Sitting at the top of the ladder doesn't make you a great leader. Here's how to make sure you get support and trust from those you report to.
You started modestly in your career and have made it to the management team--congrats. At long last, you are in control of your own destiny, or so it seems at least. But whether your team runs an entire company, a division, a business unit, or function, you are still subject to oversight and review.
At the most senior level, it will be a board of directors that evaluates the senior management team’s overall performance. Having served on several boards and worked with many more in different parts of the world, we know that developing credibility is a key determinant of long-term success for management teams.
Why Credibility Matters
You might think that hitting your numbers and fostering good board relationships are the key factors, and yes, they do matter. But at a deeper level, much comes down to your board of supervisors' having confidence in your team’s ability to deliver reliably on what is expected. It is all about credibility, because that will influence trust, resource allocation, strategy approval, empowerment, and risk taking.
Based on our research as well as experience, credibility most depends on:
1. Strong Results
A supervisory board is usually most responsible for the long-term viability of the organization. A strong predictor of future performance is past performance, however that happens to be measured. If results are strong, confidence develops, conflicts reduce, reputations build, and mutual confidence grows. Once the risk of negative surprises declines, the team can start to aim higher and eventually shoot for the stars.
2. Shared Vision
It is not enough that the team leader has a clear vision. The vision must be supported by the entire team as well as the board. The broader the support plane for the vision or strategy, the more likely it will succeed. The vision needs to connect with other players’ agendas and be viewed as a compelling story that excites them. If so, it will be shared further and start to energize the many others who can help achieve the vision.
In many cases, credibility can be earned by engaging board members in key management decisions and discussing important dilemmas or tradeoffs. Those charged with oversight seldom want to be presented with a fait accompli. In most settings (but not all), they will expect to be consulted. If so, keeping them out of the loop will destroy trust and motivation.
4. Bench Strength
Credibility also hinges on how much confidence the board has in the second echelon in the organization (i.e., people reporting to the management team) and even lower. If they never see those folks, there is just more risk (especially in case key players leave). Bench strength impacts implementation success as well as succession. Also, it affects the quality of dialogue and challenge upward, because sometimes a counterveiling force is needed to keep dominant leaders in check.
5. Being Part of the Solution
As long as the board views your team as part of the solution, you stand strong. This in turn hinges on the team’s competence in solving critical issues as well as the team’s motivation in getting the job done. Once individual managers or an entire team is viewed as part of the problem by their superiors, credibility goes out the window and they may be shown the door eventually. So make sure your team is viewed as being relevant, capable, constructive, practical, responsive, and above all highly motivated.
6. High Integrity
Integrity is directly tied to team members being true to themselves in terms of values and viewpoints. Authentic teams instill confidence, because they don’t play political games and don’t backstab others. Their word is their bond, and they can be counted on when things get tough or nasty. Integrity is closely tied to such time-tested ethical principles as honesty, fairness, and respect for others. It is important that team members do not abuse their privileges and power for personal gain, and that they are called on it when they do.
Investing in Credibility Can Pay Big Dividends
Business and commerce are at their roots collaborative enterprises. We orchestrate competition to gain efficiency, stimulate innovation, and help people reach their fullest potential, but all within a broader context of voluntary participation. The six ways above are not listed in terms of importance, because much depends on the specific situation and the broader social as well as cultural context. But each matters in fostering team credibility.
This article was co-authored with Drs Hanke Lange, who specializes in board-level consulting from his base in the Netherlands.