The Best Way to Align Leaders: Disagree, Debate, Repeat

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When Uber announced in mid-June that it would organize a 14-person governing body to run the company while its CEO had a time-out, critics immediately pounced on the idea. How on earth could you run a fast-charging tech company with such an unwieldy group? How would all those leaders align?

The critics may turn out to be right about running a company with so many cooks in the kitchen. But they are wrong about leadership alignment. Leadership alignment is a popular topic in management these days: An aligned leadership team—the conventional wisdom holds—transmits a clear message of where the organization is heading and unlocks productivity by getting everyone rowing in the same direction. These assumptions, however, belie common myths about what leadership alignment looks like and how it can help an organization be more successful.

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Myth #1: Alignment means everyone agrees with each other. Doesn’t it feel better when everyone agrees and just gets along? Sure, it does, but it doesn’t mean you’ve gotten to the best answer, and it certainly doesn’t mean you are really aligned.

I was working recently with a senior team that wanted to raise the level of “alignment” in the global executive committee, because they thought that would make the top team more effective. I observed the first meeting, which went quite smoothly. Afterward, one of the members asked me—with an unmistakable note of pride—how I thought the meeting had gone. “So Dave, what do you think now,” he asked. “Are we an aligned leadership team?” My answer disappointed him. “I have no idea,” I responded. “I didn’t observe any kind of debate with differing opinions or learn anything about how you would resolve differences. All I observed were pleasantries handed around the table—I have no idea what’s lurking underneath the table.”

The hallmark of a truly aligned leadership team is its ability to disagree and debate in a healthy way. Not only does this encourage the best thinking, but it also ensures that the real issues are not shoved under the table and are discussed and dealt with in the best possible manner. Only after the real issues are put on the table does a leadership team have the chance to build true alignment—agreement based on rigorous debate and analysis. Otherwise, the sought-after benefits of alignment will be illusory: Those under-the-table questions will eventually surface as serious business issues. And surface they will.

Myth #2: You are either aligned, or you are not. In reality, being aligned is not binary; it is fluid and it is fleeting. As issues and business conditions change, the level of alignment can rise or fall and teams can fall out of alignment. Too often, leadership teams declare success on their journey toward alignment, only to find a few weeks or months later that there are cracks in the unified front. Left unattended, these cracks turn into major fissures in the organization.

After learning more about alignment, the executive who had asked me what I thought about his team’s alignment changed his thinking. At the end of a recent global executive committee meeting, he asked with a playful grin, “So, on a scale of 1 to 10, how aligned do you think we really are?” He was teasing me, but I was pleased because it reflected a fundamentally different understanding of alignment. His team was putting the real issues on the table. They had worked hard to strengthen trust and understanding so that they could disagree and still work through problems in a productive way. They know alignment is precious, and has a half-life shorter than anyone would want to admit.

To make sure they were sticking to their commitment to true alignment, the leaders carved out time in each of their monthly in-person meetings to talk about the dynamics in their team. They established healthy routines to talk about alignment because they recognize that it is a valuable asset in which they must continually invest. If they do not, they can lose it, with serious implications for the business.

Leadership team alignment is important, but it is more elusive than one might think. Avoid the myths. Put the real issues on the table and debate them. Chances are that unless you have had a good disagreement—and found ways to resolve different views in a productive way—you are not truly aligned. Invest in healthy routines to keep alignment fresh. True alignment, as the executive learned, is hard work and requires constant effort. But the results are worth it.

David Michels leads Bain & Company's Results Delivery practice in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

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