Leadership Ensembles Disrupt Traditional Management

Leaders of global companies confront a world of differences, even within their own ranks. Different languages, cultures, experiences — even time zones — bring a set of challenges that are unique to the modern age.

Perhaps the key challenge facing top leaders is how to deal with those differences while steering the company in one direction. More so now than ever before, top teams have to knit together their far-flung organizations, ensuring that their businesses and markets are strategically united and that operations are in sync.

How can companies bridge significant differences at the top without losing the vitality and creativity that comes with diverse perspectives? The commonplace executive board composed of a CEO and his or her direct reports and a handful of standing committees no longer suffices. Some companies are meeting the global leadership challenge by emulating another organizational form: the musical ensemble.

The secret of a successful musical ensemble resides in the ability of musicians to perform equally well in the intimacy of a quartet, the relative formality of a chamber group or the tight structure of a symphony orchestra. An ensemble leader may be called upon to be strong and visible, as in the case of a symphony. At other times, for example in a chamber orchestra, the conductor will lead while playing in the midst of the group. Or, the group may perform entirely without a conductor. Shared understanding — forged through the common experience of tackling difficult scores — and a desire to improve through practice give musical ensembles the agility to operate under widely varying conditions.

Configure This
A top management ensemble — the top 1 to 2 percent of executives and experts — similarly consists of the right people in the right configurations. As Herve Borensztejn, former executive vice president at Converteam, a French subsidiary of General Electric Co. now known as Power Conversion, said, “Sometimes we have to make decisions immediately in order to keep up with the speed and pace of our competitors, even though not all of us are available at the same time. Other times, we need to gather a much larger group to thoroughly debate our options.”

Sometimes consensus is the goal; at other times, a tough debate is required. In some cases, it’s critical for the group to make a decision; in others, the decision has been made, but leadership needs to absorb it among themselves and explain it far and wide. In an ensemble, top leaders often flexibly reconfigure themselves to adapt to the changing tasks or decisions at hand.

While leadership ensembles can emerge organically, companies shouldn’t leave them to chance. For future leaders to be effective in ensemble configurations, companies need to consider new approaches to leadership development. The “Growing Ensemble Leaders” survey by the Accenture Institute for High Performance, where two of the authors work, polled nearly 200 human resources executives from global companies and found that many are gearing up for this future. They’re giving greater priority to several key aspects of ensemble leadership, including a broadly defined focus on diversity and the need for people with strong individual skills who also know how to lead collectively.

A Bigger Diversity
Companies have been focused on increasing diversity for some time now, but they may have been thinking of it somewhat narrowly — in terms of gender and ethnicity, for example. But it’s more than that. “The future leaders of our company will be more diverse,” said Ellen Dubois du Bellay, senior vice president at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. “Diverse in terms of race, gender and so on, but also in terms of their experiences. We will always make better decisions from this vantage point.”

This underscores a critical point: for diversity to work in companies’ favor at the leadership level, it has to encompass more than the visible differences between people and embrace a wide variety of experiences in terms of teams led, functions overseen and businesses managed.

HR leaders surveyed said they believe that top leadership groups in the future will be characterized by people with great diversity of experience and thought styles — for example, are they more analytical or more “by the gut”? These forms of diversity will be even more important than diversity of age, nationality and gender, they said.

The second area where they see the role of top leadership changing is in the need for collective action. More than 90 percent of survey respondents believe that next-generation leaders will need to lead collectively as a team more effectively than leaders do today. HR executives who believe they’re at the forefront of cultivating global mindsets among leaders were more likely than their peers to view ensemble leadership as a necessity for the future.

However, it’s often difficult to promote diversity and collective action at the same time. Research suggests that diverse groups experience more disagreements about their tasks and group processes than homogeneous groups. This may explain why only about one-third of the HR executives surveyed say their companies are taking action today specifically to address and reconcile these dual imperatives.

What are the leading companies doing? Critically, they’re putting in place formal initiatives aimed at collective leadership development. And they’re providing high potentials with opportunities to practice ensemble leadership before reaching the top.

Collectively Better
Companies traditionally have used a variety of methods to develop future leaders, but they have most often focused on the characteristics, mindsets and potential of individual leaders. HR executives at leading companies augment those development efforts geared toward individuals with programs that teach collective skills. For example, their development programs emphasize coaching and mentoring of teams, and they let up-and-coming leaders participate in top-team decision-making.

The most confident companies surveyed differ from their peers in another important respect: they tend to let high-potential leaders experience ensemble leadership firsthand. These companies help their most promising managers gain familiarity with these leadership skills before ascending in the organizational hierarchy.

Managers in such companies enter higher positions better prepared for the often contradictory demands of ensemble leadership. For example, Mechthilde Maier of Deutsche Telekom said the behaviors that are expected of top leaders apply to managers throughout the organization — meaning that future leaders will be well-versed in these practices as they come up through the ranks. These principles include “Team Together, Team Apart.” According to Maier, that “means we passionately discuss a decision, but set our passions aside when a decision has been made. We communicate decisions as team decisions.” This brings the team the right measures of both agility and discipline.

Consider how global toy company Hasbro Inc. prepares the next top level of global leaders. Dolph Johnson, the chief human resources officer, noted at a 2012 global leadership summit that Hasbro’s top leadership team sometimes includes 10 potential successors in executive meetings. The senior leaders benefit from hearing new perspectives, and the younger leaders take a stake in decisions that will affect the company’s future. In effect, Hasbro grooms “the next 10” for ensemble leadership by enabling them to experience it directly.

Companies with an ensemble leadership mindset bring a level of rigor and dedication to their leadership development initiatives that goes beyond that of their peers. HR leaders who reported the highest degree of confidence in their development programs tailor those programs for a diverse audience. Almost 70 percent of those executives said that their initiatives reflect their company’s global footprint for diversity versus only 20 percent for companies that had a lower degree of confidence in their programs.

Executives at leading companies are also more inclined to recalibrate their programs based on the metrics they track. Borensztejn gives an example: “The ability to integrate into a new culture is a key leadership trait that we did not really measure before. But now, we’re not only looking at whether leadership candidates performed in a similar situation in the past — we’re looking for their ability to adapt to new situations in the future.”

Roadblocks Ahead
Clearly, approaching global leadership development from an ensemble perspective will require a new mindset. And while HR professionals often recognize the value of an ensemble approach, they also acknowledge roadblocks. At least 40 percent of the respondents surveyed cite constrained budgets, limited time, administrative complexity and inadequate accounting for cultural differences.

These are formidable challenges, but the organizations that surmount these obstacles will be able to prepare future ensemble leaders sooner, and that should be music to any executive’s ears.

Claudy Jules is a senior principal with Accenture, focusing on talent and organization consulting. Nandani Lynton is director of leadership development at A.P. Moller-Maersk. Robert J. Thomas is global managing director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance.