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Consensus is not a dirty word

4 min read


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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Consensus is not a dirty word

There seems to be a consensus about consensus: it’s something less than leadership. And consensus-building, often misconstrued as “management by committee,” seems somehow un-leader-like.

No less than Britain’s “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher, once derided consensus as “the absence of leadership.” And to be fair, she has a point. There are times when the prime minister of a great nation must act unilaterally and decisively. The same is true of any leader, from a captain of industry to a commander-in-chief.

That said, leaders dismiss the value of consensus at their peril. In two nationwide studies my firm conducted that identified differences in internal dynamics between healthy and struggling companies, one consistent line of demarcation was consensus among the management team: Healthy companies had it; unhealthy ones didn’t.

Why? Well, consider the commander in chief. There are times when he or she must act instantaneously and decisively, such as in an act of war. But that’s precisely where consensus becomes critical. If (to continue the war analogy) the various branches of the armed services are not in consensus — with the president and among themselves — about mission and strategy, the war is unlikely to go well and carnage may result.

The need for executive decision in times of crisis (or opportunity) is inarguable, but so is the need for alignment of the team surrounding those key decisions.

It’s tempting for leaders of struggling companies to look at celebrity CEOs like Steve Jobs, Howard Schultz and Jeff Bezos and conclude that visionary corporate chieftains can achieve their ends by force of will and executive fiat. But they fail to recognize one key fact: CEOs become celebrities by leading highly visible, highly successful companies, and consensus issues tend not to arise when companies thrive.

It’s only when a company runs into rough waters — particularly for an extended length of time — that murmurs begin to surface. Not even Apple, Starbucks and Amazon are immune to internal division, as time will tell when they run into troubles of their own.

Beyond that, most of us don’t have the inspirational power of celebrity leaders anyway; we must instead build a foundation of consensus day by day and interaction by interaction. That doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to demonstrate visionary thinking, exude confidence and step out with courage, but it does require us to make sure that where we lead, others follow. There’s no such thing as a parade of one.

Paraphrasing one of the best-practice principles in my latest book, “Power Branding,” “pedal too far ahead and your team may give up the chase.” Far from management by committee, building consensus is a way to ensure that the members of your team not only understand the mission but feel ownership in it. We all know owners act differently than mere managers.

Feel free to go on dismissing the value of consensus and fight the battle alone; you may find that you have the sheer strength of will to get it done, at least for a time. But if you want to fully leverage the strengths of your team and ensure that your vision will be accomplished without the need for continuous surveillance, recognize the power of a group working together as one.