The Amazing Ambidextrous Executive: Balancing Tensions at the Top


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It’s hard to sustain the top management balancing act. The ability to achieve and maintain the balance between opposing tensions is a critical skill for top managers. We discuss the balancing role, the challenge of identifying and developing this skill, and some ideas about finding balance.

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The Amazing Ambidextrous Executive: Balancing Tensions at the Top

  1. 1. the clarion group REAL. CLEAR. INSIGHT. the clarion call Balancing Tensions at the Top
  2. 2. Charles Andrew and the Partners of The Clarion Group Connect with us: You may contact us at 860.232.3667 or email ( Like us on Facebook Follow us on LinkedIn Subscribe to our blog Connect with us on Google+ Follow us on Twitter The Issue Do you ever feel that work is like walking a tightrope? While juggling multiple tasks? Then you’ll relate to the executive on the cover. It is hard to do the balancing act that top management requires. Picture yourself on the business tightrope. You are suspended between the past and the future. In order to maintain your balance in the present, you must keep moving. And you must do that by deciding, over and over, when to lean toward the activity on your left or the one on your right. Off either side is a long fall – the fate of any executive who fails to find the balance between, say, creative strategic decisions and flawless day-to-day execution. The ability to achieve and maintain balance between the opposing tensions is a critical skill for all top-level managers. Read on for a discussion of the balancing role of the ambidextrous executives, three brief examples, and the challenge of identifying and developing executives with ambidextrous skills. Page 2
  3. 3.  2013 the Clarion Group, Ltd. All rights reserved. Top Execs Must Be Ambidextrous Questions like those on the left challenge C-level executives in virtually every organization. We’re often brought in to help CEOs and their teams wrestle with such issues. In working with them, we have seen that a substantial challenge for all corporate leaders is finding the appropriate balance between seemingly opposing options. C-level challenges are complex. It’s rarely a simple matter of choosing one alternative or the other, for example, centralize or decentralize, focus short term or focus long term. In today’s increasingly competitive environment, top executives must constantly find the dynamic balance point where they can manage both alternatives. One CEO with whom we work embraces these dynamics as opposing tensions that co-exist and must be managed to achieve and maintain effective balance for an organization. We agree – successful executives must be ambidextrous. For example, they have to be strategic with one hand while maintaining strong execution standards and consistent follow-through with the other hand. And this challenge goes beyond corporate boundaries: Senior executives must also demonstrate their ambidexterity externally – to analysts, customers, shareholders, and board members. Most key leaders must continually assure Wall Street that the firm will meet its immediate earnings targets, while at the same time instilling confidence that the organization is growing and can sustain its growth. Let’s focus the spotlight on a few organizations that have dealt with balance and tension issues. Page 3 Are we shooting ourselves in the foot by operating too short term? Are we so focused on big ideas and new markets that we’re not getting the basics right? Should we be more centralized or more decentralized? How do I manage the tension between being strategic and operational?
  4. 4. the clarion group REAL. CLEAR. INSIGHT.  2013 the Clarion Group, Ltd. All rights reserved.Page 4 In Ring One New Growth or Old Growth In order to sustain growth, a CEO realized he needed to nurture a continuous pipeline of business-building initiatives. The company needed to have new growth engines ready when existing ones began to falter. And the pace of replenishment had to be faster than the pace of decline. Unfortunately, his management team believed that their success depended on excellent governance of existing businesses. The CEO knew he had to get his group of top executives to focus their attention more on where they were headed and less on where they were. The CEO realized he needed to do two things: 1) identify those who could manage that ambidextrous challenge, and 2) quickly identify those on his leadership team who couldn’t contribute creatively to the future while at the same time managing the day-to-day. As a result, he put those who were ready in roles managing multiple horizons immediately. He put those with potential in roles where they would support the management of multiple horizons and also individually develop ambidexterity as a core competence. In Ring Two My Goals or Our Goals One organization’s CEO, COO, and CFO wanted help aligning around strategy. They knew that they had talented people who were working hard, but the organization was not making the headway that it should. They came to see that they had been spending their time in separate functional foxholes. They realized that their foxhole mentality had them in a downward spiral. They were all excellent operational managers, very busy, and very proud of their results. Unfortunately, no one identified early on that their goals were not aligned, and so they were pulling against each other. This surprisingly common circumstance causes confusion at all levels of the organization. The confusion then creates operational fires that burn up the leadership team’s time and leave no time to figure out what is causing the confusion. As a result of working this issue together, the leadership team agreed to slow down to spend time thinking, talking, and aligning around strategy. Ironically, once they slowed down, they were able to operate faster. Their efforts were more productive, more effective, and more efficient. As trust grew, they became less protective of departmental turf and more cooperative with each other. In Ring Three To Centralize or Decentralize One company struggled with its organizational design and decision- making authority. The CEO would delegate fully to the business units (decentralizing) so that she could concentrate on strategic issues. She would focus on those issues and do that well, but then she’d fume when the units didn’t meet their goals. To fix the problem, she would start to micromanage the units (now centralizing) while neglecting strategic challenges that were going to have a substantial impact on the future of the business. In a series of meetings and discussions, the CEO learned how to stay in a more balanced place – she now leans toward decentralization or centralization as the situation demands, but she doesn’t go to the extremes that caused confusion and dysfunction. This CEO learned to be ambidextrous, to move on that gently waving line in the space between the extremes rather than traveling the giant zigzag that moved from one extreme to the other.
