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February 12, 2019

Beware the Nodding Heads!

Stephen Enright

Stephen Enright
Founder/SJE Partners, LLC

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You got the job! It’s your first C-Suite role and it just happens that there is an executive team meeting on your first day. You will be introduced as the newest member of the team. Even though you interviewed with each of them, this will be your first time with them as a member of the team. You’ve decided to take a mostly 'listen and learn’ approach to the meeting.

Everything starts well. You are greeted warmly as everyone gathers in the conference room, and there is genuine applause when the CEO introduces you. But, as the meeting goes on from there you begin to notice something troubling. As each executive reports, there is the usual emphasis on the positive, and a noticeable silence as the people in the room are looking at the CEO, as if waiting for a sign. You also notice that whenever the CEO speaks, there is a silent nodding, interrupted only by a rare comment of agreement.

You think to yourself, everyone always has an opinion. In a room of 12 talented, experienced people there is no way there is 100% agreement on everything. Why is there no discussion? Why does no one present an alternative path?

This dynamic is present in every meeting where the CEO is present, or his/her position is already known. You finally ask a teammate what is going on, and you are told just to follow the lead of the others.

How many of us have been in this situation at least once in our careers, and how long did we tolerate the environment before finding a way out? It’s a modern-day version of the "Emperor’s New Clothes," but instead of laughing subjects, there are employees and customers who are paying the price. As long as you participating in the head nodding, and not challenging, you are an enabler. Where is your courageous loyalty, your institutional courage? And if you are the leader of this executive team, and find this dynamic acceptable, you are, after you run out of people to throw under the bus, going to be held accountable.

If you are, as the new member of the C-Suite team, the new CEO, and you see this behavior, you have a lot of work to do. Unless you correct this behavior and engage the team in honest debate over decisions and strategy, you too could find yourself making decisions and planning strategy absent the insights and expertise of those who sit before you, nodding.

One of the necessary components for a high performing executive team is a shared vision. This shared vision comes through an interactive and collaborative discussion of what the vision is, what it means individually and collectively, and a patient process resulting in the internalization of that vision by each member. My Dad told me "People buy what they build”. A leader needs to provide context, opportunity to challenge, an open mind, and patience in order to achieve this desired result. And this dynamic engagement must be perpetuated.

If you see nodding, you do not have a shared vision. Most likely you have a shared interest in self-preservation. Fix it!

Comments? You can contact me directly via my AdvisoryCloud profile.

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