Alignment of Your Management Team: A Fundamental Key to Flourishing in 2020 and Beyond: Interview with Miles Kierson

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Business people celebrating in the office

Ron Crabtree:

Miles Kierson is the founder of Kierson Consulting LLC in the Chicago area, and he’s worked to help some very impressive organizations figure out how to make a better, prosperous future a reality. These organizations include Sears, ConocoPhillips, the All-State Insurance Company and, even, Ameritech. Which, I think most would recognize as real players in their industries.

Miles has also written “The Transformational Power of Executive Alignment.” Miles, can you share a little bit about yourself? A little bit about your background and how you got into this area of executive alignment?

Miles Kierson:

I have a master’s degree in psychology, and I’ve been consulting for 30-plus years — working with executives. The first 15 years, I did without executive team alignment, and the second 15 years I did with executive team alignment and leadership training programs.

Ron:

So, what are some of the organizations you’ve worked with using this process for executive alignment? And, what kind of results did they get from working with you and this process?

Miles:

Well, one of the companies that you’d recognize in addition to those you mentioned is First Energy, which is the sixth largest publicly traded electric utility in the US. I worked with Constellation Energy, I’ve done a lot of work with energy companies, both in the oil industry and electric utilities. And lots of others of all sizes.

The results vary. It depends on what they really aspire to at the beginning. One company that I can’t name, they were literally last in their industry in terms of results. They were dead last, they were the worst player in the industry, and when I went to see them, they came together as an executive team. They committed to a vision of the future. That was actually six years ago; they are maintaining the same vision for the future because it’s an ongoing fulfillment. And they are now somewhere in the range of high second / low first quartile in their industry, and it is, by the way, a very slow-moving industry, so that is phenomenal.

Ron:

So how quickly were they able to move from the bottom of the pile to at least, say, the 50th percentile? How long did that take?

Miles:

For them, I would say it took about a year for them to move that far. Again, I don’t want to tell you the industry, but it’s an industry that, if you knew the industry you’d know it moves very slow, so it’s pretty phenomenal growth.

Ron:

I would say any of those large organizations you talked about would be slow to change. Any organization with more than 20,000 employees is going to be pretty slow to change. So, even in slow-moving industry, I would think a year is pretty phenomenal for 50% movement.

So, can anybody benefit from this and, if so, how?

Miles:

Absolutely. Absolutely anybody can benefit, and when we get more into what alignment is, I think you’ll see that. But, also, it’s important to see the bigger picture because the bigger picture is a company that you work for, or the company that you run, or any company that you think of, they are somewhere right now that is the current reality for them, and then there is what they aspire to. That’s a journey. For me, my expertise is helping people get from point A to point B. Point A being where they are now and point B being where they will be in the future and where they want to get to as an organization. Because I’ve been on that journey so many times, I know enough about it to be able to guide companies through it. The first part of it is what I call the “foundation” part. So, the foundation part is what I’m calling the executive team alignment. You want to work with the senior executives; you want to work with the vision they have. Without a foundation, you can’t build a house. Also, even more important perhaps, is you can have a foundation and then never build the house. So, all of this goes towards how you help companies get from one point to another over time, and the first part of that is to create the foundation. So, that’s large companies, small companies, and one-person companies.

Ron:

That gives us an idea of who you are and the kinds of results people have gotten in the past. Now, I really want to understand the how-to of your process, the practical aspects, and concepts in operational excellence. Can you tell us a bit about the process you go through with an organization?

Miles:

Basically, and I’ll try to keep this as simple as possible. The first thing I want to do is I want to establish who the key person in the organization is, what they aspire to, what they see as the issues, how clear they are, how committed they are. Typically, they don’t really have much vision themselves when I first get there, or it’s not really clear. But, I help them to clarify that. Then I’ll meet with each of the people on their executive / management team individually in confidential conversations because I need to be able to understand the dynamics and as much as they are willing to confide in me, I want them to be able to do that.

Ron:

What are you trying to learn during that process?

Miles:

Well, what I’m trying to learn is really where the breakdowns are in their communication, where the breakdowns are in being an aligned team, what they consider an aligned team to be, and what the key issues are that they see in the company because those will be important to work with.

