Advice from 75 CEOs on Aligning Leadership

As a new CEO, within the first six months on the job, you are likely to get a deep appreciation of the extent to which leadership is a team sport. In our interviews with 75 CEOs across the world, The River Group found that what those chief executives loved most about their jobs was the power of creative expression—the ability to express themselves, almost like an artist. Those same CEOs also described having to come to grips with the myth of control—the reality that even though they held the most powerful role in the organization, their ability to control their company was limited. While they know it conceptually at the start of their tenures, there is a point at which it becomes abundantly apparent to new CEOs that they can’t “go it alone.” Among other things, they recognize the extent to which they need a critical mass of leaders who share a common vision and who can engage the rest of the organization to realize that vision.

So…as a new CEO, how do you leverage your role and your power of creative expression to align the leaders you will need to realize your vision and deliver results for your company? Below are five guiding principles, drawn from The River Group’s recent research with CEOs and our decades of experience in working with CEOs.

1. Develop one strategic story that stirs emotion, with your executive team

Leaders excel collectively when they believe in and feel the importance of a common mission. In order to foster ownership and belief in the direction you are setting, engage your executive team in defining key elements of a strategic direction (mission, vision, values, strategic goals) that they feel strongly about and believe will be emotionally compelling for staff. In doing so, be both directive and inclusive. Identify your own “non-negotiable” elements of the strategic direction, invite team members to augment and refine those elements, and facilitate candid debates that result in ONE story that all members of the team can communicate with conviction.

2. Establish personal and team accountability, and align incentives

Unless lofty, compelling statements about mission, vision, values and strategies are translated into “what it means for me,” they remain just that. To make the strategic direction real and meaningful, engage your executive team members in defining their individual business goals and behavioral expectations that will support execution of the strategic direction. Then, facilitate sessions for your team members to describe and integrate their individual accountabilities, and where there are interdependencies, how they will support each other’s success. Also be sure that incentives and rewards reinforce the individual and collective expectations that are defined.

3. Design your organization for collaboration, where it matters

All too often, organization design efforts define structures but fail to identify and establish “linking mechanisms” for coordinating work across units. For those critical tasks where effective collaboration across organizational units is fundamental to executing the strategy (e.g., product innovation and design, customer experience), explicitly design methods for collaboration. This could include cross-unit teams or forums, liaison roles, focused matrix structures, management process or other ways of coordinating interdependent efforts and driving collaboration.

4. Remove leaders who are not the right fit, sooner rather than later

Nothing derails leadership alignment more that having leaders in mission critical roles who don’t believe in the strategic direction or are unwilling or unable to support it. In our recent study, the most commonly cited regret among CEOs was waiting too long to remove leaders who were not the right fit for their roles. Their advice to new CEOs is to call the question about fit early, and take action quickly.

5. Manage politics and leverage the informal organization, constructively

Our study with CEOs also revealed the inevitability of corporate politics. As one CEO put it, “You would think that as the CEO you could put a stop to all the politics…agendas and infighting…not only can you not stop it, it seems to intensify…you become the lightning rod.” Rather than attempting to “rise above,” CEOs can drive stronger alignment by understanding and leveraging the political dynamics within the informal organization—who has what level of influence, and why, and how can that influence be leveraged to better align the organization?

Among your many “to do’s” as a new CEO, aligning your leaders on a common direction and bolstering their ability to execute collectively will deliver some of the highest returns.


Advice for Rising to the Challenge of CEO


The Importance of Redefining Values During Culture Change