C-Suite Brains Can’t Save a Misaligned Team

Organizational culture—not just star power—is the key. Organizations fail with abundant genius onboard—the talent is right, the culture is wrong.

Most organization’s focus on hiring the right talent. The search firm scopes out candidates with great track records and schools. Candidates are interviewed by select teams who choose those who interview best and are likely to “fit in.” The best and brightest are hired and welcomed in with a hearty handshake. They are introduced to their direct reports and allocated resources.

But the new onboarded leader has no path to cultural alignment with leadership in the great majority of organizations. This highly vetted and carefully selected new hire might be the great new weapon for your organization or the Trojan Horse that will take you down.

In earlier days, learning the culture was the most obvious thing needed. In 1975 if you worked for IBM in sales you knew that each day you put on a dark suit, white shirt, with a red tie. You put a Selectric Typewriter under your arm, hopped in your car to call on offices until you sold it—then you did the same thing again tomorrow. In the free-flowing world of teams of today where you need ducking, weaving, and resilience, and where the market and the rules change constantly, you have to know where you are on culture.

But getting culture right in the 21st Century is much trickier than it was before. Without an intentional path to cultural alignment, it’s not something that will just “fall into place.” You need a path and a plan to align around culture.

Let’s step into the minds of unaligned leadership team assembled around the table, called by the CEO to a recent meeting, and listen to their inner dialogue. That this team would succeed as a group would be a miracle.

CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER: Another meeting when my department is buried in back reports. Cash in this organization is as scarce as feathers on a fish. There isn’t a person around this table who really understands the numbers. The sales leader and CEO think the company is their personal ATM card. The CEO believes that debt is good and we’ll pay the bills when we sell the company. Sales thinks they’ll make their numbers by flying off to Paris. Just seeing their expense account plunges me into depression.

But, I want to hold my job so I won’t say anything, but I’ll tell my people to make it hard for these people to spend. I am working with the director of purchasing to tighten the rules on buying stuff, especially for product development, who always wants the latest expensive toys.

CHIEF SALES OFFICER: It’s totally pointless for me to be here. They hired me to sell and that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. There isn’t a person in this room who could sell mosquitos to a frog. I had to cancel a whole day in the field to be here. I have to spend an hour watching the CFO glower at me because of my expense accounts—he’s just jealous. His big vacation is two weeks in Lubbock. So here I am with the director of manufacturing who shouldn’t be here either—he should be churning out product. The biggest reason we’re in this cashflow crunch is that he can’t get product shipped.

GENERAL COUNSEL: I cannot imagine what these people would do if I weren’t protecting them from the huge risks they’re pushing this company into. These people are always trying to wire around the legal requirements that everyone has to follow. I do not believe in playing fast and loose when it comes to the law, and I’ll be there to block things that create risk and danger for this company. These people are lucky to have a legal guy like me to set up the right boundaries for operating. What’s a pile of cash if you’re covered in lawsuits?

CHIEF MANUFACTURING OFFICER: I’m zonked out on time zones, coming from Beijing, I don’t really know these people, and why did I have to come? The only think I can say is that this is the first time I’ve seen that director of sales, and I’m fortunate that these people come and go. This guy is the worst. He keeps telling customers that product can be modified—although it can’t be, along the lines he’s telling them. Then gives them his delusional story about shipping dates that comes straight from Alice in Wonderland. I hope I don’t have to talk to him on this trip.

CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER: I’m really glad to have been made part of the leadership team—if anyone would ever listen to me. I’m not the naive employee advocate they make me out to be, but these people require border line illegal employee policies they make me carry out, and they treat people like used computer equipment. I have to stick up for the people in this company. That’s what I’ll do before anything in this meeting.

CEO: This company is a great opportunity to change the world and to dominate the market. We pay these people huge salaries, and sometimes I don’t think they even understand the vision and strategy of the company. It’s so tough. How do I get these people on the same page?

Before the members of this leadership team do any business together, they have to decide how they’ll do business. The fractured approaches to what team members expect to accomplish and what they think is important will not allow for success until they have a facilitated discussion of what culturally is important to them.

After spending a moment in the minds of the people around the table, what do you think?

  1. To what extent do the people around the table have a sense they are leading the company?
  2. To what extent do they believe they are interconnected and share the same fate?
  3. Do those who lead company functions have a sense of how what they do impacts others and the company?
  4. How do their separate past careers impact their decisions now in this company?
  5. What would it take to get team members onto the same page?

Developing an understanding of these questions requires the action of answering these questions. They won’t answer themselves unless there is someone who can gain their trust and attention. Cultural alignment is people talking to each other about how they’re work together.