The Miserable Tier (US 2021)

SVPs are the most miserable tier of the enterprise hierarchy - we were surprised and dismayed to learn this is a finding from one company’s engagement survey. We were dismayed because enterprises need leaders who can embrace, inspire and lead new ways of working. That’s hard to do when you’re miserable. We were so surprised that we went on to interview colleagues about several more enterprises of all sorts. Unfortunately, we found more examples of senior leaders burned out and frustrated. Though we “call out” senior leaders for anti-agile behavior, Agile does not “call them in” with clear ways to learn and participate. In this talk we will explore three factors contributing to SVP burnout – lack of a first team, distance from the “real” work of leadership, and too much work-in-progress. We will propose new personal and organizational habits for you to offer "belonging" and relief to the most influential tier in the enterprise. We all have agency to change this system! Let's work together to break down those impediments!

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Cheryl Crupi

Assistant Vice President, Global Lean-Agile Center of Excellence, MetLife


Ronica Roth

Co-Founder & Principal,



Hello, and welcome. Glad you are here watching this talk. We are unflagged to answer your questions while you listen. I am Cheryl croupy, founder and leader of the MetLife global agile center of excellence.


And I'm Veronica Roth, co-founder and principal at elevate to combined. We have four decades of enterprise change leadership experience at dozens of companies ranging from early growth stage to the fortune 500. In this work, we have sup supported hundreds of leaders as people who support senior leaders as they lead change in their organizations, usually agile transformations that touch every part of the organization. We were surprised and dismayed recently to learn that at one company and employee engagement survey revealed that SVPs are the most miserable tier in the enterprise hierarchy. We were dismayed because enterprises need leaders who can embrace, inspire, and lead new ways of working. That's hard to do when you're miserable. We were so surprised that we went on to interview colleagues about several more enterprises of all sorts. Unfortunately, we found more examples of senior leaders burned out and frustrated.


So we call them out for anti agile behavior. Agile does not call them in with clear ways to learn and participate and with the personal and organizational habits that could free them to lead with agility, by offering the longing and relief to the most influential tier in the enterprise, we all win enterprise agility becomes possible today. We invite you to take an empathetic stance to walk in the shoes of those senior leaders. We want you to see the very real systemic impediments that are in the way of senior leaders, practicing and leading with agility. Let's work together to break down those impediments


A little bit of context at last year's DevOps enterprise summit park Silverman co-author with general McChrystal of the book team of teams observe that senior leaders are caught in the middle. Sillerman presented this pyramid showing how different tiers in the organization perceive change and complexity in it. We found the seeds of understanding for what we were finding senior leaders, generally that layer that reports to the C-suite are often in the role of connecting strategy, the C-suites idea factory to execution the rest of the organization. The challenge in some companies is that change can equal risk change can jeopardize the execution and operations on which senior management are being measured and compensated and change can mean changing the system in which they are succeeding. That may sound cynical, but only if you picture selfish individuals. What we found were systems that failed to support these lovely humans in their dual roles of leading the business. While also changing it


As little explore, their unique positions might make senior leaders even more prone to the burnout. The Dr. Christina Madlock described as the 2019 DevOps enterprise summit. Her research indicates that a lack of these six elements contributes to people feeling burned out. The opposite of burnout is engagement to be completely present in your work. If you have these six things, you are more likely to feel engaged, enterprised and happy from that place, you can show up resourced, creative and courageous. Our experience in interviews reveal a tier of senior leaders who are burned out stressed and perhaps trying to be change leaders, but instead are keeping the current system in place. We also found examples where this was never true or more inspiring and instructive, or the situation was changed through concerted effort. Based on our interviews and experience, we believe the top three factors contributing to SVP burnout are lack of a first team distance from the real or fun work of leadership and too much work in progress. Let's look at each of these factors and consider what we can do about them.


It's lonely at the top. We've all heard this saying I don't transformations might make the problem feel even worse for many senior executives who find the team they're on is more like a working group than a cohesive team. Patrick Lensioni has written extensively about the importance of leadership teams being cohesive and healthy in order to be effective such teams build trust, engage in healthy conflict. The chief commitment, embrace accountability and focus on collective results. As he wrote in the advantage. This collective mentality can happen only when all members place a higher priority on the team. They're are a member of, rather than a team they lead. He wrote when members of a leadership team feel a stronger sense of commitment and loyalty to the team they lead than the one they're a member of than the team. They're a member of becomes like the United nations.


