Broken windows in senior management

Over the past few weeks, we have examined the roles of various levels of employees and managers in creating broken windows.

Employees can be the source of broken windows when:

  • the wrong people are hired; or
  • processes are poorly defined or poorly managed; or
  • performance management is inconsistently enforced or poorly designed.

Line managers can cause broken windows when:

  • they lack the knowledge about what to do when; or
  • they do not have the skills required to effectively execute their roles; or
  • they lack the authority required to make decisions; or
  • they are too tolerant of poor behaviour.

Middle managers create broken windows when they find themselves driven to focus on short-term goals (instead of long-term organisational performance) due to perceived external pressures.

If you haven’t observed the trend already, I’ll spell it out:

When employees cause broken windows, it’s usually because a line manager has been too tolerant or has been unwilling or unable to effectively manage the employee.

When line managers cause broken windows, it’s usually because middle managers haven’t given them the tools, direction or authority required to be effective managers themselves.

When middle managers cause broken windows, it’s usually because senior managers fail to lead or manage performance effectively.

It’s an unbroken chain that leads straight to the senior figures within the organisation.

An Issue of Leadership

As with so many issues in the modern business world, broken windows are an issue of leadership.

Leadership comes in many different forms, and different styles of leadership are appropriate in different situations. An organisation operating in a cutthroat industry in the midst of a recession may well perform best under a command and control style leader. On the other hand, such a leader would be a poor fit for an organisation whose brand equity is founded upon its image as a caring and upstanding corporate citizen.

But regardless of the style of leadership required, a leader must above all other things lead. In our experience, there are three ways in which a leader commonly fails.

Unclear or Nonexistent Goals

Leaders who fail to set clear goals cause significant problems for their organisation. When there is no goal at all, the best case scenario is that staff apply their best efforts to the problems and challenges they face, which might even work out in a benevolent business environment. More likely, however, is that staff become confused and even work against each other.

Leaders may also change their goals dependent upon whatever pressure is most lately impressing upon them. Whatever your own impression of Qantas, after the airline with the best safety record in the world suffered three serious safety incidents in the last ten days, imagine what might happen if Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon decided that Qantas had to focus solely on safety? The other aspects of customer service (such as cabin service, check in and so on) would suffer and the airline would still have problems.

Other leaders set multiple goals, without setting priorities. In one organisation I have worked with, interviews over a period of two weeks revealed the leader had set the following goals (amongst others) for his management team:

  • Increase top-line sales.
  • Decrease costs.
  • Reduce rework and wasted time.
  • Focus on retaining staff.
  • Improve customer satisfaction levels.
  • Improve customer retention.

None of the goals were accompanied by an appropriate numerical target, and as a consequence the management team were in charge of more than a hundred separate initiatives (at around thirty per person), none of which had gained any traction.

Poor Strategy and Tactics

Even if a leader has set a clear goal, translating that goal to a strategy and then translating that strategy to tactics may cause problems.

Some leaders confuse tactics and strategy, creating either a wide-ranging strategy with no established means of implementation, or a host of tactics that have no overarching guiding strategy.

When leaders confuse ‘activity’ with ‘leadership’, they typically set up an excess of meetings, project management committees, presentations and reports instead of actually doing things. One leader I have observed typically had in excess of a dozen standing meetings each week to review the progress of various initiatives, requested daily updates by email, and frequently spent time asking his direct reports for details on their current activities rather than allowing them to simply get on with the work he’d assigned them.

These traits are also indicative of a manager who is unable to delegate effectively, but they served to create an environment where employees spent roughly the same amount of time reporting on their activities as they did completing their tasks – inefficient, at best.

Another pitfall for leaders lies in implementing and driving tactics that do not help the organisation to reach its stated goal. Take the example of the leader above who had set multiple goals for his management team: of the myriad initiatives these multiple goals generated, few of them directly contributed to achieving the organisation’s goals.

In one case, a major organisation we worked with had nearly 150 major projects occurring at once and barely thirty of them directly contributed to the organisation’s stated goal of reaching a specific net profit target.

Poor Communication

The entire purpose of senior management is to set a direction for an organisation and then translate that direction into a strategy and tactics to be executed by the organisation’s staff. For this to happen, a leader must communicate the direction and attendant strategy and tactics to the organisation’s staff.

Some leaders fail to communicate at all. In such an environment it is impossible for staff to establish a coherent direction and the entire organisation can only be expected to meander along under its own steam.

Other leaders may say one thing with their words and another with their actions: frequently referred to as ‘do what I say, not what I do’. Such discrepancies between words and actions raise questions as to the leader’s integrity and more importantly, his or her credibility within the organisation.

Sometimes a leader may decide to keep things secret, feeling that he or she is unable to trust his or her staff. Some leaders may decide that their position is dependent upon their knowledge, and that they therefore cannot share any knowledge with others for fear of making themselves obsolete.

In one organisation I have observed, decisions on personnel movements are made by a group of senior managers who are tasked with observing all employees throughout the organisation, comparing their strengths and weaknesses and their suitability for any positions which may become available. The information gathered by this group is carefully guarded – restricted to the group members themselves and the senior figures within the Human Resources department.

No individual is allowed to know what his or her prospects for promotion are, or which positions he or she may be being considered for. Usually, supervisors will not be told of the group’s assessments of their direct reports.

This complete lack of communication is broken only when either:

  • office politics dictate that it would be beneficial for an individual to ‘leak’ some information from the group; or
  • an individual within the HR department tells one of their friends about the group’s assessments because it’s a juicy piece of gossip.

Such a secretive policy on succession planning leads to an uneven distribution of knowledge throughout the organisation, to resentment from staff who feel they have been hard done by, and on more than one occasion when a corporate restructure came around, to the best and brightest leaving the organisation because they either had no idea how much they were valued, or they had received inside information that they had been overlooked for promotion for ridiculous reasons.

The poor communication skills of the leaders of this organisation have directly led to the haemorrhaging of talent over the past five years.


This series of articles on Broken Windows has examined all levels of the organisation, from the employees at the coal face right up to the senior leadership. Whether you are an employee, a line manager, a middle manager or a senior manager, you are responsible for your own broken windows, and you should try your best to fix them when you see them, or better than that, prevent them from happening in the first place.

However, the role of a senior manager and especially a leader goes beyond responsibility for their own actions.

article - broken windows in senior management - buck stops here

US President Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk that read: “The buck stops here”. The same is true of all leaders. Beyond their own responsibility, leaders are accountable for the actions of all those people who follow them, at all levels.

In a business context, a leader is responsible for creating a goal and driving behaviours and activities that contribute to achieving that goal, and can and should be held accountable for everything that consists of, from the recruitment of the right people through to the enforcement of proper performance management processes and measurement of progress.

In the end, whilst a great leader does not always guarantee an organisation’s success, a poor leader almost always guarantees its failure. Take a look at the broken windows in your organisation and ask yourself: ‘what could I do to fix them?’ – before they start to cost you business.


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