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Companies can no longer rely on single individuals at the top to handle the complexity and uncertainty of the global environment. Instead, they need “leadership ensembles”—teams that can capitalize on diversity, stay current with developments in different parts of the world while anticipating future trends and their implications, and make smart decisions without sacrificing speed.
Leadership ensembles are groups of executives, each with distinctive expertise and perspectives, who come together in combinations suited to specific situations. Because they share common understandings and a common discipline, they can be reconfigured without significant loss in effectiveness.
The authors of this research report identify three qualities—“disciplined agility,” “foresight” and “synthetic intelligence”—that define leadership ensembles and offer suggestions for strengthening each quality.
To learn about three key attributes that top leadership teams must have if they are to manage the complexity and the tensions that face global companies, see the research report “Global Leadership Teams: The View from the Top” by the same authors.
As global business leaders seek to oversee and manage their large organizations, the paradigm for effective leadership has changed. Global companies face daunting challenges, including increasingly complex decisions, physical dispersion of leaders that can make communication difficult, and cultural and linguistic diversity. Moreover, global companies must strike a balance between being “in the world” (competing, collaborating and learning) while also “bringing the world into” the enterprise.
To manage all this, companies can no longer rely on single individuals at the top to handle the complexity and uncertainty of the global environment. Nor can they be ruled from corporate headquarters while viewing their local operations as isolated pockets of activity around the world. Instead, they need top teams that embody a decidedly different set of qualities.
In a study of 50 senior executives at 39 global companies from five continents, few respondents felt their companies were doing enough to cope with complexity or to prepare a pipeline of leaders with skills needed for future success.
Top management teams must answer three questions to be effective in a global environment: (1) How can we capitalize on diversity? (2) How can we stay current with developments in different parts of the world while anticipating implications of future trends? (3) How can we make smart decisions without sacrificing speed?
For question 1, the answer is “disciplined agility” (adjusting team configuration and decision-making as needed). For question 2, it’s foresight (“bringing the future and the world into the room”). For question 3, it’s synthetic intelligence (taking information from disparate sources and putting it together in meaningful ways to take action).
Leadership teams that have these qualities can improve their companies’ performance.
Analysis of the companies in the study showed that leadership teams with disciplined agility adapt their configuration to the complexity and urgency of the situation facing them. Possible configurations include “Tiger Teams” (experts and divergent thinkers tasked with an explicit goal; their members are comfortable with ambiguity), “Kitchen Cabinets” (inner circles of trusted advisors who make important decisions), “Advocates” (teams of rivals who unravel complexity) and “Operators” (process and business experts charged with solving particular problems).
Regardless of configuration, effective leadership ensembles also work to achieve foresight. They make considering the future an integral part of the present, by challenging longheld assumptions and considering alternative scenarios that could affect their organization.
Great leadership ensembles build their synthetic intelligence by harnessing many minds—and minds in many configurations—to assemble information from disparate sources and use it to make decisions. Through synthetic intelligence, teams can better tolerate complexity, appreciate trade-offs and build a more complete picture of the unknown, which improves decision-making.
To achieve disciplined agility, top teams must match their configuration to the situation at hand. For instance, with highly complex decisions requiring diverse opinions, a Tiger Team (creative, divergent thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity) may be best. Whatever their configuration, team members need to clarify their unique responsibilities and establish rules for fulfilling those responsibilities (such as how they will make decisions).
To strengthen foresight, top teams can “bring the future into the room” (conduct exploratory offsites, gain exposure to unconventional perspectives), “bring the world into the room” (strive for geographic diversity among leaders) and develop future-ready global leaders (rotate global talent).
To enhance synthetic intelligence, top teams can share experiences and challenges across regions, assign someone to serve as devil’s advocate during exploration of alternative courses of action, and ensure that conversations aren’t dominated by one individual.
Robert J. Thomas is the executive director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance and the author of Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Be a Great Leader and The Organizational Networks Fieldbook.
Joshua Bellin is a research fellow with the Accenture Institute for High Performance.
Claudy Jules is a senior principal in Accenture’s Management Consulting practice.
November 2, 2012
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