It's just a place where people come together to lobby for their constituents. Without a strong team, one senior leaders become isolated from each other. We spoke with one as VP level person at a financial company in Oceana who described her team of peers as a collection of individuals. In fact, the groups leader manage the group through 17 one-on-one relationships, rather than as a team. She definitely felt acutely the difficulty of not being able to collaborate with peers, the United nations models, spurs competition. I observed one leadership team in which each member was trying to win to have his part of the business, outperform to gain more budget, to look good when discussing collective goals, each member only talks about his individual contribution to those goals. In the worst circumstances, competition begets hostility. We heard about once thoughtful SVP and a FinTech we'll call him John who offered onboarding help to a new pier.


The offer was rejected. The peer clearly suspected an alternative year motive. Another time John tried to collaborate with another peer who was struggling with a strategic cloud project that affected many parts of the organization. This time, the motive was clear Sean's team would struggle until the project was complete. I got it came the response that I didn't want to appear incapable. In fact, he went through so far as to throw John's team members on the bus and to disparage them publicly collaboration at that level was not safe. Considering lots burnout factors. We see senior senior leaders lacking the psychological safety to build vulnerability based trust and to work together. And we see a lack of belonging. These leaders are also missing out on the incredible learning experiences. Agility offers other parts of the organization. We believe much of the magic of agile comes from the emphasis on teams, belonging to and collaborating with a strong team.


One. When you make teams cross-functional so they can own real value rather than bits, we spend time and energy helping teams become cohesive and high-performing collective accountability generates shared success, which which can contribute to belongingness and positive emotions. The best teams, cultivate psychological safety and fairness all too often, SVPs don't get to be on a team like this. They might lead one, which is great, but they don't get to experience all the benefits of being on one. The senior leader at a fortune 500 global financial services company shared how hard it is to lead his B youth through agile transformation, because he's never had a chance to be on an agile team. He lamented advancing to the ranks of senior leaders before learning agile. Good is, is that we've also seen great first teams at the senior leadership level that collaborate effectively on collective goals.


We've seen them freed by superiors who changed the system and by subordinates and peers who made space and model new habits, we've helped SVPs practice new habits and thus change the system themselves. And you can to keep using the word habit, having information science gives us some great clues on how we can change ourselves, our organization and the world around us. Charles Duhigg author of the power of habit, uh, tells us to start by naming a desired identity. We imagine ourselves as already the person we want to be. I think of an executive I coached who wanted a different culture on his team. And so knew he first needed to change himself. He wanted to be the type of person who empowers others. We then work together to plan small wins. The first one was to attend a portfolio planning meeting, and rather than suggest decisions, he planned to ask questions. His goal was to speak during breakout sessions. Only if he asked questions, I was as accountability buddy, offering feedback, maybe kicking him under the table a little. We then planned regular wins at each week's leadership team meeting. He practiced asking more questions and had some written in his notebook as a cue.


What does all this have to do with our problem of lack of a first team for senior leaders? Well, GPS, you can't necessarily make your boss focus on creating a strong team. One and mid manager, mid managers, and individual contributors. You can't put your senior leader who might be two levels, and we're above you on the healthy team. Instead, let's focus on some new habits and practices that we can each control. Let's create the small wins that can add up to changing the system and the culture, middle managers, your relationships across the enterprise are vital to getting things done, help reinforce the benefit of working together across boundaries. Invite to lunch or coffee. Virtual works to your SVP, your favorite collaborator and their SVP, the model giving credit tell stories about how cross cross departmental collaboration is making a difference and why this colleague is one of your favorite people to work with.


