It’s time for leadership alignment

This article is based on survey results reported in the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, a three-way collaboration with Development Dimensions International (DDI), The Conference Board, and EY.

The future of work requires an aligned leadership perspective

New developments in the working world are renewing attention on the unique and critical value of team-based work. Indeed, the increasing complexity of work, trends toward multidisciplinary work groups, changes in organization design, the increasing number of very different generations at work and the rise of agile project management approaches implicate that more interaction and collaboration is needed to get a clear view on situations and solve problems.

Research shows that these expectations aren’t limited to individual contributors, but are also shaping the future of leadership. Based on data from more than 2.500 HR professionals, the following three of the top six skills viewed as most critical within three years are closely associated with team effectiveness:

  • 360-degree thinking – to act on input coming from multiple sources and perspectives

  • Hyper-collaboration – requiring leaders to work cooperatively with others

  • Leading virtual and remote teams.

Collectively, these forces raise the stake for leaders’ willingness to work as a team, and for companies to respond in kind by enabling a culture of aligned leadership.

Organizations suffer when senior leaders differ in their willingness to continually push themselves and others to grow

The risks of top-level misalignment

It is important to understand the consequences of a talent approach that does not build alignment across leadership teams and that fails to see leaders as a group needing to be unified by common mindsets and mental models guiding their decisions. At the senior-most company ranks, these risks may become severe: they can lead to entire business units drifting away from a core strategy and senior leaders who cascade a discrepant set of operating and leadership principles through their entire reporting structure.

In our research, we looked across data from multiple members of more than 60 senior leadership teams to gauge the impact on leadership and business outcomes of leaders. We found four areas where a lack of senior team alignment was most damaging:

  • Situations of change: Particularly in situations of change, a lack of leadership alignment can be destructive: strong arguments will need to be put on the table, firm decisions will need to be made for a fruitful future which may harm the present business situation and individual silos. Some of the leaders may, after decisions have been made, not be able to cope with the situation and undermine transformation activities, quietly hoping that the change will never take place and related plans will die a silent death. Organizations that do not invest in, at the one hand, supporting their senior teams and, at the other hand, holding them accountable in situations of change, will be less successful in their transformation efforts;

  • Energy and development passion: vigor and energy on the job; looking for opportunities every day to develop employees. Organizations suffer when senior leaders differ in their willingness to continually push themselves and others to grow;

  • Future-focused leader skills: identifying and developing future talent, leading through digitization (i.e. leveraging technology to manage the workforce more effectively). Companies where senior leaders are inconsistent in such skills see worse talent and business outcomes;

  • Views on company culture: degree to which the organization is sluggish or agile, whether the company focuses more on current challenges or future vision. When senior leaders aren’t well-grounded on where the company stands now (or where it needs to head) on these key cultural factors, positive outcomes are much rarer.

Truly aligned leadership teams are still a rarity

EY - Leadership Alignment graphics | source:

For many organizations, shared and aligned leadership is an aspiration, not yet a reality. We found that only a slight majority (55%) of leaders feel either that they and their peers are engaged in mutual influence and shared sense-making, or that leaders truly collaborate to enhance the company’s effectiveness (61%).

Other signs of cooperative leadership are even weaker. For example, only 11% of companies extensively employ coaching from peer leaders as a learning method. Apart from coaching, we see little or no investment in any other forms of collective growth and development. Overall, many companies show questionable readiness to adopt and take advantage of a team concept for their leaders.

Alignment isn’t constant agreement

The goal is not creating a group of friends and extinguish as such a healthy debate among leadership teams. On the contrary, during the decision-making process, diverse perspectives are more than desirable as they enrich the debate.

Some forms of tension can be functional and the expectation of heavy discussions may incite leaders to come well-prepared to the table with well-founded arguments. However, these discussions should lead to a joint group decision, not to a win-lose situation of individual viewpoints. Also, once decisions have been made, leaders are expected to be loyal to them and to promote and defend them as a group.

How alignment makes senior leadership teams stronger

Organizations with well-aligned senior leadership teams have leaders who react more decisively to change and are better able to act on shifting customer needs and perspectives. Their active support to key cornerstones of passion, talent growth and cultural readiness for the future will enable them to build a robust leadership pipeline and to respond with agility to new market, customer and people challenges.

Where to start

  • Hire and promote for team profiles
    Seek valid, reliable data about leader personalities and skills to guide decisions about team composition

  • Address misalignment in critical facets early
    Don’t let misalignment in passion, skills and culture fester until they appear in their most damaging form at senior levels

  • Build shared mental models about mature leadership
    Create and socialize shared frameworks for roles, expectations and decision-making

  • Target unifying purpose through team chartering
    Arm leaders with basic and advanced change management background and techniques to ground new teams in a common vision

How to excel & differentiate

  • Don’t confuse alignment with agreement
    Differences in perspective are valuable and enriching, and inspire great decisions; group leadership decisions should however be promoted by the full leadership team

  • Use objective diagnostics to discern and act on team-level patterns and dynamics
    Go beyond standard org charts and opt for dynamic, interactive views of how leaders will work together as a team

  • Develop leaders in cohorts
    Collective, continuous development efforts build alignment in how leaders approach their roles as employee growth champions, and in their skills to identify talent and leverage technology to manage the workforce, providing a safe forum for open discussion of the company’s culture


About the authors

An Van Der Weken | Executive Director EY People Advisory Services @EY Belgium

An Van Der Weken | Executive Director EY People Advisory Services @EY Belgium

An is a seasoned executive director with extensive experience in leadership and change management

Mariana Artiaga Manso | Senior Consultant EY People Advisory Services @EY Belgium

Mariana Artiaga Manso | Senior Consultant EY People Advisory Services @EY Belgium

Mariana is an experienced senior consultant in change management and HR Advisory

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