A Systems View of Leadership Team Effectivenes

Great leadership teams function as dynamic systems – living, breathing organisms that have characteristics that transcend those of its individual members. Much like a physical system (i.e., car engine) or a biological system (i.e., human body), the components of a leadership team system are influenced by the environments in which they exist and affect each other sometimes constructively and other times in unintended or undesirable ways. Dynamic systems are complex which explains why it is such hard work to evolve a group of individual executives to an integrated body that leverages their unique talents and experience for the benefit of the organization they serve.

In our view there are four primary components of a leadership team system – (1) structure; (2) relational dynamics; (3) formal team leadership; and (4) the environment in which the team operates.

While challenging, leadership teams can optimize their effectiveness only when they are able to take a ‘systems view’ of the team and fully recognize the interactions of these components.

Structure: We define structure as the arrangement and organization of the tangible elements of a leadership team – collective purpose, role integration, and communication. New heights can be reached when a leadership team agrees and commits to a common purpose ‘for this team at this particular juncture’ and gains clarity on how the team will integrate to achieve the purpose. Communication (i.e., meeting management and processes) can serve as glue to ensure that a team executes efficiently.

How a leadership team is structured can have a profound impact on the system. For example, the leadership team of a young, fast-growing organization where everyone has been used to ‘rolling up their sleeves’ may be challenged by the introduction of new processes or meeting regimen. The team may feel like they are losing autonomy which could chip away at trust in the formal leader or those who embrace the new structure.

Relational Dynamics: A leadership team’s relational dynamics include elements (trust – productive dialogue – accountability) that help foster a productive and healthy work environment. Trust is the foundational element for building a great leadership team as it enables teams to challenge and debate productively and hold each other accountable.

As illustrated in the example above, a leadership team’s relational dynamics are impacted by how a team is structured (e.g., too much structure too fast can stifle autonomy and lead to relational strife). The opposite is also true; strong relational dynamics can foster the patience required for new structure to be implemented (e.g., team members trust the intentions of the leader and as a result are better able to adapt to a changing environment).

Formal Team Leadership: The role of the formal team leader (CEO, President, GM) is to establish the conditions that help a leadership team thrive in the environment in which it is working. All team leaders come with their own skills, styles, experience and biases but the best are able to adapt and position their team’s for success in the current environment. For example, a leader who has a strong preference for measurement (and who has had prior success with this preference) but recognizes that a previous toxic environment has led to diminished trust in the metrics and among team members will adapt and deploy a more learning-oriented approach.

Characteristics of a Great Leadership Team System

While it is not easy to build a leadership team that functions on all cylinders, the benefits can be dramatic for the team and, more importantly, for the organization it serves. Below are some statements that characterizes how members of a leadership team behave when they are operating as an effective system…

• Team members recognize that their actions impact their colleagues directly or indirectly and they think through and coordinate how to mitigate any potential negative or unintended consequences.

• Team members value the diversity of skills, styles and experience of their colleagues. They embrace differences and work hard to ensure that their skills and styles evolve to meet the needs of the team.

• The success of the team depends not just on how each team member plays his or her individual role but how they integrate on important priorities (and stay of each other’s’ way when there is no need to integrate).

• Team members are not passive observers; they recognize that they play a role (sometimes small and sometimes large) in any challenges the team confronts or any successes the team achieves.

• Team members address dysfunction. They won’t let the team’s weakest links – toxic individuals, damaged relationships, poor structure or process – define the team or get in the way of achieving results.

 How to Build an Effective Leadership Team System

Great leadership teams are built and maintained through the effective interactions among structure, relational dynamics, formal team leadership and the environments in which they operate. While it is difficult to prescribe a step by step approach for building an effective leadership team system, there are three important factors that should be considered in any approach.

Organize as a Leadership Team not a Senior Staff Group

Many leadership teams we encounter are structured as senior staff groups where the CEO’s direct reports share information and negotiate functional or business unit priorities with the CEO. This model can and does work in many organizations, but it is not a team model and does realize the force multiplier benefits that leadership teams can provide. The ability to leverage the experience, talent and wisdom of senior colleagues is squandered and opportunities for greater innovation are lost with a senior staff model. Efficiencies are missed when priorities are established at a departmental rather than a cross-organization level.

Balance Functional & Enterprise Roles

The item that most differentiates membership on a leadership team from other organizational teams is the importance of a leadership team members enterprise role. Leadership team members certainly have very important functional or business unit roles to play but being on a leadership team requires them to balance these roles with always looking out for the best interests of the organization.

This is frequently a difficult transition for many executives to make as they often advance in large part due to their functional expertise. They attach self-worth and organizational value to this expertise and struggle to see themselves as stewards of the organization. Experience suggests that great progress can be made by simply spending time to discuss what playing an enterprise looks like – e.g., ‘we want your functional expertise, but we also want to hear you weigh in on the broader business issues we are facing.’ Coaching and feedback are also important vehicles for helping executives actualize their new leadership team roles.

Envision an Effective System

There are certainly volumes of books and many courses available on systems thinking and while this type of education could be beneficial, we believe that the most effective vehicle for helping a leadership team view itself as a system is to discuss and debate the interplay between each component of the system. Teams need to evaluate their structure, relational dynamics, and leadership approach and determine how effective the system is functioning in the current environment to support achievement of the leadership team’s purpose.

No team is perfect so there will naturally be imbalances, some small and some more impactful. For example, Team A might realize that weekly stand up meetings aren’t necessary any longer given that the team is coordinating effectively outside of meetings while Team B might uncover disturbing levels of infighting between new and tenured team members due to unintended duplication of effort. Potential solutions to strengthen any system imbalances will range from simple (i.e., canceling weekly stand-ups) to more complex (i.e., clarifying the how roles integrate and rebuilding trust).

Regardless of the solution, it is absolutely essential for leadership teams to think of solutions as inputs to and impacts on the whole system. As such, they have to discuss and debate the potential intended and unintended consequences a solution might have on all components of the system. For example, canceling weekly stand up meetings will might free up Team A’s members but have the unanticipated consequence of diminishing the team’s visibility on an important priority. Similarly, addressing the infighting and duplication of effort on Team B might not only strengthen trust and efficiency but also uncover the need for a new process.

Great leadership teams recognize that building and maintaining an effective system requires foresight and discipline. The rewards for the leadership team and the organizations they serve are well worth the hard work. What are your experiences with this systems view of building great leadership teams?

Read more: Nurturing Is Critical For Maintaining A Great Leadership Team

Jack McGuinness: Jack McGuinness is co-founder and managing partner of Relationship Impact, a consulting firm focused on helping great leaders build great leadership teams.