Great Leadership Teams Are Fundamentally Sound

Fundamental #2 – Logical Structure

Defining and gaining commitment to a leadership team’s purpose is a necessary fundamental but it is not sufficient. For a team to be able to move toward its purpose it must have a common understanding of what work team members need to do together and how they are going to interact effectively. This may seem like a trivial expectation but in our experience team members are often great at executing their functional responsibilities but not as effective at working together as an integrated unit to address the critical priorities facing the organization.

A logical team structure consists of two important elements: (1) clarity of enterprise roles and (2) use of simple vehicles for maintaining effective coordination and communication. When these structural elements are understood and committed to by each team member leadership teams are more innovative, the quality of decision making is strengthened, and the organization tends to be more collaborative and in sync. Poor structure, on the other hand, is much more likely to hold a leadership team back and contribute to making it an impediment to the organization it serves.

Role Clarity: Most leadership teams understand the functional roles played by each team member (CFO, CMO, Line of Business VP), but members of truly great teams have clarity on how these roles integrate and evolve to serve the team’s purpose. Great teams also recognize that each member brings a wealth of experience beyond their functional capacity and welcome input and challenge beyond titles and functions.

Unfortunately, role clarity doesn’t happen overnight and requires dialogue, debate and challenge on how the team is going to work together to achieve its purpose. It is through these types of discussions that teams understand areas that require integration, those where coordination would help and those where a simple exchange of information will suffice. These discussions also help team members move from seeing themselves as representatives of their areas of responsibility to recognizing that as senior leaders they are responsible for maximizing the effectiveness of their organizations.

Coordination & Communication: Once a leadership team defines its critical priorities and all members understand the work they need to do together; the team has to gain agreement on a few practical mechanisms to stay informed and in sync. Some typical coordination and communication mechanisms include team meetings, written plans and status updates, and one-on-one or small group work sessions. Time spent on any of these mechanisms should be focused on strategic and mission critical issues that the leadership team is uniquely qualified to handle.

Great leadership teams use their meetings as vehicles to look forward and as venues to challenge, debate and decide issues that make progress towards the team’s purpose. Any time spent on the past is focused on learning so that risks can be mitigated, and future actions strengthened. Once a great leadership team gets in a rhythm, team members expect meetings to be time bound, focused on what’s most important, have clear agendas with expected outcomes, and to be full of lively debate, challenge and resolution. Team members come prepared, actively participate, and hold themselves and their teammates accountable.

While there is no doubt that meetings are a pivotal leadership team tool, the very best leadership teams handle most of their work outside these formal settings. Again, when team members understand their purpose and know what work they have to do together they diligently spend their time in
dyads and triads both face- to-face and electronically to address mission critical tasks.

Fundamental #3 – Operating Principles

Leadership team operating principles should be designed to foster and reinforce the team’s purpose and structure. Teams that proactively discuss, debate and gain agreement on a limited and targeted set of operating principles are more likely to experience the behavior they collectively desire. Without attention, however, a leadership team’s operating principles will emerge by default. Some principles will likely be constructive such as ‘team members actively participate in our meetings’ while others may less constructive such as ‘in our environment it’s ok to be late or miss meetings.’ Context, self-awareness and accountability are the keys to establishing and living meaningful leadership team operating principles.

Context: Clearly there are certain principles will work for almost every leadership team (i.e., integrity, punctuality, etc.), but it is important for the team to be acutely aware of the context in which it is operating. Some context questions might include: What are the unique business challenges facing the team at the current time; How long has the team been together; What are the different personality types that comprise the team; What have been their experiences working on other teams? Reflecting on context will help the team to shape principles that are relevant to their current environment.

Self-Awareness: Most leadership team operating principles emerge in response to a current or past behavior that one or more team members has perceived to be disruptive. Examples might include: “It drives me crazy when she goes off on tangents that aren’t relevant to the agenda.”; “I recognize that he is the CMO, but I’d like to hear what he has to say about these important operational issues.”; “It is simply disrespectful to not respond to email messages that are directly relevant to the most important issue our team is facing.”

There is no doubt that every team member has examples of similar frustrations. However, it is also quite likely that these same team members display behaviors that annoy their colleagues. The key is for leadership teams to first discuss expectations of the behaviors they expect of each other and then openly discuss their frustrations. Most importantly, it is critical for team members to be self-aware. As Tasha Eurich points out her book Insights, self-awareness has two parts – first individuals need to dig deep and evaluate what they might be doing to frustrate their teammates and then they need to be open to receiving feedback from their teammates. Self-awareness is the grease that will enable a meaningful set of operating principles to be established.

Accountability: The process a leadership team goes through to agree to a set of operating principles can be a powerful vehicle for building trust and reinforcing the benefit of productive dialogue. However, operating principles are only useful if all team members commit and feel accountable to following every principle all of the time. Of course, we are all human so there certainly will be times when individuals violate the principles. What transpires when this happens is the real test! Great leadership teams don’t rely solely on the formal leader to enforce operating principles. Rather, they constructively confront each other when principles aren’t followed.

Good News – Bad News

The good news is that when a leadership team works to put these fundamentals into practice it has increased the likelihood that the team to thrive. However, these structural fundamentals are only as good as the relational dynamics the team has established. In fact, without sound relational dynamics it will be extremely difficult to sustain these fundamentals. Great leadership teams are comprised of team members who trust each other (they might not like each other but they trust intent); who are able to confront and challenge each other with minimal defensiveness; and are able to hold each other accountable without relying solely on the formal leader.

I hope that we have demonstrated in this article that building a truly great leadership team – one that is resilient, laser focused on results, and has the ability to learn and grow to address increasingly complex challenges – is really hard work. It requires commitment to structural and relational fundamentals. Good luck on your journey to build a great leadership team!

Read more: Learning The Lessons Of The Business Battlefield