Estimated reading time: 4 mins
One of my more popular articles recently has been ‘12 Behaviors Most Disliked by IT Professionals ‘ in which I shared the 12 things IT professionals hated the most about their leaders. In this article, I will be addressing one of these – when the objectives of different leaders are misaligned.
I reckon this is one of the most destructive bahaviors you could find in an organization, as for most professionals, it is an impossible situation. When leaders who are also peers have different and conflicting objectives, they will behave differently and mandate instructions to subordinates that conflict, and therefore confuse, so it creates a hot-bed of politics and power-struggles that destroys productivity in the workforce.
Let me use an example. It wasn’t too long ago when I was running a change program in a Financial Services company that had a Director at the top who had been told to run programs cost effectively and reduce the number of freelancers on the team. Coming within budget was her objective . So she applied a lot of control of headcount and resourcing, which actually resulted in under-resourcing for the scope of deliverables the programs had been charged with. So, many deliverables were descoped or delayed. But this wasn’t the problem – in fact this is perhaps the best way of dealing with the situation. The problem was that a peer of the Director, who was the client and sponsor of many of the projects, was advising workers on the program to not worry about the spending, but bring in as many resources as needed. Delivery whatever the cost was his objective . The client VP is influential and pulled strings to secure the resourcing. But then there is more. Both of these guys leader was the COO, and her objective was to ensure everything was delivered and on budget. Delivery of everything to budget was her objective , given to her directly from the CEO. But the COO gave the objectives to the Director and VP, right? Well yes, but they weren’t aligned, in fact they were in conflict.
So how did this end up? Chaos, delay and low morale. The misalignment between the objectives created a lot of confusion in the workforce. The mandates filtering down from the COO were reinterpreted sometimes, sometimes not, so from day to day workers could be given very different tasks to achieve different objectives. The ultimate result was delivery of nothing, a lot of wasted money, and a disillusioned (well, pissed off) workforce.
Wait though, I am not suggesting that leaders who are peers all have to have the same objectives. No – what I am suggesting is that conflicting objectives, when delivered through the same workforce at the same time, should be avoided. It’s perfectly OK for leaders to deliver their objectives with separate teams, or at different times. The best situation is when peer objectives are complimentary, and therefore the peers really are a team, contributing to the goal of their superior but specific to their area of strength or responsibility.
Another example of where I’ve seen this go wrong is when I was briefly involved call-center software company. It was a small business (<50 people) and was led by a COO, CFO, VP of Marketing and their boss, the CEO. The company had grown quickly and had captured it’s market. In that year, the CEO had set objectives with the members of his team that were confined to a particular target, so the COO was asked to be ‘Obsesssed with service’ and the CFO was asked to be ‘Obsessed with profit’ and the Marketing guy was to be ‘Obsessed with promotion’ – pretty much nothing else mattered. Well you can imagine what happened. In such a small organization, there aren’t enough resources for separate programs or initiatives. The projects were doomed from day one to be torn way or the other whilst the Execs exerted their power and influence to focus energy and resources onto their narrow-band objective. I observed a lot of stress and towards the end a serious lack of trust and confidence in the leadership. The place was rife with disrespectful comments about the Executives. It was hell. Eventually the CEO woke up to his mistake and rectified it by creating a much more integrated set of objectives for the leadership team, who all worked towards the same balanced scorecard.
But it was too late for the IT professionals who worked there. Many had already left, and the ones that remained were suffering from low morale. I guess it took another 6 months for the organization to recover and get back on track.
Misalignment of objectives is an age-old story. There are many examples in history. Think of how Montgomery and Patton’s objectives conflicted in World War 2, resulting in lost opportunities (look it up!).
The lesson is this, make sure as a leader you and your peers are not working against each other. In fact it is not just for leaders. Any member of any team must ensure that they are working to compliment the work and purpose of their colleagues. This is the definition of a team isn’t it? Also, people with influence and in positions of power must be sure that they are not undermining the efforts of their peers and their followers.