Functional Silos: A Perspective on Leadership and Culture

silo missile

Silos are great for missiles, but not for organisations!

News Flash: Functional silos are alive and well inside most companies! That’s the good news . . . . and the bad news.

As you may know, I have spent the past week and a half in the United Arab Emirates first at the World Strategy Summit and then in business meetings with various government agencies and business organisations. Overall I come away from the UAE with great admiration at the progress they have made on infrastructure and the overall development of their nation.  Sustainability, security and people development are high on their list of national objectives, and they are making great progress.  I was also interested and pleased to see their keen interest in learning more about leadership, corporate culture and organisation behaviour issues.

In all of my discussions, after the details and specifics relating to each organisation’s particular business, at the end we all agreed: people are people!  In other words, the challenges inherent in how people can work together are common the world over.

And one of the most frequent topics I found myself addressing in these meetings was silo behaviour and lack of shared objectives.

The Good News About Silos:


There are strong, instinctive forces that promote unity within a group.

As a social species belonging to a group where we are accepted and respected is most likely hard-wired into our DNA and expresses itself inside an organisation as people seeking to belong to a team, group, department, subculture.  People who belong to a group tend to be more engaged with other people and their work than those who feel estranged, like they don’t belong. This group dynamic, subgroups and subcultures is critical to the effective functioning of modern organisations, since studies show that the spread of ideas, behaviours and information is rapid within these subgroups.  Another word for them, in social and information theory, are nodes of the internal social network, as depicted below in this comparison of a traditional hierarchy with the real information and power network.

social network

The Bad News About Silos:

When senior management is not well aligned and working together on shared objectives, as is the case in many companies, the default is for members of the senior team to focus on their functional or departmental objectives. Their goal is to help the company by excelling in the delivery of their functional goals and they drive the members of the department to keep their focus on delivery.

functional silosThis silo focus on functional objectives often descends into internal competition between VP-A and VP-B to see who can “exceed” their targets. Actions that detract from a focus of delivering functional goals is discouraged. And in many cases that includes not sharing information with other departments and not wasting time trying to help other areas solve problems. Hence the quick development of strong, independent silos with little cross functional teamwork. And the nature of people within groups to be suspicious of non-group members only hardens the walls of the silos so even less information is shared. You can evidence this by the common talk of “them and us” or references such as “those people don’t . . . ” and “we don’t trust them” types of comments.

Shared Objectives across the silos:

aligned arrows

I am not advocating breaking silos as they have some positive attributes. But what I do suggest is to develop shared objectives and get the silos working in your favour. There is power in alignment and shared objectives. People work together yet still keep their sense of belonging and identity.

Leadership is really about mobilisation towards a common goal!

 Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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