Then I usually — this is not something that’s written in stone — but I usually work in two separate sessions. So, I’ll do one session near the beginning after I’ve met with everybody and then I’ll do the second session, usually a month later. Those sessions are often two days each and sometimes shorter. I haven’t done any longer yet but sometimes shorter. Then, in the first session, what I want to walk them through is what I call the “aligning process,” which is really helping them understand what alignment is, helping them to voice their difficulties with being aligned and the way that I use that. Then, I take them through this whole process that is really designed to get them talking more than anything else. At the end of that process, I will ask them if they are willing to be committed to being an aligned team. Which, by the way, I always do. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true, by the way. But, I take them at their word, if I say they’re going to, I do everything I can to be clear that they have a choice. And almost always there’s a lot of conversation before they commit themselves.

Then, once they are an aligned team, the question is, “Where are you going?” And, by the way, it doesn’t always happen in this order but, “What’s your vision for the future? What’s really compelling about the future that’s worth doing all this for?” I help them through a process where I help them to see a future that’s really compelling to them and help them articulate it.

That’s typically what we do in the first week, and then we’d start to talk about how to get there. I’m sorry, the first session. And then in the second session, we’ll go back over what got created in the first. We’ll talk more about how you get there and get pretty focused around where is it that they need to put their attention in order to get there and what do they need to do in the organization in order to get it?

And then, we’ll have a conversation about their willingness to be committed to each other’s success which is always an eye-opener for them.

Ron:

So, my next question is really in two parts. So we’re clear, what really makes up the executive team? Just, in your mind?

Miles:

It depends on the size of the company. If you’re talking about a large company or a corporation, then there’s a CEO, a COO, a CIO. All the Cs, right? A bunch of Senior VPs or VPs. General Counsel, perhaps.

In a smaller company, it could be a President or a CEO, or they could be Partners, and then there’ll be an HR person, perhaps, or there’ll be somebody who acts as the General Manager or something like that.

Ron:

So you alluded to learning what people perceive to be gaps, opportunities, etc. I wonder if you could share a few examples because you’ve been through this many, many times through the years. What are the typical kinds of gaps and disconnects that you uncover at this stage?

Miles:

Well, one thing is that nobody has ever talked about what alignment really is. And I don’t claim to know what alignment really is, but I do claim to have a definition of alignment that’s really useful in an organizational setting. So, one of the things is just having people be able to see this useful way to be using this word, “alignment” and that there’s a choice in the matter, which is really, really, really important. So, that’s one of the main gaps.

Another one is people don’t talk to each other. They withhold things; people don’t talk to each other. And they’re afraid to really communicate and connect with the idea that everybody’s got their own agendas. This is the biggest deal of all. So, everybody’s got their own agendas. They call this a team but, for me, the basic definition of a team is a group of people, all of whom are working to the same end together, and they’re not, because they all, first of all, they don’t know the end because they haven’t had those discussions usually. And, number two, they have their own agendas, so they’re moving in separate directions.

Ron:

If you’re going to encapsulate what alignment should mean and say, one or two sentences, how would you boil all that down?

Miles:

Basically, I have a little joke that I tell in the sessions that I do, which is one of the ways that people define alignment is it’s a way to arrange your car wheels. And the joke is, it’s actually closer to alignment the way I’m using it than anything else because it’s everybody pulling, the easiest definition is, everybody, pulling in the same direction together. Which, anybody can get.

The second thing is, the really important definition for them to understand as a practical definition is that alignment is a willingness to own decisions as they’re made and to make them work.

Ron:

Yeah, I love that alignment analogy of getting the wheels, if you think about a large tractor-trailer with lots of wheels, I can just imagine that you want all those puppies to line up going in the same direction. If any wheel is slightly off-kilter, it’s going to wear the tires, for starters, but if it’s very much more off alignment, you’ve got a train wreck about to happen. So, it’s a great analogy.

Miles:

To push the analogy a little further, I just had this thought. A lot of people don’t sit on the senior management / executive team. But, I’ll tell you that the people outside the team can tell you better than the team itself if they’re aligned or not. Because people know it, everybody knows it. And, in fact, it could be a threat to them because what you’re doing is you’re changing how things work around here, and it’s almost like a dysfunctional family where you can go to your mother, or you can go to your father depending on what you want.

Ron:

One of your positions is that there is a basis for sustaining momentum. Can you expand on that a little more?

Miles:

Yes, and to really understand what it is I was saying there, I want to go back to this being the foundation work for them getting where they want to get to. So, if it’s the foundation work, in that way, it’s the basis. You’ve got to create the foundation in order to get anywhere of any value. So, that’s one way to look at it.

The other way is, they have the wherewithal to keep moving in the same direction and maintain their commitment to each other without going too far astray or giving up.

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