The real magic is the storytelling SVPs practice, inviting assistance. You can start small with a low risk request, try inviting his peer to speak at your next all hands meeting. Having that person help explain a tr a strategic initiative. We know one leader at a fortune 500 company who regularly invites peers to speak at his quarterly town hall. As part of the agenda that you talk about how they work together, that is powerful. And then for all of us seek feedback from your peers even go so far as a formal 360 degree review. I did one a few years ago and the results were like a splash of water of ice water on my face. My reports and leaders loved my work and its impact. My peers on the other hand had no idea what I was doing. I was making too many assumptions about what they could see if they didn't know what I was doing, we certainly collaborate on any of it. My new habit, regular one-on-ones with my peers,


Similar to that lunch, where you model praising a colleague, we can take that practice to a whole new level by cultivating a team group or organizational habit of appreciations at their simplest appreciations, introduce a culture of gratitude. But the real power comes from the associated storytelling. We want to build a habit around describing the collaboration and teammate teaming we seek in the organization. In this case, the invitation might sound like we offer appreciations. Whenever a colleague has demonstrated our values around teaming and collaboration. As I learned from my mentor, Jean tobacca, appreciations are given in a group setting, but are directed at an individual. You look at the person and say, say their name. I appreciate you for. And then what you appreciate them for, with the little story that describes their awesomeness when receiving an appreciation, simply say, thank you. We'll demonstrate Cheryl. I appreciate you for co-creating this talk with me. I know you hadn't collaborated on writing like this before. And I thought we did a great job of building on each other's ideas and each pulling our weight.


Thank you. We've seen similar problems in many organizations. Dang, did I skip a slide Ronica? I'm so sorry.


That's what the editing score. Okay. Another reason SVPs are burned out and miserable is that they feel such distance from real work product and the fun work of leadership. They miss the positive emotions that come from meaningful accomplishment, designing the system and watching their people grow. It's easy to imagine. SVPs have control and autonomy around their work. We found their experience to be quite different. Although they appear to have tremendous visibility and authority from the top, they are unable to enjoy or take advantage of the view. One is VP of a fortune 500 company described a work culture in which days are filled with fire drills, project reviews, that lack any real information and overly pretty imperfect power PowerPoints. There was no time to focus left. I'm sorry. The cat is literally walking on my back. He came out. I'm going to get rid of him real quick. Pause it. It's good. All right. Where did he come from? I knew, okay.


Another reason SVPs that are burned out and miserable is that they feel such distance from the real work product and the fun work of leadership. They miss the positive emotions that come from meaningful accomplishment, designing the system and watching people grow. It's easy to imagine. PFF control and autonomy around their work. We found their experience can be quite different. Although they appear to have tremendous visibility and autonomy from the top, they are unable to enjoy or take advantage of the view as VP of a fortune 500 company described a work culture in which days are filled with fire drills, project reviews, that lack any real information and overly pretty and perfect reports. There was no time to focus left. There was no time or focus left for the real work of leadership, like creating clarity on vision and objectives, improving the organization's ability to deliver perhaps through agility and developing individuals.


We've seen similar problems in many organizations, firefighting in escalations consume a tremendous amount of time. Instead of aligning people around clear shared objectives or guiding people to solve tough, tough problems. Leaders get stuck putting out fires, which are often more tactical. Although that work can be a little addicting. It's ultimately unsatisfying because the larger effort gets lost. Buyers are rampant because of wishful thinking cultural reluctance to expose problems and heroics at the time. Any problem is made visible. It's an emergency as the coordinators of big efforts, SVPs attend a steady March of steering committees, operational reviews, business reviews, and these meetings. It is common to review sanitize status reports and overly perfect PowerPoint. Despite all these meetings, senior leaders report, they're not getting to be close enough to the work they're held at arms length. Often not hearing impediments and challenges. Negative news, negative news. Doesn't make it to them until it is really on fire. Risk is high deadlines are in danger. Stress goes through the roof. The results always being in fight or flight mode is exhausting to leaders and the organization.


Perhaps ironically, these same leaders then turn around and manage upward with overly perfect reports and PowerPoints. When organizational culture is competitive and performative, those elements are present throughout Ronica worked as a leader in one such company, SVP SVP spent hours preparing for each week's management team, meeting the goal, being perfection and appearances. The BU president wanted to change that culture over some weeks, you'd have each leader present a colleagues information. He gave very little notice. There was a little time to prepare. The expectation of perfection was impossible. This cracked open space for change. Of course, leaders spending all their time on perfection. Of course, leaders spending all their time on perfection. Can't spend enough time on meaningful work nor can they imagine new ways of working. In fact, we heard that agile is exciting to some senior leaders because agile promises the opportunity to see and try real work products.


