No more Us vs. Them: How to Tear Down Departmental Silos by Urs Koenig, Phd, MBA

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The same day Microsoft announced their huge reorganization this month, I was presenting a CEO client the findings of my interviews with his senior management team. The two main points of critical feedback the managers had for my client were:

 

  • We operate in a silo mentality
  • There is a lack of trust ands collaboration across departments. At its worst, we have a blame culture

On the way back from the meeting I got stuck in notoriously bad Seattle rush hour traffic and was listening to the reports of Microsoft’s reorg on National Public Radio. I learned that (my fellow Swiss countryman 🙂 Steve Ballmer’s goals for the reorg were tearing down of departmental silos and creating more cohesive teamwork; hence regaining the spark that has been missing from so many Microsoft products recently. Right there, stuck in traffic, less than 3 miles from Microsoft’s headquarters, it hit me once again how many similarities there are between running a $20m business (my client) and a multi-billion dollar business like Microsoft.

It’s the age old challenge every leaders faces: How do I get everyone to think ‘us’ vs. thinking of colleagues in other departments as ‘them’.

Adam Bryan, the New Yorks Times Corner Office columnist wrote a great piece on overcoming the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ challenge.

Here are the three themes that emerged from his interviews with more than 200 leaders for his column: 

  1. Create a One Company Culture
  2. Simplify the Scoreboard
  3. Communicate Relentlessly to the Entire Staff 

Create a One Company Culture

Symbolism is important, in both the language that leaders use and the organizational chart they create. (Read my article on using the org structure as competitive tool.

Here’s how Kathleen L. Flanagan, the chief executive of Abt Associates, tackled the issue.

“We’ve grown from $180 million in annual revenue a few years ago to $425 million today. As the company grew, more business units were created, and so we had more silos in the organization. My objective two years ago in coming into this job was to take down the silos. So I reorganized the company. It used to be organized around lines of business — international, U.S.-based, data collection — and there used to be senior vice presidents who led each of those big businesses. I took those senior V.P. positions away and hired one executive vice president for global business who shared my vision for what I call One Global Abt.

(…) I now ask my managers to wear two hats. Everybody’s got their job in the big picture of the company, but they all have to wear an Abt hat. It’s really easy, given the time pressures and the pace of our work, to put blinders on and be very project-focused. It’s harder to take a step back and ask, “How does this apply to the whole company?”

Simplify the Scoreboard

A big part of a leader’s job is to establish a simple set of performance metrics so that everyone in the company can feel as if they’re part of a broader team, and can understand how the work they do contributes to the broader goals. Chief executives have to choose those metrics carefully because, as the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed.

A powerful example of this came from Shivan S. Subramaniam, the chief executive of FM Global, a commercial and industrial property insurer, who shared how his team worked hard to develop very simple goals.

“We call them key result areas, or K.R.A.’s. We’re multinational — we’ve got 5,100 people, 1,800 of whom are engineers. We’re very analytical. But we have three K.R.A.’s, nothing terribly fancy. And everybody focuses on them. One is on profitability. One is on retention of existing clients. And one is on attracting new clients. That’s it.

You can talk to people in San Francisco, Sydney or Singapore, and they’ll know what the three K.R.A.’s are. All of our incentive plans are designed around our K.R.A.’s, and every one of those K.R.A.’s is very transparent. Our employees know how we’re doing. And, most importantly, they understand them, whether they’re the most senior manager or a file clerk, so they know that ‘If I do this, it helps this K.R.A. in this manner.’”

Communicate Relentlessly to the Entire Staff

There’s a reason that so many companies hold regular all-hands meetings (and with technology, it’s possible to do them in large and sprawling companies now). Again, it’s about tribal behavior. You have to bring everybody together and speak to everyone as a group for people to identify themselves with the broadest group. Leaders then have to take their simple plan and hammer it home, again and again, even if they feel like everybody has heard it before a hundred times.

It’s a lesson that Christopher J. Nassetta, the Hilton Worldwide chief, learned over time.

“You have to be careful as a leader, particularly of a big organization. You can find yourself communicating the same thing so many times that you get tired of hearing it. And so you might alter how you say it, or shorthand it, because you have literally said it so many times that you think nobody else on earth could want to hear this. But you can’t stop. In my case, there are 300,000 people who need to hear it, and I can’t say it enough. So what might sound mundane and like old news to me isn’t for a lot of other people. That is an important lesson I learned as I worked in bigger organizations.”

Ask yourself for your own organization:

One Company Culture:

  • On a scale from 1-10, how do you rate your organization as having a One Company Culture?
  • How does your org chart support/not support a one company culture? What changes do you need to make?
  • What language are you using to support a one company culture?

Simplify the Scoreboard

  • How clear are you personally on the performance metrics for your business? What about your senior managers? What about your front line people?
  • How can you simplify the metrics down to no more than three?
  • How will you make your people ‘care’ about those metrics?

Communicate Relentlessly to the Entire Staff

  • How often do you communicate to your entire staff?
  • How can you make your message as simple as possible?
  • How often do you feel you have said the same thing 150 times, seven different ways?
  • Way too often? Great! Keep going!
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