find answers, that manage to inspire the organization despite the uncertain and complex changes it has ahead.” When teams have strong alignment, they are able to respond faster, more effectively, with more confidence and with better results. We recently checked in with Aad to learn more about his leadership philosophy and approach to aligning leadership teams. Here’s what he had to say:
Can you tell us about your professional background?
Over the past 25 years, I have been working for a variety of large and multinational organizations in Europe, the U.S. and Asia. The main focus in my work is on supporting executive teams in creating alignment about the corporate strategy to follow, and about how to translate this into successful strategy execution throughout the organization. In other words, I help leaders and their teams to deal effectively with change and transformation, especially when they are confronted with uncertainty, complexity and a need for new collaboration models. My role varies from facilitating, coaching, advising executive teams (executive team alignment/strategy alignment) to supporting the execution of complex change throughout the organization (change implementation/program management).
What is your leadership philosophy?
Leadership has many faces, and its effectiveness heavily depends on the context in which people find themselves. You can learn from leadership books and models, but real leadership develops itself based on practical experience in real life situations, not necessarily business situations. Over the years, I’ve learned that great leaders are people that are able to create “direction,” “meaning,” “focus,” and “commitment” particularly in difficult times. Especially when people feel uncertain, lack clear answers, are under pressure, or do not trust one another, these leaders manage to create confidence in the way forward. If I had to characterize leadership in a few words, I would probably end up with words like: internal stability, knowing what makes you tick, liking to be around people, a will to learn from others (even if they have different views or opinions), helping others (people/teams) to shine, giving people the space to take ownership, being flexible enough to change course when needed, always looking for better ways.
Why is alignment so important to the success of a leadership team?
There is a lot of buzz about what team alignment is or should be. In short, it is not about aligning systems, or processes, or actions, or tasks. It is about aligning people – about creating a deeper understanding of the other person, of how he or she thinks, of mutual ambitions; as well as a better understanding of how he/she looks at the team and what he/she expects from the team. Real team alignment is about creating a mutual state of mind that allows the team to reach a deeper level of mutual trust, openness and respect.
These are big words, sure, and certainly not words you would easily pick to talk about when having an executive team around the table. However, I’ve learned in my work that problems in organizations with regard to defining a successful strategy, executing it effectively, and navigating effectively in times of change are to a large extent related to a lack of leadership alignment. I’ve witnessed several times in my career how creating a deeper level of team alignment allowed the leadership team to create breakthroughs – not only within the team, but also in the positive impact of the leadership team on the organization.
When do teams most often need realignment? How often should organizations review their team alignment?
Team alignment is not a static thing. It can grow by giving it the proper attention, but it can also decrease if it is neglected for too long. It is tempting to focus on team alignment when there is a clear issue within the team; when team members are aware of it and feel they are stuck. However, I doubt if this is the only and best way.
I work with an executive team that decided to have “team alignment sessions” once a year. They use the sessions to proactively check if their team alignment is still strong enough to face the challenges of the future. They do not approach it as a separate team topic, but they integrate it in their annual business planning cycle. They start from the business reality and the changes/challenges the organization faces, and how they want to deal with these challenges as a team. In this process, they openly discuss and check the level of their team alignment and what they need to do to keep it strong.
What are the most common signs that a team is not aligned?
I could name a series of signs, but would pick out one that is particularly important: teams that have a strong focus on agreement often have a lack of alignment. Agreement is more about trying to win the other over for your opinion or point of view. It easily leads to win-lose discussions, to emotions, to disagreement, and to loss of energy and time. True alignment is about trying to understand the other’s opinion without having to agree. Real team alignment leaves space for different points of view while still coming to a collective decision. It is about being committed to the team decision even if you would have chosen a different option yourself.
What are the biggest culprits for leadership teams failing to align?
You cannot in general define the culprits for a lack of team alignment. Therefore, you need to take a closer look at the organization, the team members and the context in which they operate. But in more general terms, you could say that strong teams value diversity. They value one another as persons, and they value interpersonal differences including functional, gender, and cultural differences. A strong focus on expecting other team members to think and feel the same about things is often not leading to alignment.
What are some best practices for ensuring that everyone on a team is on the same page?
Within HRS Business Transformation Services, we have developed a specific methodology to create team alignment based on our international experience with leadership teams over the past decades. We have used it with teams of various organizations all over the world. There is something that I see being effective always and all over the world, and that is what I call “installing a listen 2 learn mindset.” This is a special technique that is based on a set of alignment principles that are applied by the team. This set of principles is practiced during a series of workshops in which the teams work on specific business topics applying the alignment principles. Gradually, the team gets used to these principles and starts to use them as an integrated part of their team communication.
What advice do you find yourself repeating over and over again to your clients about effective team alignment?
Take time to work on team alignment. Don’t see it as a one-off initiative, but integrate it in your teamwork and give it ongoing attention. You will not reach it by a “training” or “offsite team-building session.” It should be a normal part of your daily team operation, and can only really be tested by addressing business challenges together and applying the alignment principles while dealing with these challenges as a team.