When Orgs Become Siloed
Common signs and what to do about it
Leadership isn’t an individual endeavor, it’s a shared experience.
I've started a new series about leadership teams. In Part I, we talked about how divided leadership teams threaten company goals. Next, I'll be talking about specific ways leadership teams can go awry. This week we’ll focus on siloed cultures.
A note: The series is focused mostly on exec teams though much of it applies to functional leadership teams like engineering, product, or GTM. If you squint, some threads apply to any team.
Let’s address the elephant in the edition. The title talks about orgs but then I said this edition was about leadership teams. What’s going on? This isn’t a bait and switch.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between the leadership team and the org. The leadership team has tremendous influence on how we operate and the culture of the company. It’s nearly impossible to separate the two.
So, a siloed leadership team leads to a siloed org. To shift the behavior of the entity, we have to start at the leadership layer.
Signs of a siloed culture
How do you know when our leadership culture is siloed? Here are four common signs.
In this environment, individualism is prized. We know the way to win is through individual achievement. We prize our autonomy and our ability to run our area of responsibility according to our terms. Feeling on our own, we focus on what we can control — our area. We spend most of our time working with our folks rather than collaborating with peers. While we like to help others, when forced to decide, we choose what’s best for me rather than what’s best for we. We’re more likely to hoard resources rather than share. We might even accidentally fall into empire building which leads to…
A rise in poop umbrellas
Not the most polite term, but an apt description of siloed teams. In these environments, we look out for ourselves and by association — our people. To succeed, we must be strong advocates for our teams. Advocating for our folks is part of being an effective leader and, it can also be unhelpful protective behavior. Being a “poop umbrella” for our people can lead to negative behavior with our peers. Viewing fellow leaders as threats to our team, we put our elbows out. We squabble over ownership. We fight harder to get resources for our projects. Rather than deciding as a group, we compete over whose initiative gets priority.
Influence goes behind closed doors
Information sharing between areas is scarce. Leadership team meetings are status reports rather than rich conversations about strategy or brainstorms to solve problems. Rather than sharing our concerns as a group, conversations happen behind closed doors. Peer relationships are localized rather than broad. Unless working together frequently, leaders are acquaintances rather than partners working to achieve common goals. As they deal with all the individual components, the load on the CEO (or COO) increases. Burnout looms.
Apathy turns to fear
In this culture, we’re apathetic to our peers. If the culture continues along this path, that apathy turns competitive. We begin to see our peers as rivals. We compete against one another like there’s an individual trophy at stake. We must win it. We feel like we have to watch our backs. We’re not sure who to trust. Feeling like we have to keep up, we never feel comfortable. We push harder and harder. Burnout beckons but we don’t feel like we can slow down. Psychological safety and trust plummet. Some speak up more to get what they need. Others, afraid of saying the wrong thing or being an outcast, clam up.
How cultures become siloed
While sometimes these cultures form intentionally, more often it’s accidental. Only later do we discover the team hasn’t become a cohesive unit. Here are four common reasons leadership teams become siloed.
Tough market conditions
As market competition surges and conditions grow tighter, pressure to deliver results increases. Focused on surviving a tough market, we lose sight of the power of teamwork. Tough business conditions can encourage us to over-index on individual parts rather than the whole. Our already weak ties loosen. Incentives and reward systems can become misaligned, making leaders competitors rather than partners.
As the business changes, so does the org. As we grow, such as after a round of investment or landing a big client, layers are naturally added. Unless we’re intentional, it’s easy for orgs to split off and leadership teams to lose their connection. This is ripe ground for silos to flourish. Team cultures also tend to go awry during organizational change like a pivot, rerogs, layoffs, or the departure of a founder or a beloved leader. Another pivotal event is adding a new function or leader to an established team. In these times of change, the organizational geography changes, we become disoriented, stress rises, and our behavior changes. As we tend to change and the accompanying tasks, the culture gets away from us.
Focus on individual parts rather than the system
A business is a system first and foremost. Like all systems, to flourish, the parts function as a unit. When hiring leaders and scaling up these areas, it’s easy to focus on the individual parts. We want to hire the best GTM leader or the top-notch CTO. Narrowing our attention in this way can lead to areas that operate independently. Little information flows between them. Lack of communication between functional areas increases over time. Competition for resources increases. Siloed cultures are at risk of morphing into competitive ones. Companies that focus on the health of the whole system are more resilient.
