Case Study: How One CEO Turned Around his Executive Team

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In this Insights post, we share a recent case study, highlighting how a CEO, under immense pressure, was able to turn around and align his leadership team in a very short period of time. You’ll learn about his challenges, how ProjectNext partnered with him to bring about the change the organization needed, and four key takeaways from the experience that will help you as a leader, whether you are in the C-suite or not.

The Situation:

We were approached by a CEO who was at his wit’s end. His business and industry had been hit hard by the pandemic and the resulting shifts in consumer behavior. His executive team wasn’t on the same page and there was a lack of engagement and ownership at lower levels of leadership. The organizational culture, like many in its industry, was intense and demanding, which was only exacerbated by the high level of pressure the organization was experiencing.

This CEO understood that unless he could get his executive team aligned and the broader organization engaged and invested, the situation would get worse. However, it wasn’t clear how to do that, especially in such a pressure-cooker environment.

How We Partnered:

We started by conducting interviews with the executive team and the level below them to understand the root causes of the misalignment and lack of engagement. The feedback was consistent. Across the board, the intense and demanding culture, starting at the top, had created an environment where there was a high degree of pressure and stress, and a lack of psychological safety and trust.

As we prepared to share our findings with the executive team, we knew the interview themes would not be easy to deliver or receive. At ProjectNext, we try to approach tough conversations with one of our core values in mind: compassionate truth. The executive team had not gotten any recent direct feedback, which had hampered their ability to understand their role in the challenge and what actions to take. Through providing our candid view of how their employees were feeling, the CEO and his team were able to respond based on a clear picture of the current state.

From there, we had a productive conversation on the vision for the organization and what they, as the executive team, could do to achieve this vision. This session was a critical pivot point for the organization, with an immediate shift in the executive team dynamic. The executive team left the session aligned, with a common vision and an understanding of how they needed to show up differently, as both individual leaders, and as a collective executive team.

However, the work was not done. The CEO and his executive team knew they needed their leaders engaged and invested in this new vision, in order to make any significant progress. We brought together the broader leadership team for a 2-day offsite to work together to redefine the company culture, including identifying what needed to change, from both a structural and behavioral perspective, to make that culture a reality.

What made this offsite a success was the CEO and his incredible vulnerability. He kicked off the offsite by apologizing and taking responsibility for the cultural tensions, made the space to truly listen, and committed to the much needed changes. This created the trusting, safe environment necessary for the leaders in the room to effectively collaborate on how to move the organization forward.

The Impact:

In a follow up conversation with the CEO, he shared that the chemistry of the executive and broader leadership team had completely shifted, in a very short time, and they were already seeing the ripple effects within the organization. He said:

“The buy-in we were able to create at our offsite within the senior team is nothing short of miraculous. And now we’re a few weeks out, and it still holds true. I’m optimistic that we’ve created a sea change. Thank you to your team — I am ecstatic. We thought we were just getting good facilitation but we got something much more meaningful.”

What You Can Do:

There are a few key takeaways from this experience that are useful, whether you are a CEO or another leader in the organization.

1) Establish your “mechanisms of truth:” The higher up in an organization we get, the harder it is to get real feedback. People are naturally hesitant to share feedback, especially constructive, with those in leadership positions above them. We like to think about setting up “mechanisms of truth” – ways that you, as a senior leader, can get real-time feedback that you can take action on. This may mean bringing in an external, impartial partner or coach, or simply surrounding yourself with people you know are “truth-tellers.”

2) Recognize the shadow you cast: Bringing awareness to how your words, actions, and behaviors impact others is critical at every level of leadership, but especially as you move up. The bigger the title, the bigger the shadow. In our work, we routinely hear about senior leaders who make one off-handed comment or idea, which then spurs significant time and resource churn, which was never their intent. One way to limit this shadow effect is to be incredibly explicit in your expectations and always ask follow-up questions, such as, “What will it actually take to get this done?” “What do you recommend as the first, best step to make this happen?” “What am I not considering?” “What don’t I know?”

3) Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable: Vulnerability is not easy, especially when you are in one of the most senior leadership positions, but it can be a powerful accelerator for connection and change. Owning your mistakes, your concerns, and your fears, builds human connection and engenders trust. As you saw in our example, by being vulnerable, the CEO was able to create an environment where his leaders felt heard, respected, and were more willing to engage themselves.

4) Create time to connect, even (and especially), when things are tough: When we are under pressure, our natural inclination can be to hunker down and “do, do, do,” when in reality, it can be more effective to pause, take a step back, re-evaluate and reconnect. This is even more important when you are at the top levels of leadership. After going through a number of challenging years, one C-suite we know completely shifted how they operate. They now meet together 3 days a week, every week, to review the state of the business and work through key issues in real time. However, you don’t have to take it to this extreme. You can have a significant impact, in a short period of time, by bringing the right people together for the right purpose, as we saw in our case study.

We hope that this real-life story of leadership in action demonstrates that it doesn’t have to take a lot to create a serious impact, but it does require self-awareness, a willingness to listen, and a commitment to trying something new, even when under immense pressure.

Interested in learning more about the unique challenges of leading at the C-Suite? Check out our research paper, “The Three Pivots for Today’s CEO.”