A Strategy that Requires Shared Leadership
“We need shared leadership. We want the four of you to lead the effort collectively. You will succeed or fail as a group, not as individuals. It is time for all of you to step up.”
This is a quote from a senior executive at one of our clients. They have an internal team at the center of their strategy that is doubling in size in the next 18 months. The executive team expects the four senior leaders of different disciplines to run the team collectively.
The four leaders however, while exceling at leading their individual teams, are struggling to lead and scale the team as a cohesive unit in the face of increased speed, complexity, and expectations. They are pointing fingers and buckling under the stress. While they are achieving their individual goals at the moment, their bosses are losing faith that they can scale at the pace required without losing people and skimping on quality.
What the Data Told Us
We agree with their bosses. Our leadership effectiveness survey rated their current leadership practices, processes, and interactions in the bottom quartile just as attrition on their teams was increasing.
Their leadership struggles are not surprising given their confusing goals, unclear success metrics, overlapping and conflicting roles, and partially misaligned responsibilities. This is exacerbated by the fact that they have had minimal exposure to any strategy, culture, talent, leadership, coaching, management or business acumen training or coaching in their careers.
Will Shared Leadership Work?
Expectations for their success are high, and they do not want to fail. Will the collective approach to leadership approach work? We define shared leadership as leadership where responsibility, accountability, and authority are shared. Rather than a single person taking on the role of leader, leadership is distributed among a broader group.
The key to making shared leadership work is having shared goals across functions that the leaders must work together to achieve. If their true success is dependent upon each other, you have a chance for interdependence and higher performance. If they can be successful in their own silo, or if one leader can succeed while another leader fails, truly shared leadership will be a challenge.
Advantages of Shared Leadership
We know from leadership simulation assessment data that the advantages of shared or collective leadership for the organization and employees are:
Disadvantages of Shared Leadership
We know from action learning leadership development programs that the disadvantages of shared or collective leadership for the organization and employees come down to confusion, disagreement, and misalignment around:
Comparison of Shared and Traditional Leadership
To get a better sense of how collective leadership works as opposed to the more traditional leadership approach, let’s look at a high-level comparison.
Leadership & Decision Making
In more typically run organizations, leadership is accomplished by an individual with the formal position, directive, and authority to manage others. With shared leadership, however, the team claims the leadership role. Rather than having decisions made by top management, decisions are made and handed out within previously defined areas of responsibility.
The “shared” model fits well with today’s flatter organizational structures. There is no real “top-down” hierarchy. Rather there is a networked hierarchy that works more horizontally than vertically.
This all sounds good, but many worry about not having a single person or executive responsible or accountable for results. Who do you blame or look to when things go awry? We have found that as long as expectations about success, roles, and responsibilities are clear, shared accountability is not an issue. The responsibility for results rests where it should — with those doing the actual work.
Instead of strategic communications originating from the top, communication on what needs to be done (and how) come from many directions. The advantage is increased transparency at work. There are few secrets or miscommunications because so many more employees are involved in the cooperative effort.
With multiple employees “in charge” of the outcome, there is apt to be a more culturally diverse, cross-functional involvement in the day-to-day operations. This, too, promotes heightened collaboration across teams and increased engagement among a broader spectrum of employees.
The Bottom Line
You will have to decide if shared leadership will work in your environment. Assess the advantages and disadvantages carefully and apply them to your situation. Maybe a combination of both is what is required to succeed in your unique culture.
To learn about how to be a better leader, download The 4R Model of Transformational Leadership
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