Lack of an intentional culture
Some leaders, like Zac Smith, founder and former CEO of Packet, have learned to be intentional about the leadership team. But it’s easy to let business challenges take precedence over tending to this unit. Allowing the leadership team culture to grow organically puts it at risk of transforming into something undesirable. Even if intentional in the beginning, we get busy, letting it lapse over time. Orgs are living, breathing entities which means they need constant care. It’s not enough to set company culture, we need to consistently cultivate it at the leadership layer.
In siloed cultures the ties are so loose there’s little keeping us together. Any change or threat can unravel them, putting company initiatives in jeopardy. Even when unintentional, the impact of a siloed leadership team cannot be underestimated.
Missed business goals
As we’ve talked about, in siloed environments, leaders act independently. This means leaders do what’s best for them or their area rather than the company as a whole. In these cultures, some will reach their goals but rarely everyone. Victories are lopsided. Those who do might feel victorious but these wins don’t mean the entire company will succeed. You might have a GTM team that brings in business, but if the product and engineering teams can’t deliver, you’ll lose all those hard-won customers and revenue will slip.
Company culture slips
Standards of behavior come from the top. Leaders set the tone for the rest of the team. As the silos become ingrained, others in the company will follow the exec team’s lead. They look out for number one, viewing their peers as rivals. Collaboration comes to a halt. Negative behavior becomes pervasive, the company becomes divided into small independent entities. Top performers get fed up with the behavior and leave. So too do the collaborative folks — the ones who love partnership, go out of their way to be helpful, the kind who make every project just a bit easier. If it continues, what’s left is a stew of unhappy people who feel trapped.
Realigning leadership culture
We must remember that we’re all on the same team. Companies that compete internally don’t stand a chance of competing externally — which is where it really matters. To win over customers, we must act as a team.
Get them to think like a team
While most of us long for more autonomy, being an organizational leader means in some ways, we have less. While we lead an area, our first responsibility must be to the organization. To succeed, the exec team must rally together around shared objectives. To do this, we must see ourselves as a team.
Encourage the team to build relationships with all of their peers, not just the ones they work with most frequently. Here’s a helpful tool to assess the current state of your relationships. An offsite is a powerful way to begin transforming a siloed team into one of mutual support. Taking them away from their everyday responsibilities allows them to focus on this team. It creates the space for teamwork to arise. It allows relationships to form and from them, powerful partnerships.
I work with leadership teams at offsites so this may seem biased. And, I do this work because it’s a powerful way to align a leadership team. Here’s some proof. A while back, I worked with a siloed team rife with conflict. Collaboration was nearly non-existent. Company goals were in jeopardy. The team was pivotal to the company’s success — they needed to come together…and fast. A few months after our offsite they had formed a cohesive team. At our follow up, tension was replaced with smiles and genuine concern. They were well on their way to reaching their objectives.
Identify the desired team culture
Rather than allow culture to grow organically, intentionally design what you want it to be. That starts by identifying the values and behaviors you want the team to abide by.
For siloed teams, here are a few culture attributes to consider:
Reward desired values
Once you’re clear on the culture the team wants to create, reward it. Acknowledge every time you see the behavior you want. Never tolerate ego-driven or “me” behavior. Changing behavior is hard so it might show up again. If undesirable behavior arises, call it out, even if it’s in public. The adage, “Praise in public, criticize in private” doesn’t apply here. Everyone needs to know the expected behavior. Transforming a culture requires everyone to shift.
Transforming the leadership team from siloed to supportive takes time. But oh, the benefits are so worthwhile. This shift will have a positive ripple effect across the whole company. Once the leadership team is functioning effectively, everyone will follow suit. Information will flow, new ideas will emerge, and teamwork will become the standard operating procedure.
Thanks for reading! I hope you find an insight or two that made you think more deeply about team cultures. Here are a few ways you can work with me.
If you want to foster a more cohesive leadership team, I’d love to talk with you about what it would look like. Book a time a time to chat.
If you want a more in-depth way to assess how the leadership is doing, I’ve created an audit to give you a snapshot. If you’re a CEO, COO, CHRO, or head of a large department, email me and I’ll send it over.
If you want to talk about other ways I can support you or the team, please get in touch.
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