Think back for a moment to the situation that Jeffrey Erle walked into at Litton and to the compromise that the pharmaceutical president believed would solve a contentious problem. Until Erle came on the scene, destructive conflict was accepted as the status quo and allowed to fester. And in the pharmaceutical company, the president's split-the-baby-in-half solution killed both products. In attempting to please everyone, the president abdicated his responsibility as a leader.
In both cases no one encouraged, much less forced, the warring parties to confront one another, make their respective cases, then arrive at the solution that was best for the organization. Conflict was not mismanaged, rather it was simply never managed.
Contrast these two situations with that of Coach, a premier retailer of leather accessories. In the early 1990s, Coach's continued rapid growth was uncertain , because the company faced stiff competition not only from traditional rivals but also from several high-energy upstarts. Lew Frankfort, Coach's chief executive officer and chairman, knew that continued growth depended on strengthening the company's ability to bring new products to market more quickly and with greater consistency. The bottom line was that Frankfort needed to inject more design and merchandising muscle into his manufacturing-driven organization.
To do this, Frankfort brought on board new senior-level design and merchandizing talent. It was a terrific move, but the entrenched manufacturing group thought otherwise . The vice president of manufacturing was not only change-averse, but there were also glaring cultural differences between the forces of creativity and those responsible for getting things produced on time and cost-effectively. This led to the typical arguments and finger-pointing.
Frankfort was wise enough not to play Solomon. He confronted both groups and told them, in effect, to get their act together. He asked the warring executives and their respective teams to sit down together to honestly and openly identify the issues that divided them and to develop a plan for resolution. This was accomplished during several off-site meetings.
In addition, Frankfort asked his vice presidents of manufacturing and design to meet together on a weekly basis and then jointly produce a report for Frankfort, outlining progress on issues and highlighting areas of disagreement . Frankfort commented, "This gave me a platform to intervene only when it was absolutely necessary."
As a result, both groups began to realize that without continued collaboration the success of their companyand their jobswas at risk. The fact that both leaders were now working together effectively, combined with the off-site meetings, broke down the silos and reduced bickering. And, best of all, new styles began to hit the shelves at regular intervals. Coach was able to maintain its rapid growth in the face of much tougher market conditions.
Another executive who knows how to bring competing energies together to achieve a positive outcome is the president of a large consumer goods company. He became president of a $1.5 billion company after it had acquired several smaller companies. His immediate challenge was to create an integrated company that would present a single face to the external world and that would run on one set of internal systems.
But a major problem stood in the way. One of the CEOs whose company had been acquired feared that his enterprise would be gobbled up by the giant, thereby losing the brand equity he had worked diligently to achieve. To preserve his company's autonomy, the CEO resisted the changes that were designed to bring his operation into the parent company's fold.
The president of the parent company proceeded to quickly put his stake in the ground. To avoid the culture clashes that were beginning to erupt with the CEO of the newly acquired company, he first created a company-wide sales team that included representatives from the larger entity and from all the acquired companies. The object was to establish a single point of contact for all the company's products. Next, he created cross-functional teams, also representing the entire organization, and charged them with developing company-wide systems for IT, accounting, ordering, and other functions. He established a clear set of goals for the teams, defined roles, and made everyone commit to a common process for decision making.
Instead of allowing unchecked internal conflict to jeopardize the company's overall health, the president quickly stepped in to create venues for collaboration. Discussion and debate were fine, and he did not attempt to dictate solutions. But by composition, structure, processes, and tasks , team members were forced to put aside parochialism and channel their differences into solutions that benefited the entire company.
By their words and actions, effective managers of conflict send the message that dissenting opinions do not need to be kept under a barrel. They not only encourage people to engage in authentic dialogue but they actually hold them accountable for doing so.