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You're working on something important - it needs buy-in from the top. You know the routine.Present your case to the board, answer a few questions, they think it's great, you get the go ahead.
You start. Things go well. Then you hit an obstacle, so you ask for some decisions and support.
What you get in return is a mish-mash of opinions, questions and lot of dithering. The decision-making silence is deafening. Tumbleweeds. Leaving you no further forward and nowhere else to turn.
Not quite what you had in mind? It’s all too common, it happens a lot. You, I and many others have been there. The very structure that is meant to clear the way for you, be bold and decisive instead becomes one of your biggest blockers. Why?
Well the words ‘agreed’, ‘approved’, ‘proceed’, ‘support’ can give you the illusion of a decision being made. They send you a positive message but mean nothing if they’re just another product of another agenda point at yet another board meeting - discussed, half-heartedly agreed and recorded to be filed and forgotten.
Bringing them to life and giving them real meaning has a lot to do with clear, individual consequences.
You see a senior 'owner' on paper means nothing without them having some real skin in the game. People will take action if it’s in their interest to do so. If it’s not important enough to their agenda (yes, they will undoubtedly have one), they won't. If it's not a priority for them, if getting it done doesn’t elevate their standing or if there's no individual pain from failure, you may find yourself on your own. Position wisely if you want real backing.
I once worked with a consultancy who wanted all their new starters to meet a director within 3 months of joining. The new person would get a feel for expectations, the opportunity to ask questions and an assurance that they were valued.
Everyone thought it was a great idea, lots of nodding agreement at the board meeting, a CEO happy that his senior team were backing this and even some actions recorded on that minute document. It was on.
Except it wasn't.
Everything continued as before. Regardless of the senior support.
Only when feedback from new starters became part of the directors’ performance evaluation did things change. Suddenly it meant enough to be carried out in a way the organisation wanted. Funny that.
So, if your initiative is important enough, make it highly visible, ensure the right senior people own it and are very clear of the rewards and consequences – for them. Measure progress, remind them of their obligations – then it'll get the attention it needs, you'll get the support you deserve and the board will do the job they're supposed to.
About the author.
Surj Bami is the director of Blue Harper, a consultancy specialising in the Financial and Public sectors. He is also a director of LGimprove, a consultancy specifically focussed on Local Government excellence.