What role does conflict play in an organization? On a top management team? Conflict makes the news and it’s usually viewed as a bad thing. Stories pop up regularly in the press of leadership disagreements – in the boardroom (HP’s boardroom in the Carly Fiorina years, for example), and on the top management team (Yahoo at various points in time) – and the sense made of such stories iseither ‘good guys vs bad guys,’ so somebody wins and somebody loses, or else they’re all bad guys, in which case they’re all losers.
Conflict is inevitable amongst smart, ambitious people, however. Because they’re driven and creative, they don’t always think the same way about things. Any CEO would want smart, ambitious people on the top management team – think of the diversity of ideas they’d come up with! You get more choices as CEO with a diverse group of thinkers, and choice reduces your risk of taking the wrong direction, whether it’s about product or marketing or overall business strategy.
And conflict is inevitable in any business situation. If it’s growing, how to grow faster? There’s no one answer to this. If it’s not growing, how to turn things around? There are even more answers to this question. Which are more important to address: the problems of today and this month, or the opportunities of this year and next? The answers are always arguable.
Not everyone deals with conflict well, however. Look around the table in any leadership team and you’ll find some recognizable types. One person avoids conflict entirely, volunteering little in response to others’ presentations, but silently disagreeing (as you will discover later.) He will offer his opinion to you privately after the meeting, posed as an objective, ‘helpful’ observation. He is washing his hands of the conflict he sees, however, making it yours to deal with.
Another person presents ‘the facts of the matter,’ made unassailable by page after page of data that support her argument. The logic is intricate, and few if any have been able to study the material in advance, so it is hard to find grounds for disagreement. There is little discussion, and her presentation is tacitly approved, despite lingering, unstated concerns. Ostensibly open by virtue of the depth of material, she too is avoiding conflict, leaving it to you to deal with.
Recognize these types?
Effective CEOs find ways to get conflicts into the open, and to turn all those bright minds onto solving them. One CEO I worked with would say, ‘Bring me problems; I love problems!’ and that became the focus of his regular leadership team meetings. The monthly scorecard and commentary went out from the CFO in advance, and the core meeting process, rather than roundtable read-outs of departmental status reports, was team problem solving on the top critical issues facing the business.
Every leadership team is a unique collection of personalities, and presents its own variations on these conflict-avoidance types. The business situationsfacing these teams have great variety as well, so there’s no simple solution, otherwise everything in corporate America would be running smoothly already.
What doesn’t change from one team to the next is that the buck stops on the CEO’s desk. It’s your responsibility to get the conflicts inherent in the operation you’re running into the open, and get competent attention paid to them.
What are they, and how are you going to get at them?
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