Translating a high level vision into reality requires a few critical leadership skills. What are they, and how can you make sure your team has them?
I see this all the time and I’m sure many of you do, too. Executive leadership sets a high level vision and expects they can “trust their org” or “trust their teams” to pull it off. But what is trust? We often think of trust as believing in a person or an idea. But in a professional context, real trust comes from deep alignment. This is true of any high level strategic vision, whether it’s related to the creation of a new product or achieving real inclusion or sustainability.
The Cultural Problem
Managing directors have a very powerful position and yet they also have a complex problem as both directors of their own teams and members of a team of directors. Some people are natural leaders and communicators. Most aren’t. No matter how good you think you are at communication, you still have a lot to learn. That goes for all of us.
If you are a managing director and your executive leadership team comes up with a bold new solution for solving a major problem, delighting your customers in a profitable way or improving the world, chances are the path to reality does not pop instantly into your mind fully formed. And yet, you probably don’t want to reveal your insecurity, fear or confusion to your direct reports.
Across industries, I have seen the same pattern. Managing directors are tasked with this burden and privilege, and they secretly hope their teams will figure it out and just deliver results. They are looking for something they don’t know how to ask for, and hoping for a miracle in the face of their teams telling them they don’t have what they need. They often need clarity around priorities and need more people, equipment, skills and understanding of what is expected of them. Instead, they keep getting invited to more meetings to discuss the lack of progress. Unreasonable expectations continue to be enforced.
“What have you done to meet this goal?” a managing director might ask, and a contributor might shrug and think, “Not much, since I’m in meetings all day.”
Corporate culture, at least for big, traditional companies, has always relied heavily on the hierarchical org chart to tell us whose authority we should trust. This is becoming less true by the day. Agile, nimble workers who are comfortable with change recognize that outdated views are costing the companies the chance of achieving the future state they claim so passionately to want. Managing directors have bosses, too, and if the work isn’t getting done they learn to sugarcoat their progress reports.
But you’re a managing director, and this strategy isn’t making itself real. Now what?
When we created Model Meetings at Science House, it was to help clarify the purpose of each meeting to drive at the distilled essence of business itself. This is harder than it sounds, because most people are trying to balance their self-interest and ideas about what made them successful with the overall benefit to the greater good. Our brains might be amazing, but they also love to conserve energy and protect us by resisting change. After Covid drove information workers to their homes, meetings became even more unwieldy. Some estimates show the work day has become almost an hour longer for many people, and they are attending 13% more meetings.
Like all of the other managing directors on your team, you have had a path to this moment, and you have certain ways of working. If you expect these various work styles to magically mesh into one harmonious orchestra, you’re likely to miss any deadlines you set for the outcomes you’re hoping to achieve.
The strategy remains nebulous, yet you expect results.
The first thing managing directors can do is start pairing with other managing directors as you find ways to work as a cohesive unit. What I mean is, put time into each relationship. Many of our Science House clients are caught between two ways of working, and organizations continue to spend a massive amount of time reconciling this challenge. If you can’t or have chosen not to unify under one method, you still have an obligation to make sure you do a few things in tandem. You will discover the challenges and opportunities much more quickly in pairs, and you can also build rapport.
What is your definition of success?
Everyone on the managing director team needs to have the same answer to this question, even if their own teams are responsible for delivering a different aspect of the outcome. Every managing director should have a deep, working understanding of what every other group needs in order to make the plan work. Why should you care what someone else’s group needs? Because if they don’t get it, your group can work perfectly and still fail.
A managing director team’s responsibility is to prioritize what needs to happen between the vision and the work to make it real. You may find yourself dealing with competing goals and when that happens, it’s important to abstract up and find a solution that reconciles any specifics you face with the collective north star. Very often, we get inward looking and forget to reassess and question our own assumptions. In the face of disagreement, you need to have difficult conversations. This is both an art and a science. One way to achieve it is to always attack ideas, never people. Find a way to agree on a plan, and once you do, commit to the path. Identify any major obstacles. Set the context before you launch into a conversation. Sometimes you need an extremely granular discussion of specifics, and sometimes you need to do some blocking and tackling. Don’t try to do both at the same time.
The same people who used to scroll through social media on their phones during meetings in person now seem to be the ones doing the tap tap tap typing with their video off during meetings. If this is you, understand that you are actively contributing to a diminished outcome. Real time responsiveness is often the distinguishing factor between a plan that works and one that doesn’t. Good intentions aren’t enough. Ultimately, you are being compensated for your full presence. Body language is critical in person or on video. People can tell when your mind is absent even if your body is present.
Jargon, acronyms and other mushy words can sink a team. People have different perspectives. Business and IT, for example. IT and finance. Legal and R&D. HR and IT. The list goes on. Each group has their own goals and priorities. Speak to each other in plain terms. Nobody wants to be the one to say they don’t understand. Be that person. Ask for clarity. Strive for clarity. Don’t try to impress anyone with too much information they don’t need. We are all overloaded. Stick to the high value points, no matter how large or small. Allow yourself to be vulnerable in the way you communicate. It won’t make you weak. Counterintuitively, perhaps, it will give you more power. Be clear about what you’re asking for, and if you don’t know what you need, communicate that too. Be very crisp in your communication, and don’t move on until you’re certain the message has been received in the way you intended it. Use a shared language and stick to the point. Make sure everyone understands what the words mean.
Things change constantly, and the world is only getting more chaotic. Yet you have a company to run and customers who are also changing. Your competing priorities are each a warning sign that you may not achieve the desired outcome. Your collective ability to prioritize, align and communicate greatly enhances your chances for success.
Most companies are struggling to move from a command and control structure to a more distributed, flexible and customer-focused decision making workstyle. It’s not easy, and it might push you way past your comfort zone. That’s true for all of us. The struggle is worth it, though, because the whole point of the journey is to create something great that didn’t exist before. That’s never easy, and we can only do it together.