Leadership teams set the tone for their organizations—if they are resilient, laser focused on results, debate and challenge each other well, and learn from each other, the rest of the organization is much more likely to behave in a similar fashion. Great leadership teams leverage the experience and talent of their executives and serve as force multipliers for their organizations. To make this happen, leadership teams need to establish a sound foundation so that it can navigate the natural twists and turns related to leading any enterprise. This is hard work and it’s not sufficient to simply assume that all executives know how to be great leadership team members and build a great leadership team.
“Great leadership teams leverage the experience and talent of their executives and serve as force multipliers for their organizations.”
The Case for Nurturing
Great leadership teams aren’t complacent. The essence of Marshall Goldsmith’s book “What Got You Hear Won’t Get You There” is a good mantra for leadership teams to adopt. Just because a certain approach or style of leadership worked in a previous environment does not mean that the same approaches and styles will benefit their work as leadership team members in a different environment. Executives on leadership teams have to play two very important roles – functional or business unit leadership and stewardship for the enterprise – and these roles are not always easy to balance. Specifically, sometimes a leader’s enterprise role requires him to subordinate his functional or business unit role for the ‘good of the organization’ which can be a challenging construct for some leaders.
Significant transitions such as the addition of a new CEO or new team members, changes in strategic direction, or organization restructuring require leadership teams to step back and refine how they operate. Just as executives push their organizations to be great – service driven, operationally excellent, highly profitable – they need to put this same energy into building and maintaining a great leadership team. Without nurturing leadership teams tend to function as groups of individuals rather than as organizational force multipliers. Inadequate team structure can lead to relational friction which can limit a team’s ability to challenge and debate their most important issues productively and ultimately to hold each other accountable. Below are three practical steps leadership teams can take to ensure their teams get in and stay in alignment.
1. Periodically Take a Pulse
The natural challenge of growing a fast-paced organization along with a sometimes-faulty assumption that executives know how to be great team members tend to cause many leadership teams to get out of sync. To mitigate this challenge, it is important for leadership teams to periodically evaluate (every 6 months for example) if they are operating in a manner that accelerates their organizations.
Transitions are perfect times for teams to take a step back and assess the new environment and how the leadership team should adapt. New CEOs are hired with the expectation that they will put their experience and talent to good use. Clarifying these expectations and discussing how to adapt the leader’s approach to the current leadership team construct is critical. By default, changes in strategic direction should be a natural signal for leadership teams to think through any required adjustments such as a shifts in how they address new priorities or determining if they have the right people on the team.
“A leadership team’s structural and relational dynamics are inextricably linked….”
2. Identify Structural and Relational Challenges
Taking a pulse for how effective a leadership team is at any given point in time will naturally uncover potential structural and relational challenges. Asking some basic questions as illustrated in the graphic below can serve a good vehicle for getting the discussion started. As mentioned above, transitions and pace often impact the rhythm of leadership teams which can be addressed by stepping back and nurturing structural and relational dynamics. Structural factors are those that help leadership teams focus on and achieve business outcomes while relational factors are those that help teams maintain productive and healthy work environments. A leadership team’s structural and relational dynamics are inextricably linked, and teams must resist the natural urge to address team dysfunction issues with structural solutions only – ‘if we just fire the operations VP or create a new mechanism for communicating, our issues will be solved.’
For example, to get up to speed on the new environment a new CEO might want to adjust the management rhythm to include more regular team or one-on-one meetings. While this might be a great solution, it will be insufficient if trust has been diminished across the team and team members don’t feel comfortable challenging and debating each other. Similarly, a new CEO’s efforts to model listening and inclusiveness to overcome the negative impacts of a former autocratic leader will lose their power if the team is undisciplined and doesn’t set adequate time aside for collective discussion and debate of the team’s most important issues.
3. Make Commitments
All the nurturing in the world is insufficient unless a leadership team make commitments to strengthen its effectiveness. Once the team understands the root issues behind any leadership team challenges it then must make the necessary structural and behavioral commitments for tapping into the team’s full potential. For example, a team that is struggling to stay strategic might adjust its meeting rhythm to ensure that adequate time is set aside for addressing forward looking challenges. Similarly, teams that have uncovered issues of trust among team members should gain commitments from the individuals involved to deal with these issues head on. Making commitments is hard work and requires diligence and ongoing constructive support, patience and feedback from teammates. It also requires team members to suspend judgement and patience as they practice new behaviors and ways of operating.
Leadership teams are critical to the productive and healthy operation of any organization. Much like the focus that good executives put on dealing with important financial and operational challenges, time and attention needs to be periodically dedicated to ensuring that leadership teams are optimizing their effectiveness. If you want to build and maintain a truly great leadership team, don’t forget to nurture!