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Executive Education

How to Be an Experimental Leader in the C-Suite

Over the last 20 years I have been privileged to hear the inner thoughts, fears, and challenges of those in the C-suite because as an executive coach I have gotten to have weekly conversations with my clients. I have worked with them on their biggest challenges and I have coached them through their biggest fears. Almost everyone I have talked to in leadership is trying to do their best. They bring blood, sweat, and tears–and maybe a little imposter syndrome–to their work and they try diligently to do good work. I have to opportunity to talk with them about how they become experimental leaders and how an experimental mindset can help them lead better.

But what does it mean to be an experimental leader in the c-suite? C-level leaders can best work on strategy, focusing the organization on bottlenecks, and using their attention to help propel the organization forward toward its goals.

When I talk about leadership I often ask C-leaders to consider “what is the role only I can play in the organization?” Usually the answer is something around strategy and strategic intents for the organization. Should people be experimenting with something as serious as strategy? Isn’t a strategic plan safer and more solid? I believe the answer is a resounding no.

As an executive coach, I have been in too many leadership retreats listening to top level executives talking about how their strategic plans haven’t been fully implemented. They try to figure out how to create “accountability” with their people so the plan they invested in can be completed. The problem isn’t the lack of implementation but the plan itself. The plan was created for an organization that doesn’t exist anymore. Let me clarify. The plan was created to take the organization from its current reality to a future reality. However, as soon as the first steps were implemented the organization was different.

The first implementations changed the organization and the current reality was no longer valid. The more of the plan that is implemented, the more the plan is obsolete. This is why I prefer a set of strategic intents that can be reset on 6 to 12 month intervals. They are the goals the organization INTENDS to accomplish. They are the guidelines that allow a nimble organization to pivot to meet market conditions. The more turmoil and change there is in the marketplace, the more intents guide. Intents allow the operational layers of the organization to make decisions on the ground and to experiment in their own leadership to respond to current conditions.

After the strategic intents are in place I suggest C-level leaders turn their attention to understanding the bottlenecks in their organization. Bottlenecks are the areas that flow is constricted. Removing bottlenecks is like rocket fuel for the accomplishment of goals. How to find the bottlenecks? What are the places that are stuck in the organization. Look for problems that surface again and again or conversations that circle over and over again. Sometimes I see a single employee missing a necessary skill become a bottleneck. Attaining the skill from another person can remove the bottleneck and restore flow. As an experimental leader, this role of removing bottlenecks may be more of a coaching role for the c-suite. It may best be served by asking questions like

  • What is holding back the progress?
  • What are you trying in order to move this forward?
  • What is in your way, and how can I help?
  • What did you learn?
  • What is your next step or experiment?

The role of the leadership team may be to provide financial resources to add resources that can help remove bottlenecks. Teaching your teams to look for bottlenecks will allow you to have shared language.

Finally, look for ways to use your own management attention to remove yourself as the bottleneck. In many organizations the leader is the biggest bottleneck of all. Create an organization where you are rarely the bottleneck and you will create an organization that flows and accomplishes.

Eliyahu Goldratt, an Israeli physicist and author said, “Management attention is the biggest bottleneck in North America.” After years of focusing on bottlenecks and constraints with my clients, I agree. The way I see this happen is in delayed decisions, constraining of budgets, and backed up workload when input from leadership is needed.

It can be scary to be a leader in an organization that is running fast downhill with no brakes. Delaying slows it all down a little. As a leader, you have to decide if speed is an industry advantage and set your intent to be where you want it. Do that instead of constraining work ad hoc by slowing down the flow with poor leadership. Remove yourself as the bottleneck and teach your organization to move at the pace that makes sense.

Being a leader is hard. Sometimes it is incredibly lonely trying to find true north and to lead in a way that you can feel proud of. Focusing on strategic intents, removing bottlenecks, and focusing your own attention can help you lead in a more intentional way. As a leader, the workload can be heavy and sometimes the uncertainty is incredibly high. It can be complex and difficult to make sense out of the leadership landscape. Becoming an Experimental Leader can help you have a foundation for your leadership that you can feel proud of–hopefully you will be a little less lonely, too.


Written by Melanie Parish. Have you read?
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Melanie Parish
Melanie Parish is a public speaker, author, and Master Coach. An expert in problem solving, constraints management, operations, and brand development, Melanie has consulted and coached organizations ranging from the Fortune 50 to IT start-ups. She is the author of The Experimental Leader: Be A New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators. Melanie Parish is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.