Executive Sparring

Focused view on Lago Maggiore, Italy

I usually work on large scale, often global, transformation programmes. These programmes can be characterised as those that include operating model changes, involving multiple dimensions of the operating model. Changes to the business processes, IT systems, data models, governance structures and so on. All at the same time. And these programmes usually run over multiple years.

It is clear that the required scope, business requirements and possible end state operating models require significant thinking, conversation, reconciliation and also compromise between key parts of the organisation. The latter, because many of the challenges are complex and contain all sorts of paradoxes, as called out -for instance- in my blog posting on wicked questions. Once we have an agreed target operating model (TOM), the same significant thinking, conversation, reconciliation and comprise is required for the journey to implement the agreed TOM. And this operating model change is changing an important (and continuous) conversation.

Politics and power dynamics

It is clear that agreeing and implementing a complex transformation programmes requires close operating with and between (C-level and other) executives. After all, these are the people ultimately accountable for the results in the business.

Operating on executive team level, though, is often very much like a political game. It requires careful operating between representing the functional area or business the exec represents and the overall objectives of the business. Political games are power games. And some of the power dynamics can be very interesting.

Exec Team (ET) meetings are usually headed by the Chief Exec (the CEO). In my experience when working with these teams, other execs (like -say- the Chief Operating Officer (COO) or the Sales Vice President or regional executive presidents) carefully balance their contributions in ET meetings to manage their personal and business risks. Further political complications can be because cultural mismatches. Anglo-Saxon execs may have a different way to address risks and issues than their -say- Asian or continental European counterparts.

It is not uncommon (or even very likely) that certain key objections or considerations are not exposed in the open forum at all. To avoid any backlash from the power dynamics (e.g. ‘my next bonus may depend on what the CEO determines….’).

A safe and discrete environment

The execs often need to discuss their objections or considerations from the ET meetings or operating model ideas -and possible ways to deal with them- in a safe environment. Without the power dynamics of the ET itself. Some of these elements might have to do with their teams, other execs, behavioural elements, you name it. Who can they have this conversation with? Often not with their colleagues in the ET, because of the mentioned political considerations. Often also not with their direct reports, who might well be affected by these strategic considerations. Or are waiting in the wings to fill any ‘unexpected vacancy’.

As an independent I usually have separate 1:1 meetings with execs on a regular basis. To share some programme themes and ideas that require their action or inputs but also to understand their issues and perspectives on the programme. These could be simple standard weekly 30 minutes’ sessions. These 30 minutes’ sessions sometimes easily expand in what I would call executive sparring sessions. Sessions where the Exec can test ideas discretely or get some fresh insights. Or where they can discuss strategies how to deal with the dynamics in the programme or the ET.

I have been in those executive sparring sessions where we can discuss possible operating model ideas including conversations about people. Expressly without any note taking.

In one client, for instance, the COO’s idea was to outsource certain activities. This was a big deal and very contentious point. For the people as well as for the operating model. But he did not want to discuss this with the ET or his direct reports before having done some background work on what these models could be. This came up in a sparring session. With my background in that area, I prepared some considerations (pros, cons, options, cost, etc) and possible scenarios for this COO that encouraged him to take this to the ET. The idea got implemented.

In another exec sparring session in another client, an exec openly stated that he thought the CEO was stifling any creativity from the ET because of their behaviour. We discussed examples where that happened and discussed what could have helped. In this case, we could use that insight to change the way we facilitated future ET meetings to draw attention to this ineffective behaviour in a way that circumvented the power dynamics. Independent facilitators can do that.

Similarly, in certain sparring sessions I have been able to help execs manage cultural differences. To suggest that to work with people in another culture in different ways than their natural way of working, by sharing my experiences and compare it to theirs. Sometimes like holding the mirror up. In one example, a British transformation vice president of a global oil company, in one of our regular 1:1 meetings, wanted me to have a discrete first view of a plan he had to close a series of offices across Europe. And asked me to step in the shoes of the country managers and feedback how his proposal came across, leading to some key changes in the communications where significant issues could have arisen. Surprisingly, I found at the time, after I left the client to work elsewhere this VP kept in contact and kept asking for my feedback on things he was considering. The need for a sparring partner is real.

How to facilitate the inherent tensions?

None of these are formal conversations. There are no minutes.  And for me, this creates an interesting wicked question as well. I may know things that are close to the heart of one particular exec, sometimes about their feelings and thoughts about others, including other C-level execs. How can I be an honest sparring partner and wider-group facilitator at the same time? What if, say, a Chief Exec asks: “Frank, you talk a lot to [the COO, with who I had weekly sparring sessions], what does she really think?” (this happened in real life, over a beer). Of course, executive sparring only works if there is 100% personal loyalty and the associated discretion. That means that you would have to set clear boundaries. And this also means extracting oneself from situations where conflicts of interest and conflicts of loyalty can exist. Or find ways to (politically) deflect.

What I did in the case of the CEO’s question, you ask? I suggested she have a direct conversation with her COO if she has concerns about her not showing her hand, and most definitely not rely on my opinion! (note that this direct communication was severely lacking in this client).

As an exec, have you had a ‘sparring partner’ for issues that you needed some discrete conversations on? What worked for you. Or not.

Or, as a facilitator or consultant, have you been in this situation? And how did you deal with that?