There is little dispute that great leadership teams are the cornerstones to the success of growing organizations. So why is it that many leadership teams are dysfunctional at best and sometimes even become detractors to an organization’s success? Many CEOs assume that assembling a group of talented managers will result in a highly-functional senior team. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple – building a truly great team requires attention to detail and hard work; skills that help leaders solve important technical and business challenges but that aren’t often used to build great teams.
Most CEOs have experienced frustrations in building their senior teams (as characterized by the statements below) but they often struggle to solve the problem.
- “Why do I have to get involved in resolving every issue big and small?”
- “Jenn (VP Marketing), Meg (VP Sales) and Bob (CFO) are never on the same page and it is creating confusion, delays and chaos throughout the organization.”
- “I’m beginning to feel like our senior team meetings are a waste of time. We go through the motions with little debate and then the line forms at my office.”
- “I’m tired of the simple advice to just fire key people on my team because they can’t see eye to eye. There has to be another way!”
If your team suffers from any of the following challenges – lack of symmetry, mediocre results, struggle to learn, or an inability to recover from natural struggles – it is time to jump-start your leadership team by refining the team’s structural foundation and creating an environment where productive dialogue will thrive.
How does your team stack up?
- Is there a strong sense of symmetry or what we call a force multiplier effect?
- Are results being achieved as expected?
- Does the team learn from mistakes and from each other?
- Is the team resilient and able to get back on track after natural setbacks?
Refine the Structural Foundation
We define structure as the arrangement and organization of the tangible interrelated elements of a leadership team – purpose, composition & roles, coordination & communication, and expectations & norms. A well thought out leadership team structure serves as in important catalyst for greater leadership team impact. Good structure can help foster innovation, strengthen the quality of decision-making, and enhance cross-organizational collaboration. Poor structure, on the other hand, holds teams back causing them to miss opportunities, duplicate efforts, and increase pressure on relationships. As an example, when incentive structures inadvertently create unhealthy competition among teammates relationships tend to suffer.
Actions to build or repair a solid structural foundation…
- Define the enterprise purpose of the leadership team. Is the team in place to simply provide counsel to the CEO or to drive important cross-organizational initiatives? If the latter, then what is the team’s enterprise focus?
- Clarify team composition, key roles and points of overlap and integration. What roles does each team member play beyond their functional roles? What are the key areas of integration between roles?
- Define vehicles for effective coordination and communication. How will the team review, discuss and make decisions on enterprise issues?
- Establish expectations and norms for working together as a team. What behaviors do teammates expect of each other – i.e., follow through on commitments, challenging each other, etc.?
Establish an Environment Where Productive Dialogue Can Thrive
Creating a sold structural foundation is critical but not sufficient to building a great leadership team. Specifically, even with a great structure a team can suffer if its relational dynamics are in disrepair. In our experience the number one issue facing leadership teams is their inability to engage in productive dialogue. They struggle to consistently challenge, debate and discuss their most important issues in a manner that progresses the issues and leaves minimal relational scars. The keys to creating an environment where productive dialogue can thrive – self-awareness, trust, curiosity, listening, seeking to understand other perspectives – are what some might refer to as the soft side of building a team. In reality this is the hardest part of building a great team as it forces adults to examine and adjust life-long behaviors.
Have you experienced any of these symptoms of non-productive dialogue?
- Dominance: The CEO overpowers the team by pushing their own point of view without listening to other perspectives.
- Elephant in the Room: There is a clear elephant in the room, but everyone just seems to skirt the potentially difficult topic.
- Love Fest: Teammates are extremely complimentary to each other but clearly struggle to give constructive feedback.
- Passive Aggressive: Ideas are knocked down indirectly or via subtle insults, direct confrontation is avoided, or people pout.
- Lobbying: All appear to agree to a course of action but after the meeting individuals lobby the CEO about a different approach.
- Turf Protecting: Regardless of the issue raised, teammates argue for what is best for their departments rather than what is best for the organization.
Actions to create an environment where productive dialogue thrives…
- CEO’s have to model productive dialogue behaviors – giving and receiving feedback, setting clear expectations, being curious and open to others’ perspectives, and encouraging their teams to embrace discomfort.
- Take steps to help team members build trust – get to know each other at a level that helps teammates gain insights into what makes each other tick; learn how teammates are impacting team dynamics positively and negatively; and create a psychologically safe environment where teammates can show vulnerability.
- Experience productive disagreement – approach confrontation through a new lens – commit to patience and curiosity and ultimately learn that disagreement doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
There is no doubt that building a great leadership team is hard work and there are always other ‘business’ challenges that become a priority. However, if you agree with the premise that great leadership teams are instrumental to an organization’s ability to grow successfully then make it a priority and commit to jump-start your leadership team.