The CEO’s Toolkit: Alignment, Not Agreement

If alignment is essential, why is agreement often dangerous?
The Ceos Toolkit Alignment Not Agreement

As a CEO, one of your primary objectives is to align the company behind a set of ideas. Whether it’s purpose, values, vision, strategy, operating plan or budget, everyone should be pulling in the same direction. Energy or capital that works against those ideas is counterproductive, disruptive and burdensome. It’s like rowing a boat with the anchor dragging in the mud.

If alignment is good (perhaps even essential), why is agreement often dangerous?

Much of the best thinking comes not from individuals but from groups of people with different perspectives. (To take a deep dive into this, read “Super Forecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction” by Tetlock and Gardner.) Aahh, the things I know now that I wish I knew decades ago as a young manager. As they say, wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from screwing up.

It’s comfortable as a leader to look around the room and see all heads nodding. Complete agreement certainly must imply correctness, right? Not so! In fact, complete agreement, in my experience, is often a sign of either a controlling, bombastic leader or of groupthink.

In fact, exploring ideas without opposing views is like asking Kim Jong-un’s generals or Donald Trump’s cabinet, “Who’s the smartest, handsomest person in the room?” Predictable, but usually wrong.

Effective collaboration that leads to alignment is a function of agreement on process, not ideas. And the process must allow for disagreement. In great measure, this is a function of how well a CEO can facilitate discussions and manage healthy conflict, not eliminate it. Bring it on!

The effective sequence is: ideating, developing a hypothesis(es), analyzing, debating and then decision-making. At that point, you can ask for alignment and commitment, but not before.

This requires a CEO who is experienced in facilitation, has the emotional intelligence to foster and effectively manage smart people who may disagree, and artfully moves the team toward a decision — one that’s not always universally loved, but universally executed.

You may want an agreeable dog, but better to have an aligned team.

Categories: Business Insights, Management & Leadership