Rebel without a cause

I recently kicked off a series of posts on insulation that’s meant to talk about the critical ways leaders can become disconnected—and hopefully provide some ideas on how they can fight against it.

I listed four kinds of insulation in the introductory post:

  • From the larger organizational context
  • From the work being done on the ground
  • From wider communities of practice
  • From the marketplace

In this post I want to dig into the first, insulation from the larger organizational context.

Down and out

Insulation from the organizational context tends to be more acute and pervasive the further you move away from the C-level. After all, the top of the organization is where the larger organizational context lives and breathes, i.e., mission and vision, strategic imperatives and direction, high-level tactics. So it stands to reason that the closer you are to the top, the easier it is to stay connected to what happens there.

It also tends to be a problem the further you move away from the front office, whether that means into more supporting functions like IT and HR or less-central business units (geographically isolated, smaller P&L, non-core products and services). Again, the further you move from the center of the action, the more difficult it is to stay on top of that action.

Consequences

I think we’ve all seen what happens when a leader is disconnected from the larger organizational context (and some of us have even been that leader once or twice):

  • Their funding and resources come and go with little explanation.
  • Where they’re headed in the organization is unclear—no obvious next career move.
  • Organizational changes and shake-ups catch them off guard—“I can’t believe so-and-so got moved up/down/out,” “I had no idea we were going to get rid of that division/product/office,” etc.

Beyond these three, the overall effect of being disconnected from the larger organizational context is to make the work they and their teams do every day less meaningful because it’s not working in concert with the rest of the organization to achieve results.

I will admit that if a team is particularly close-knit, folks may find being part of a rag tag bunch of rebels satisfying, but more often than not, swimming against the organizational tide in this way is exhausting and frustrating. I’ve been involved in both sorts of teams, and for my part, I much prefer to have my work aligned as much as possible with what the organization is doing.

Up and in

So much for the problem and its effects—how do you turn things around if you find yourself a disconnected leader? You need to do three things…

  • Get familiar with how your CXOs see the business. Take the time to read corporate mission statements, strategic objectives, and other foundational documents. As fluffy as they can seem at first (or second, or third) glance, they’re not typically created by accident. Instead, they represent hours of individual and group effort on the part of executive leadership to define the work of the organization. And beyond that, funding and support tend to flow along the lines of the vision presented in these corporate-level documents—so you need to understand them if you hope to consistently get support for your day-to-day work.
  • Get familiar with your organization’s products and services. Take the time to not only fully understand what your company actually does, i.e., what products and services it offers, but also what makes it profitable. What are your key costs? What drives margins up or down? Who are your competitors? How do your products and services stack up against theirs? What drives changes in your market (positive and negative)? If you can’t provide an intelligent answer to each of these, you have work to do to get connected to your organization.
  • Align your work with how your CXOs see the business and with your organization’s products and services. I know you all know this, but I can’t tell you how often I see corporate leaders undertaking work that either has no direct connection with the larger organizational context or has a connection that’s not clearly articulated. Whether this is because they’re ignorant of the larger context or prefer to “do their own thing” or have blinders on, I don’t know. But long term, your best interests are served by making sure not only that the work you and your team do fits somewhere into the larger organizational context but also that people are aware of how it fits.

The final word

That’s my take on being insulated from the larger organizational context. In the next post, we’ll look at a kind of insulation that becomes more acute the further up the food chain you go: insulation from the work on the ground.

But in the meantime, I’d love to hear from folks out there who have thoughts on how leaders can better align with the work of the larger organization: share your war stories or thoughts, give me criticism and feedback, or just ask a question of the group…jump in and let’s get the conversation started!

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