Escaping Silo Leadership

Over the past year I’ve been working with a Chief Executive Officer who is an exceptional leader. She has kindly given me permission to write about the small behavioural change we have been working on over the past twelve months.

As is ever the case, it was easier to identify the symptoms than than the cause. She had five direct reports and although they were all competent and committed she found herself deeply engaged in aspects of work from each of their particular areas of responsibility.

Her original intention had been to engage with each of them in order to break down the ‘silo mentality’ she had inherited when she was appointed.

However, after eighteen months in post she was still frustrated by a stubborn, yet unspoken, reluctance to proactively engage in cross-silo working. She found her Directors to be really good people but such was their commitment to their own particular remit that they found it almost impossible to break free from their own direct areas of responsibility.

Consequently the CEO found herself being drawn deeper and deeper into the inner workings of each silo – as opposed to her original intention to get them to work together.

In my experience the traditional – and knee jerk – reaction to such a situation is to resort to the ‘tried and tested’ model of restructuring, whereby new services are created and people shifted around and silos broken down. Unfortunately, this takes everyone’s eye off the business, creates distraction and noise; takes people away from tasks that they were very good at, and, most frequently, does nothing to improve cross silo working as they soon re-emerge in their new structures.

The other alternative is often to restructure the top management and look for ways to move people on and replace them with those who are explicitly committed – or so they say – to matrix management. Regrettably this has led to so many very good people being lost to businesses when there might have been an alternative course of action.

In the case in question the CEO was not prepared to countenance a restructure, nor a culling of her leaders – for the reasons already given, i.e. they are very good at their jobs.

One of the tenets of Ceannas is that the only thing that leaders really have influence over, is their own behaviour – and it was in this regard that the marginal leadership gain strategy emerged.

It came about one day as we were going over her organisational chart – she was going over the people and their responsibilities but kept talking about the opportunities that existed between the silos. She started to write – in red pen – the different openings that existed for the organisation if only she could release the potential that existed in her team.

It was at that point that she said something along the lines of: “If only I could spend more time in these spaces” as opposed to down the silos.

So here it was, the idea of a CEO inhabiting the white space in the organisational chart between the silos – as opposed to getting trapped in the day to day-business of what each Director was doing in their own remit.

As is almost always the case on such occasions I thought we had come up something new and original, but a cursory search of the web threw up the fact that quite a number of people had got there before us.

However, much of what had been written about the idea was complex and over-complicated with the white space on the organisational chart becoming cluttered with additional projects, lines of communication and unnecessary detail.

Over a period of time we settled on much simpler mind shift in the CEO’s own behaviour. She set out to concentrate more upon productive work that could be generated in the white spaces between the silos.

In doing so she focused upon reinforcing the organisation’s strategy and vision, and championed productive innovation and change. She also actively challenged the need for cross-silo (matrix) working to be dependent upon innumerable meetings, even more bureaucracy, unclear goals and lack of accountability.

The outcome of this practice has really started to show some benefits: combined working is delivering results; she is identifying talent that she hadn’t seen before; the organisation is responding much more flexibly than it did in the past; and, perhaps most importantly, the senior team are seeing the actual value in collaborating with each others’ services.

From a personal perspective the CEO now feels much more on “top of her job” and feels like she’s adding much more value than when she was mired in the business of each silo.

Of course, all this seems relatively easy to describe but it has been a lot more difficult to achieve. For senior leaders who have been brought up in the orthodoxy of lines of responsibility and chains of command (even if they don’t like using the term) – it is a considerable shift.

Silos make it easier for leaders to hold individuals to account and lend themselves to target setting, scrutiny and control. However, by the CEO focusing more upon the ‘white space’ Directors realise that their own performance will be held to account in that regard – with all the incentives for behaviour modification on their part.

So, on this occasion, a small shift in the CEO’s behaviour characterised by spending more time in the ‘white space” in the organisational chart appears to have had a very positive impact – both upon the individual and the organisation.

I’m not suggesting that it’s the universal panacea – but at the very least CEOs should think about how much time they actively spend occupying the white spaces in their own organisation – and perhaps give it a small nudge if they think it might be productive.