How Cadence Enables Great Leadership Teams

A guide to developing the rhythm that will bring your team into full alignment and better able to achieve critical goals.

Leadership team cadence is like the drumbeat that helps a leadership team march in rhythm and alignment. More specifically, leadership team cadence is the necessary pattern of interactions (meetings, one-on-ones, written communications) that enable a leadership team to shape, monitor and adapt an organization’s strategic intent.

Two words are emphasized in this definition. “Necessary” pattern of interactions simply reflects the reality that context matters; there isn’t a one-size-fits-all cadence for every team in every situation. For example, during a crisis a CEO might take a more command-and-control leadership approach and adjust the team’s cadence to meet and communicate more regularly so that increased visibility is given to those actions that will help the organization recover from the crisis. “Enables” reflects the fact that cadence is a facilitative tool and, while important, it is one of many tools leadership teams use to effectively lead and manage their organizations.

A few years ago, I witnessed a highly effective cadence in action when I had the benefit of sitting in on one of the quarterly two-day leadership team work sessions of a rapidly growing $150M regional commercial landscaping company. Fifty-plus leaders from across the region spent one day huddled with their lines of business colleagues (e.g., maintenance, installation, support, etc.) where they dug into their key performance indicators (KPIs) and challenged each other in sometimes heated but mostly improvement-focused discussions. The next day all 50+ leaders met in one conference room and presented their KPIs (pipeline, customer service, operating margin, etc.) and their plans for the next quarter to the executive team (CEO, President, CFO). Everyone came prepared, the agenda was clear and the environment, while challenging, was supported by good humor and celebration. When I asked the CEO why he was willing to invest in this type of cadence he said, “it’s really pretty simple, we are a growing company with many moving parts and it is absolutely critical that all of our leaders speak a similar language, learn from each other and recognize that we are all held accountable to reinforce the culture and drive performance.”

Make the Cadence Relevant

By some estimates, the average leadership team spends fewer than three days together each month and during that time they spend less than three hours on substantive strategic issues[i]. The price of this misused time is misalignment which often leads to faulty assumptions and less than optimal decisions. Cadence isn’t a panacea for these challenges, but it is an invaluable tool for mitigating them. Christopher Fussell, president of McChrystal Group, captures the essence of why making leadership team cadence relevant is so important. “Your rhythm should value purpose over habit, and effectiveness over efficiency. If…you are going through the motions, it’s time to change it up. The purpose of your rhythm is to drive growth, focus, unity as a group. If it’s not doing that, then you need to change it up.”

To ensure the work of a leadership team moves from putting out the latest fires or dealing with trivial issues to maintaining focus on what’s most important, the cadence it uses must be relevant. A relevant leadership team cadence reflects two important considerations: purpose and coordination. Great leadership teams have clarity on the important opportunities and challenges they need to address together versus those which can be handled by individual functional leaders and their units. The leadership team’s purpose should dictate its cadence—who is leading and driving which initiatives, how often they need to meet, who should participate in which discussions, and the preparation and agendas for meetings. While counterintuitive to many CEOs and their teams, issues related to the day-to-day running of the business should, of course, be part of the cadence but should not dominate.

Coordination is another important consideration for ensuring that a leadership team’s cadence is relevant. Coordination of an operational calendar—shaping a strategic plan (annual off site), monitoring and reporting on progress (quarterly review of KPIs), and handling challenging operational issues (weekly check-ins)—is clearly an important part of a leadership team’s function and it is what most teams focus on when establishing cadence. An operational calendar, however, is often not adequate for driving priority cross-organizational work. Additional coordination tools are required such as project management discipline, cascading work teams and an enhanced calendar. As an example, the CEO of a management consulting firm rallied his team around reducing customer concentration risk by 30% in 12 months and used a few important coordination vehicles to drive results. These included a detailed project plan with accountabilities, milestones and time frames; a cloud-based dashboard to track new customer wins; and weekly one-hour decision-making huddles with the leadership team and a few other key employees.

Agree to Operating Principles

Being clear on what it takes to be a great team member, creating a compelling purpose and establishing a good cadence are essential elements for building a great leadership team, but even with this foundation, teams often struggle. By their very nature, leadership teams are comprised of individuals with different styles, backgrounds and experiences so it is very important that they define, discuss and gain agreement on the behaviors they expect from one another. We call these behaviors operating principles, but they are also often referred to as guidelines, commitments, ground rules, values, etc. Regardless of what they are called, these expected behaviors can serve as a valuable tool for accelerating a team’s development.

There are no hard and fast rules for developing operating principles. In some cases, a founding CEO might establish a first draft of the principles while in other cases more established teams might develop them based on what has worked in the past or based on challenges they might be facing with each other. Whichever method is used, the principles are much more likely to influence behavior positively if a team actively discusses, debates and gains agreement on a limited and targeted set. 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 okay to be late or miss meetings.’ Context, self-awareness and accountability are the keys to establishing and living meaningful leadership team operating principles.

Clearly there are certain principles will work for almost every leadership team (i.e., integrity, punctuality, etc.), but it is important for a 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.

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.” Or “I recognize that he is the CMO, but I’d like to hear what he has to say about these important operational issues.” Or even, “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 will have examples of similar frustrations. However, it is also quite likely that these same team members display behaviors that sometimes annoy their colleagues. The key is for a leadership team 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.[ii] Self-awareness is the grease that will enable a meaningful set of operating principles to be established.

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 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 provide feedback to each other when principles aren’t followed.

Manage Meetings Effectively

As discussed earlier, great leadership teams use meetings as important vehicles to support their cadence. Meetings help maintain coordination across functions and they also facilitate a team’s ability to drive progress towards the team’s specific purpose. On great leadership teams, members expect meetings to be time bound, focus on what’s most important, have clear agendas with expected outcomes, and to be full of lively debate, challenges and resolution. Team members come prepared, actively participate, and hold themselves and their teammates accountable. Perhaps most importantly team members actively participate in discussions outside of their area of expertise and don’t get defensive when others engage in their turf.

There are no magic one-size-fits-all formulas for how often teams should meet or how they should track progress but there are a few important guidelines. First, it is essential that leadership teams maintain discipline and provide adequate time for discussing and debating strategic issues separate from tactical issues. Too often we see teams set aside time to address an important strategic challenge only to watch the discussions quickly devolve into putting out the latest fire. If this becomes the team’s default mode, then strategic execution will eventually suffer.

Next, meetings are most effective when the heavy lifting happens in between meetings. The very best leadership teams handle a great deal of their work outside these formal settings in dyads and triads to maintain coordination and drive specific issues.

Finally, it is important for leadership team meetings to be documented properly so that action items, parking lot issues, progress on metrics and plans are effectively monitored. While this might seem obvious, we often encounter teams that get together without an agenda and limited vehicles (i.e., parking lots, spreadsheets, dashboards) for keeping the team on track. These types of poorly planned and organized meetings tend to diminish team energy and hinder overall progress.

 

[i] https://hbr.org/2004/09/stop-wasting-valuable-time

[ii] Tasha Eurich