Collaborating with the C level

In hierarchies, the highest level includes the CEO, CFO, COO and often nowadays, the CMO, CIO and CLO. At first glance, the presence of such "high ranking officials" connotes the absence of a collaborative enterprise. Within corporate and bureaucratic hierarchies, the top level is often in conflict with lower ranking leadership, divisions and departments. The person in the position functions as a charismatic leader who's personality plays a large part in their impact. While subordinates manage up with servility, compliance and gratuitous respect, there is a notable neglect of power sharing. The underlings feel routinely threatened, unfairly criticized, viciously misunderstood and deliberately invalidated by the C level frames of reference. These enterprises pay a huge price for their lack of internal collaboration.

Within collaborative enterprises, a very different dynamic would get protected and nurtured. The C-level would graciously provide frames of reference used throughout the enterprise. The people in the "top positions" would facilitate others' exploration of those frames in their own contexts. The emphasis would be placed on the conversations in progress, rather than the people in the positions. The individuals would play roles of facilitative servant leaders rather than charismatic kingpins. The distribution and democratization of their "high ranking outlook" would empower the "rank and file" to act more responsibly, to take more initiative, to use better judgment, and to nip problems in the bud. "Collaborating with the C level" would get turned around to expect "the C level to collaborate with the collaborators".  The structure of the enterprise could be flattened, eliminating layers of middle management, as top-down power became effectively decentralized.

Frames of reference can be used to respect someone's efforts, value their contribution to collective endeavors, define unfamiliar problems that result from ineffective conduct. Here's a brief look at how the C level could be embraced as frames of reference in use throughout a collaborative enterprise:

  • CEO: Chief Executive Officers admire alignment with the overall mission. People get valued for their emphasis on mission critical components which override non-essential distractions. Problems fall out of "losing sight of the mission" by dwelling on tactical maneuvers, unrelated tasks or meaningless obsessions.
  • CFO: Chief Financial Officers admire productive assets and cost-effective solutions. People get valued for realizing greater efficiencies and for "getting more bang for the buck". Problems result from wasteful spending, throwing money at problems and stockpiling "new toys and tools" that end up underutilized.
  • COO: Chief Operating Officers admire skills, tools and performance aids that get a job done right. People get valued for results they produce, solutions they formulate and changes they implement. Problems follow from "merely going through the motions", "spinning your wheels in a rut" or "looking busy for show".
  • CMO: Chief Marketing Officers admire efforts to protect and extend the brand. People get valued for creating exceptional customer experiences and resolving satisfaction issues promptly. Problems result from "over-promising and under-delivering", acting without the customer in mind or pushing what the customers don't need or want.
  • CIO: Chief Information Officers admire sharing information, resources and competencies. People get valued for curtailing duplicated efforts, mentoring proteges and revealing their expertise where it's needed. Problems fallout of hoarding knowledge, distancing oneself from colleagues and barging ahead at "reinventing the wheel".
  • CLO: Chief Learning Officers admire learning from setbacks, feedback and unexpected successes. People get valued for turning crises into lessons, extracting value from incidents and encouraging continual improvement. Problems follow on the heels of arrested development, closed minds and shortages of questions.
Each of the frames of reference set-up fruitful collaborations. They define new questions to ask, better possibilities to explore, different situations to look into and greater insights into the complexity of interdependent subsystems. The collaborative enterprise making daily use of these frames could easily outperform rivals on every metric of a balanced scorecard.

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