  5. 5. the clarion group REAL. CLEAR. INSIGHT.  2013 the Clarion Group, Ltd. All rights reserved.Page 5 Our Conclusions As a result of our work on issues of balancing tensions, we reach three important conclusions:  Executives need to remain in the tension area. Either extreme is dangerous for the organization – it can fall off the tightrope. As the CEO in found, you can’t stay with operational management exclusively – that’s a buggy whip mentality. Yet there’s no reason to go all new just for newness’ sake. It’s all right to benefit from history and assume that some things are done the way they are for good reasons.  The operating model can be designed and the business system aligned to accommodate ambidexterity. As the executives in found, misalignment means disaster. When they were able to achieve alignment, the synergy propelled them ahead. Managing the alignment between strategy, infrastructure, and executive behavior must be an ongoing priority.  If the tensions are not managed well, resources will be wasted. Flinging yourself back and forth between extremes is one way to cover both territories, but it is not an effective or efficient way to do it. As the executive in found, extreme zigzagging is wasting good corporate and executive energy. Few managers are innately comfortable with both sides of these tensions. In fact, many top executives have reached upper management by being particularly good at one side or the other. They’ve never walked this particular tightrope. For example, top strategists are people who can generate a variety of creative solutions to a given problem. Conversely, operations experts excel at processing information in a way that finds one right solution. However, when they reach the C-level, they must be able to hold and manage these two tensions together. If all the C-level individuals don’t have this ambidextrous capability, then the composition and skill mix of the team has to provide it jointly, and the team’s approach to decision making must be collaborative enough to accommodate both sides of the tension.
  6. 6. the clarion group REAL. CLEAR. INSIGHT.  2013 the Clarion Group, Ltd. All rights reserved.Page 6 Determining who can grow and who cannot is a perpetual challenge for CEOs. We use our 4Cs framework to help leaders make these decisions. The Cs are: Capability, skill-based elements acquired through education and experience; Characteristics, interaction and operating styles which, while instinctive, can be strengthened or modified through experience and reinforcement; Capacity, the primarily pre-wired attributes that influence intellectual, emotional, and physical strength, endurance, and perseverance; and, Core Motivation, those recurrent needs and concerns that energize and inform individual behavior.  Through early identification of key talent, mapping of critical work experiences, and providing access to meaningful roles, the organization can help develop desired attributes and ensure it has the right proficiency when it is needed. In our experience, however, it is the unusual organization that has the discipline to do this well over time. Often, shorter-term needs drive significant talent decisions, frequently at the cost of seeding more broad and longer-term capability.  The ambidextrous executive profile cuts broadly across each of the 4Cs. Development efforts can be useful for building Capabilities and Characteristics, but Capacity and Core Motives are largely fixed for an individual. And it is Capacity that often determines who will be at ease in the zone of tension, managing the complexity, maintaining the fluid balance for their organization. If ambidexterity is not present, selection – and not development – may be the most productive course of action. How can an organization develop its own ambidextrous executives? Sending an operations expert to an executive MBA program may add to his knowledge base, but it will not necessarily give him the know-how to manage ambidextrously. Here are some ideas: 1) Continuously define the skills and attributes that are critical for success in each role. This is an essential step that is often overlooked. 2) Determine the criteria and methods you will use to decide which employees or candidates possess these skills and attributes or are capable of learning them. 3) Identify or create development roles that grow and accelerate these critical skills in high potential managers. 4) Take care in placing the right people in the right roles. 5) Create a continuing regimen of reinforcement, development, and support. Deploy a combination of feedback, experience, and education-based leadership development strategies. That said, read about the 4Cs at the right. Developing Executive Ambidexterity
  7. 7.  2013 the Clarion Group, Ltd. All rights reserved. Ambidextrous Management: Dealing with Dichotomies Here are a few questions that may help ambidextrous executives find the balance that tames opposing tensions. Is it an issue of alignment? In the search for balance, we sometimes find that the conflict is a matter of alignment, as it was in Ring Two. For example, when carefully aligned, short-term and long-term goals shouldn’t conflict. The short-term actions should chain together to build out the long-term objective. Is it an issue of perspective? In other cases, we find that the conflict is one of perspective. Centralization and decentralization challenges, for example, can often be resolved with virtual meetings and instantly-shared reporting systems. Is it an issue of people? Some managers – talented as they may be at lower levels – simply aren’t ready to manage the ambidextrous nature of C-level challenges. Organizations can make progress by ensuring that high potential people have a broader set of experiences earlier in their careers. Is it an issue of reporting and communication? Sometimes we find that people are charged with making decisions without the data they need to make them. In other cases, we have seen people focusing on the wrong frequency of data. For example, they are mired in voluminous daily operation reports when monthly or quarterly reports would give a better picture for the types of decisions they make. Is it an issue of motivation and reward? It is a classic conundrum when expectations are for long-term performance and rewards are for short-term performance. Page 7 When There Is NO Tension We often find teams and organizations that are composed of like individuals. There’s little or no tension on these teams. It’s no surprise that executives tend to hire or promote those most similar to themselves. This encourages collegiality; however, it tends to reduce the constructive differences that may lend spark and creativity to problem solving and planning. It’s something to think about as you do your hiring, promoting, development, and succession planning.
  8. 8.  2013 the Clarion Group, Ltd. All rights reserved. If you would like to share this issue of The Clarion Call with your friends or colleagues, please direct them to Strategy Culture Organizing Structures Leadership We help bring clarity and provide actionable insight to senior leaders when they are faced with challenging situations. If you need to clarify strategic intent, find new paths to growth, or manage through transformation, we will help you get the best out of yourself and your organization. Our team combines real experience in the business world with diverse individual strengths to help our clients solve their most complex issues. About Us: Do you have ambidexterity? For organizations to be competitive in the future, they’ll have to pay attention to developing leaders. Ask yourself these questions: Does your organization have the right balance for the challenges of today? Do you have difficulty finding balance? How can you build on the successes of your ambidextrous managers to provide advice for managing both sides of the tightrope?