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Breaking the Ice to Break Free of Silo Leadership

You don’t have to work in a silo to lead in a silo. In fact, I’ve noticed that leaders very often slip into a silo mentality even when we are surrounded by or working closely with other people.

It’s one of the most dangerous traps of leadership, and, frankly, one of the reasons the American political climate has grown so divisive. But the same thing happens in business. We become focused on what we want, what we believe, and how we think things should be done. Anyone who has a different point of view becomes an enemy.

It’s imperative as leaders that we break free of these silos and take others with us. But how?

Earlier this year, I wrote that one of the trends in leadership we need to build in 2017 is something I call “Checkers and Tea” – the idea that trust is built on relationships and relationships don’t happen in silos. Spending time getting to know someone (playing checkers, drinking tea) breaks down the divisive walls of silo leadership and builds respect, empathy, unity and trust.

I experienced this first-hand during a recent board retreat.

I joined Penn State University’s Board of Trustees in July 2014. Penn State is my alma mater, and I love it with all of my heart. So I consider this a high honor, privilege, and responsibility. But let’s be clear: It hasn’t been easy. Penn State is still healing from the dark days that have followed the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, was charged and convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse of children. His actions not only shocked the world, but ultimately led to the firing of one of the most revered and respected football coaches of all time, Joe Paterno.

As a board, we discuss and vote on many routine matters, but the most high-profile issues have always revolved around how we help the university right its ship, restore trust with its constituents, and regain its reputation as one of the top institutions of higher education in the land.

We gather six times a year, so I’ve been involved in around 15 board meetings – more if you include the committee meetings. They all were open to the public, broadcast live, and run in a very business-like manner. We’ve made great progress, but, as you might imagine, we’ve had a number of heated debates and some have resulted in hard feelings and grudges. We have a diverse board with diverse backgrounds and diverse opinions. That’s typically a good thing, but at times each of us mentally moves into a protective fortress to guard our own personal agenda.

Those walls began to fall recently when we went on a two-day retreat. It wasn’t open to the public or broadcast live to the world, and we didn’t vote on anything. In fact, much of our focus was on something that was long overdue: Getting to know each other.

For instance, at one point the facilitators put us at tables in small groups and gave us one of those classic icebreaker questions: “What’s one thing the rest of the people at the table don’t know about you?” Our responses went into a hat, and then we drew them out one at a time and tried to guess who wrote each answer.

One guy said he loved spending time with his granddaughter. Another said she loved watching hockey. Someone else pointed out that he once killed 400 turkeys in a single day. I wrote down that I enjoyed bird hunting.

Every response drew a great deal of discussion – and, in the case of the 400 turkeys, some hilarious comments. I can’t relate to working on a turkey farm, but that guy’s story was awesome! (The board member’s nickname, by the way, is now “the butcher.”) I’m a huge hockey fan, however, so I can relate to anyone who wants to discuss pucks, especially if it involves the Penguins. And while I’m not a grandfather (yet), I absolutely can relate to the joy of having my offspring’s offspring charge into my arms to give and receive unconditional love.

Our next board meeting no doubt will include some tough decisions and tense moments, but I’ll be shocked if there isn’t a little more openness to the opinions of others. We don’t have to agree on everything to appreciate and respect each other. Regardless of the differing ideals and opinions as to how Penn State should be governed, we all have common ground. Finding it was the first step toward getting out of our silo leadership and restoring trust. Following our retreat, we’re all in a better position to come together on the thornier issues down the road. Maybe next time we’ll play checkers.

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