They want to be involved in supportive. Let's use agile ceremonies and practices to invite them in middle managers. Often it is you that facilitate agile ceremonies personally, invite SVPs and prep them to participate by helping them understand the state of what's being shown. That is if it's not final or done, take the opportunity to make experiments visible and possibly to co-create experiments, invite meaningful input SVPs, invest time in Gamba, meaning spend time with your teams observing and learning. So you see work in action rather than sanitize reports. We know one CIO of a fortune 50 who drops into meetings, whatever he has a free spot on his calendar. If possible, physically to get his Stetson, he doesn't comment or ask questions. He observes and learns also invite action items from your team. Consider turning your executive status meetings into executive action meetings. This is a place that you can lead for a real invite discussion of unresolved problems and welcome actions you can take to prevent fires and future for all of us, no more PowerPoint. How do you Polish executive presentations or are a source of significant waste? In some organizations, we create them because we believe SB SVPs required them. Interview results, reveal senior executives don't enjoy them instead invest in being able to show a live data report directly from JIRA or rally or wherever work happens. You can do this slowly. One dashboard at a time.


The third theme that surfaced in our research is the impact of high work in progress and the related over-scheduling on SPPs. We Agileists no. Well, the impact of high utilization and fragmentation, the human economics of time and focus affects everyone at any level, the same way in interviews and our own observations. We found a relationship between high work and progress and the tendency to revert to old ways of working when faced with scaling and imposing rock face it's human nature to stick to familiar ways, even if they aren't the best way, think of an SVP, you know, his or her schedule ever tried to find 30 minutes to meet with that person. The day-to-day reality of executive calendars is exhausting and overwhelming. Most senior executives struggle with high whip and fragmentation of their time. Thinking back to Maslov's burnout model, their days do not support the positive emotions and feelings of competency.


They come from creation flow and focus the impact on an org organization, trying to adopt agility can feel huge. As SVPs can seem attached to old ways, especially when they go back to command and control management. When things get hot. Yeah, we've seen this reversion might often result from burnout rather than resistance. When burned out, people are not adept at change. It becomes hard and maybe even impossible to learn and adapt and SVP of a major Asia financial services company noted how hard it is to adopt agile without an opportunity to air and discuss doubts. He wished for an opportunity to discuss lessons learned that would help overcome challenges, but says there isn't time for peer coaching in the absence of time and space to learn as VPs may feel pressured to learn in front of everyone, many organizations, black, psychological safety to make that palatable much less the time for senior leaders to do that learning work again, the result is a combination of burnout and discomfort that only presents prevents SP PVS from leading change, but even sets them up to at least appear to be resisters.


Here's some ways to begin to take some of the SVPs with burnout out of the system, mid managers use Kanban and other information radiators to make all the work visible even to your executives. Even if you can't say no or not yet to work for your executive, you can ask questions that help your executive understand that priority matters. Ask if we could only make meaningful progress on three initiatives, which one should we focus on as VPs try a calendar clearing exercise. We've helped teams and larger groups at all levels go through an exercise in which we seek to, uh, replace many ad hoc meetings with a few cadence meetings, shortened and combined meetings often by moving information, sharing offline while focusing, meeting time on decisions and actions, some meetings become lean coffees. And then third, we revisit the attendance list for meetings. Once information is shared more transparently and easily. It's easier to drop folks who currently attend just to know, or to keep up. And then for all of us focus, everyone on maintaining focus, make a habit of asking questions that help colleagues be skeptical about capacity. We usually have less than we think and about how much effort work items require. It's usually more than we think


In many organizations, SVPs are the most miserable tier that we call them out for antiandrogen behavior as well does not call them in the clear ways to learn and participate. And with the personal and organizational habits that could free them from burnout. And that's enabled them to lead with agility. We often make up that the hardest part of change is others. In fact, it is ourselves. Each of us must bring candor, courage, and authenticity into our roles. No one person can change the system overnight, but by building new habits, personal and organizational, we all have agency to change the system. Look for ways to call leaders in today. We've invited you to try new habits, including those stronger first teams through throughout your enterprise. Bring senior leaders close to the work, promote focus and adaptability by controlling width throughout your organization. Rene brown wrote in dare to lead. Courage is contagious to try these practices and habits is courageous. I hope your efforts catch fire.