From Swim Meets to Water Polo: Adapting C-Suite Leadership in a Complex World

Career Climbers / 10th June 2024

Stephen A. Miles & Nathan Bennett

Among the many responsibilities facing CEOs is building and leading an effective top management team (TMT). That effort is becoming ever more challenging. As business leaders increasingly characterize their operating environments as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), the diversity and intensity of issues requiring attention at the top has grown. In response to increasing demands on the TMT, the C-suite has expanded to include titles well beyond the traditional CFO, COO, and CIO. This expansion has looked different by company, but not too long ago, C-suite specialists appeared in areas such as human resources, legal, marketing, and strategy. More recently, C-suites may include executives responsible for areas ranging from diversity, safety, and data to user experience, culture, and happiness. It won’t be long before the widespread adoption of Chief Artificial Intelligence Officers takes place.

Each newly created C-suite position is an acknowledgement by the CEO that business complexity is increasing and that further differentiation among executives is necessary to address it. And with each new member, coordinating the TMT’s efforts becomes more difficult. We aim to provide leaders with a way to recognize and preempt the inevitable challenges confronting today’s more complex C-suite. We do this by examining the central challenge – balancing the two essential requirements for effective C-suite performance: Differentiation and coordination. We use an afternoon at a university swimming pool as a metaphor where three sporting events illustrate the nature of differentiation and coordination.

Differentiation and Coordination

The primary reason people organize is to accomplish something each cannot do alone. By working together, individuals can achieve more significant goals. Working together means everyone must understand who does what, when, and to what end. The TMT operates this way, too. The complex nature of leadership requires tasks to be broken into manageable pieces and allocated to experts who each focus on their piece, with distractions minimized. However, the benefit of differentiation comes at a cost – anything broken down into smaller parts needs coordination and aggregation to become complete work. Goals are achieved only through effective differentiation of activity and coordination of output. As the task of differentiating responsibility among members in an expanding C-suite becomes more complicated, so, too, does the thoughtfulness and discipline necessary to coordinate the TMT’s effort.

Envisioning a busy day at a university’s swimming pool provides images to efficiently communicate the challenging nature of TMT differentiation and coordination. Imagine one afternoon the university is hosting a swim meet among several universities. In individual races, swimmers are assigned a lane. At the sound of the starting gun, each athlete expends their energy, talent, training, and attention to swim fast. What happens in other lanes has little bearing beyond as a source of performance feedback and motivation. In such events, there is differentiation across swimmers (strokes, distances), but there is no requirement for coordination among them. However, consider the next event: a medley relay – a race involving a sequence of swimmers, each swimming a different stroke. The four strokes – back, breast, butterfly, and freestyle – reflect differentiation. In this relay, the slight coordination required at the transition between each leg of the race is a critical but minor feature of the performance. Without successful coordination, the differentiated efforts of each swimmer have no value, no matter how outstanding they are, because the team would be disqualified.

These two swim meet metaphors represent some of the work of TMT members and the resulting need to attend to differentiation and coordination. At times, executives perform independently and are themselves responsible for performance. At other times, executives require limited coordination with others to produce the organization’s desired outcome.

Now imagine that evening the university water polo team is hosting their cross-town rival for a match. The swim lane marker buoys are reeled in, water polo goals are floated into place, the teams warm up, and the match begins. As was true earlier at the swim meet, the participants are all powerful in the water. How they deploy that strength to accomplish victory, however, is different. Water polo players do not simply dive into their lane at the sound of the starting gun and swim. Water polo requires much more from swimmers than speed through the water; it requires considerable real-time management of differentiation and coordination.

Though there are established positions in water polo, play is fluid. During the match, swimmers may find themselves behind the play in a defensive position or driving the ball for an offensive attack. The team can’t win if everyone drives to the net to score or hangs back at the mid-pool, ready to defend. Throughout the match, swimmers must understand how to leverage their presence while recognizing how to adjust based on what everyone on both teams is doing. Winning relies heavily on how well each swimmer has executed both differentiation and coordination in supporting or leveraging the play of others. 

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