In the wake of the MinterEllison leadership scandal, HRM unpacks some key HR issues that emerge when there’s conflict between leaders at the top. Worklogic Director Jodie Fox spoke to from HRM Online about when HR should step in.

Earlier this month, then CEO of law firm MinterEllison, Annette Kimmett, expressed her disappointment about Minters acting for Attorney-General Christian Porter through a company-wide email, triggering outcry among staff and the legal profession.

Shortly after, due to leadership conflict, Kimmett stepped down as CEO.

The eruption was the culmination of ongoing tension and conflicting strategic directions between Kimmett along with her supporters, and those who dissented.

Some were outraged that the CEO of a prestigious private law firm would publicly denounce the firm’s decision to represent Porter.

Others aired grievances that Kimmett had been “unfairly pushed”, leaving some in the firm feeling “shattered”, as one female lawyer at the firm told the ABC.

The reason for discord between leaders in the workplace is usually multifaceted, but in many instances, disagreement boils down to a mismatch in the direction of an organisation.

HRM speaks to director of Worklogic Jodie Fox about what HR can do when there’s tension mounting in the upper echelons of an organisation.

When challenge turns sour

Challenging others is not only par for the course, it’s a necessary component of effective leadership and long-term growth.

A healthy degree of dissent among leadership has been found to foster innovation and creative thinking.

“When smart and dynamic people are pointed in the right direction and they’re able to confidently have open and honest communication, they can have a really robust conversation,” says Fox.

“A good, healthy and robust board certainly encompasses robust disagreement and absolute diversion of views.”

Healthy disagreement allows opposing views to be aired, enabling a team to methodically work through all possible angles before arriving at a consensus.

Productive dissent, however, can take a downward turn, leading to unhealthy conflict when communication lacks openness and honesty.

Fox says in the absence of effective communication, back-channelling and other political strategies that undermine leadership can take root.

Leadership conflict: the board and CEO come head-to-head

Workplace disagreements commonly occur when a board brings in a new CEO to transform a company’s culture, says Fox. As was the case in the lead up to the leadership imbroglio that transpired at Minters.

“Oftentimes, there’s a lot riding on one change agent,” says Fox.

“It can lead to some real difficulties … While there are many great and dynamic people out there, effective change can be hard for one person.”

Fox adds that problems can arise when a board brings in leaders at the senior level to ignite a cultural change, without doing the hard yards itself.

“The board might be saying, ‘We need to change, we need to become more diverse, we need to become much better at dealing with our workplace culture … and they bring someone in who is great at that. But if the board itself hasn’t done the work and hasn’t adopted [certain] values … it can be a real mismatch.”

“Even when you’re recruiting someone to be a change agent, recognise that one person can’t do it all and that they need support from the highest levels to be able to enact change.” – Jodie Fox, director, WorkLogic

When conflicting opinions about a company’s strategic direction come to a head, there are some important considerations to bear in mind, says Fox.

  1. Act early: “If there are problems at an executive level, try to catch them early. It’s much easier to catch difficulties or poor behaviour in executives when it’s first happening and minor, than when it’s been going on for some time.”
  2. Make values a driving force. “It’s really important to recruit good people who have good values [and] who don’t have a history of behaving badly in the workplace. Do your due diligence on recruits and make sure  they aren’t coming under a cloud to your organisation.”
  3. Share the load: “Even when you’re recruiting someone to be a change agent, recognise that one person can’t do it all and that they need support from the highest levels to be able to enact change.”
  4. Make leaders accountable: “Poor behaviour happens when there’s poor accountability plus a loose leech … Make sure that your structures around finances and the way in which people report are sound and robust.”
  5. Communicate clearly: “Communication is a skill, and it can be learned … You can be quite detailed and granular in training people how to communicate in an effective way. [Leaders] can learn how to say, ‘These are the things that are really important to me, here are the specific examples of what I’m talking about.”

Time to join forces?

It seems a sensible approach to avoid assigning leaders who conflict onto the same project, but a recent article published in Forbes suggests this may be a wise strategy after all.

In the article, former consultant Ron Ashkenas says, “Gently force the contending people to work together on projects or issues that are important to the company. In other words, when senior managers need to put on ‘bigger hats’, it helps them to transcend the interpersonal rivalries and dislikes in order to achieve the broader objective.”

Fox concurs, provided the leaders aren’t disagreeing over poor behaviour, in which case it’s “probably not particularly productive [to have them working together].”

If, however, the disagreement is fuelled by differing views over strategic direction, ideas or outputs, she believes it’s a “brilliant opportunity to bring those people together because that’s healthy conflict”.

“[That] can be a really healthy and creative space to be working in because you’re being challenged with the opposite view,” says Fox.

“You need to do the thinking to overcome what are probably real life barriers that [you’ll face] if you go in that direction, so I think that is an excellent opportunity to create a whole that is bigger than its parts.”

Citing Worklogic’s involvement in helping to facilitate a merger between two organisations of differing sizes and diverging standpoints, Fox saw benefit in creating a team with people from both organisations to work together on a project.

  1. “Real benefits came out in terms of ideas from the new team that were seasoned, and being able to respond to the team realities … It meant not only was the plan for amalgamation better, but you could communicate it a lot better because you already understood the difficulties that people might be having.”

“It’s a much more dynamic way of doing it and I think the communication around that worked a lot better.”

Confronting conflict before it reaches breaking point is  paramount  for effective management. If a disconnect in upper management becomes apparent, it can easily trickle down and poison the rest of your culture.

“There’s a lot that HR can do to build that culture of accountability in an organisation, so that even the most senior people will feel the sunlight on their backs,” says Fox. “That’s a good thing for all of us.”

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