The Problem Of Silos, And How To Break Them Down

This Legitimate Leadership breakfast webinar was held on 29 September 2022; 37 people attended, both in person and remotely.

Many companies face the problem of silos, which disrupt collaborative working and result in lost opportunities.

Ian Munro of Legitimate Leadership said when people in organisations see silos developing they typically diagnose them as technology or system issues, or issues with people. But often they are rather issues of culture or leadership.

The webinar thereafter addressed (A) WHY SILOS ARE A PROBLEM and (B) WHAT WE SHOULD DO ABOUT SILOS


Three examples, from Ian Munro:

  1. In a company with various call centres, one call centre manager is asked by employees, ‘Why do we have to dress formally like this?’ So the manager relaxes the dress code. The employees also ask this manager why they have to come to work at a particular time; so the manager allows them to come when they want. In another of the company’s call centres, a manager takes the opposite decisions: she decides employees have to dress formally and have to start work at set times. There is unhappiness between the two call centres – not because of the rule imposed by the second manager but because of the difference between them. A war of attrition develops between the managers. This might commonly be seen as a people issue but in fact it is a problem of lack of alignment in leadership.
  2. In a company, proposals are made to clients by different departments. It is noticed that the formats of the proposals differ. This is taken as evidence that a process needs to be installed – and that marketing needs to sign off on all proposals. This might commonly be seen as a system issue, but the real problem is that there is a lack of leadership collaboration.
  3. A sales team is asked for its forecasts. If it is not thinking collaboratively, what does it do? The sales team may come up with a low forecast – for instance, 10% growth when actually 25% is expected – because if more than 10% growth is in fact achieved their sales bonuses will be larger. But the exco has instructed the production team to cut costs. So the production team pares production for a maximum of 10% growth. In the event, production is inadequate to meet demand and sales and customers are lost. This might commonly be seen as an issue combining process, technology and people, but in fact what is most required here is an increase in trust and perhaps the formation of cross-department teams.


Two case studies:

CASE STUDY 1: BREAKING DOWN SILOS IN A TIME OF COVID – by Maija De Rijk-Uys, MD of Go2Africa, an inbound African safari tour provider.

“With the advent of Covid, our company went overnight not only to zero business but also from working in the office to working at home, often at the kitchen table. Go2Africa’s leadership team reacted to this by trying to get as much information out to employees as possible. They also instituted regular town hall meetings in which what was needed was discussed, and that was translated into the work environment. This was also done for the purpose of increasing understanding of what Covid meant to us and to clients. We went from business as usual to the opposite.

“Regular one-on-one meetings were held with employees to show that we cared and to maintain contact. Since the end of Covid, our employee engagement surveys have shown that there is now more trust than before within the company.

“Because the problems we faced were also being faced by the whole travel industry, we decided to cooperate with our competitors, so we sat with them and industry partners on a weekly basis.

“And there was regular consultation between the company and Legitimate Leadership. Go2Africa felt empowered in these situations to have a framework.

“We focused on what we could control. Before Covid we were too busy to focus on certain aspects of our business, but the slowdown in the travel industry caused by Covid gave us the time to place focus on those issues. This has given us an edge post-Covid. We have multiplied our business compared with pre-Covid levels.

“We have particularly restructured the sales process so that we now have sales pods. We have also emphasised more staff get-togethers. And not insignificantly, to create a more collaborative, efficient and career-stimulating environment, we have stopped calling them departments (which emphasizes division) and are now calling them teams (which emphasizes common goals).

“Regarding sales pods, previously our sales consultants were individually handling the whole process with their clients. We decided to create a more collaborative environment. So now the sales pods, which consist of sales and system and administrative people, handle all processes along the customer journey. In a less collaborative environment, sales people are often glorified because they make the money. This new structure requires people to work together.

“But do the sales pods not now act in isolated silos? The various pods (there are now five) still get managed by a manager and people are not trained in pods – they are trained according to function, across the company. And there is a company-wide standard that we collaborate – and we correct even our top sales people.”



“A silo is a structure which is static. There is not a flow between it and other silos – they operate independently.

“Silos often form within a team because of factions. But we are better together!

“When I was promoted to production manager (in my former company, which produced catalytic converters for the motor industry) I was given a poisoned chalice: I was asked to close down my factory. But at the same time as closing down we had to continue producing samples and prototypes for our motor industry clients.

“During the close-down period, there was 92% turnover of staff because most people left the company in anticipation of closure.

“It appeared that the first thing I should do was appease the customers. But in fact I learnt that the first thing I should do was to set our internal house in order.

“Collaboration must be encouraged through creating trust and trust is created through high accountability. Create blinding clarity and the expectation that people will work together, then create a service attitude – and then have the courage to hold employees appropriately accountable for their behaviour.

“Suppress your own desire to shine and encourage collaboration. Do not stand on the side and criticise.

“An analogy is a sports team where everyone knows what their job is and they work together. If they don’t know, there are problems – in rugby, for instance, if too many people join the ruck, there will be not enough to receive the ball and run with it.

“There was lots of pressure. If you don’t have accountability in the team, anxiety kicks in and trust plunges.

“Thereafter, focus outwards: what are the customers’ needs? The salespeople, under pressure in this situation, might do things they are not supposed to do and act to their own individual advantage. Leaders need to tackle this anti-collaborative behaviour whenever they find it and hold people accountable – because it casts a big shadow.

“Finally, we even had to hold the customers accountable. We set structural limits on how and when they ordered parts and we gave them data on parts availability. We instituted open and honest discussions to increase trust and reduce anxiety about possible stonewalling. So we had more mature conversations. In other words, we talked to them, and we listened to them!

“For instance, one motor company was very annoyed with us. It turned out that the cause of their annoyance was that our presentations were not good enough. We had been doing everything else but because we had not listened to them, we had not improved our presentations.”



A: Maija De Rijk-Uys: Yes, if the leadership team is in silos, this must be corrected. Our leadership team was reshaped during Covid, redefining our roles.

A: Ian Munro: It is difficult to lead if you don’t have the support of your functions – for instance the legal team. The horizontal relationships enable the vertical relationships.


A: Ian Munro: In an IT company, we moved people, for instance from the software team to the analytics team. This resulted in people in the new team getting better knowledge and best practice. This is often done in large organisations – between teams and between businesses. Unfortunately, often people’s technical know-how is valued more than anything else and they are prevented from moving because management says that they cannot be spared from their original teams.

A: Ratna Maharaj, Motus Mobility Solutions: When you shift your intent from taking to giving, staff mobility is a lot easier. Instead of worrying about how results in your department will be affected, you start worrying about what the best growth opportunities for the person concerned are.  These opportunities often lie in other areas.


A: Wendy Lambourne, Legitimate Leadership: One of the best ways to collaborate is to deliver on promises. If the production team produces, the sales team can sell.

A: Jimmy Furstenburg, Legitimate Leadership: Focus on the company’s purpose. The Why of the business not the What of the business gives people common purpose across silos. It’s like fitting together different pieces of a garment. Bind the silos to a common purpose – the Why of the company, its reason for existence.