All leadership teams have the opportunity to serve as force multipliers for their organizations where the team’s impact goes far beyond the contributions of individual team members. Leadership teams work hard to shape long-term visions and missions that rally employees, shepherd the execution of strategies that set their organizations apart from competitors, and define values that form strong cultural foundations. Unfortunately, many times these efforts fall short. A recent survey of senior executives conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership indicated that only 18% of executives rated their teams as “very effective.” In the same survey 97% of executives agreed that increased leadership team effectiveness would have a positive impact on organizational results.
Great leadership teams never succeed by accident. Without nurturing, leadership teams can actually become organizational impediments as characterized by duplication of effort, finger pointing, “real” meetings happening after “official” meetings, unhealthy interdepartmental competition, delayed decision making and churning over and over on the same issues. Here’s how to reenergize your leadership team for maximum organizational impact.
Confirm Purpose. A leadership team’s purpose should serve as a guidepost for focusing the team and the organization on what is strategically most important at any given point in time based on the environment in which the organization operates. Absent a specific purpose that goes beyond ‘leading the organization’ and ‘carrying out the organization’s strategy’, leadership teams will struggle to have a force multiplier impact.
Unfortunately, it is quite common for leadership teams to come together and immediately begin to do business or at least attempt to do what each member believes the group’s business should be. Earlier last year we were asked to work with the global leadership team of a professional services firm to strengthen its effectiveness. It quickly became clear that each business unit VP was diligently executing strategies designed to maximize business unit growth but were missing opportunities to enhance the long-term potential of the organization. This seemingly unintentional lack of coordination had a reverberating effect including increasing tension among VPs, customer confusion due to multiple touch points, and emerging competition among business units for limited resources. In short, this leadership team had failed to establish (or at a minimum had lost sight of) its unique enterprise-wide purpose.
“Fostering an environment where productive dialogue can thrive is challenging and requires hard work and commitment on the part of each leadership team member.”
As articulated in the book Senior Leadership Teams, a leadership team’s purpose should encapsulate what the formal leader (CEO/president) needs “this group of enterprise leaders to do that cannot be accomplished by any other set of people.” Below are four steps that leadership team’s can use to shape or redefine their purpose:
- Start with the organization’s strategy and identify the most critical areas that must be tackled for the strategy to be successful. In the case of the professional services firm the critical need was to focus on diversification beyond a customer that represented over 70% of revenue.
- Next, identify the interdependencies among leadership team members that will drive the strategy. The leadership team of the professional services firm identified that every VP from the leaders of resource management, sales, finance and each service line was needed to develop a coordinated diversified growth strategy.
- Once the interdependencies are defined the leadership team needs to narrow them down to the critical few that the leadership team is uniquely positioned to address and drive. The leadership team of our professional services client identified a few critical priorities including shaping and executing an integrated sales approach for the three services they offer, developing new products and services that leverage their current offerings, and building a support infrastructure that enables them to scale effectively.
- Finally, the formal leader needs to take this input and shape a compelling leadership team purpose. The president of our professional services client developed the following purpose statement: ‘the long-term viability of our firm depends on our efforts to capture new customers and expand into new markets.’
Foster Productive Dialogue. In her landmark study on the science of team self-awareness, Amy Edmonson coined the term ‘psychological safety’ to describe “the shared belief that it’s safe to ask one another for help, admit mistakes, and raise tough issues.” She goes on the suggest that “psychological safety is meant to suggest neither a careless sense of permissiveness, nor an unrelenting positive effect but rather a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” Most importantly, Edmonson’s research discovered that the highest-performing teams were “the ones with the highest reported errors – teammates were comfortable openly discussing mistakes. On these teams, they weren’t afraid to tell the leader that something had gone wrong.”
Unfortunately, as we see everyday in our work with leadership teams psychological safety is hard to come by. In Relationship Impact parlance we refer to psychological safety as ‘productive dialogue’ or the ability for teams to challenge, debate and discuss their most important issues in a manner that progresses the issues and leaves minimal relational scars. Over the past 9 years we have worked with close to 100 teams and the number one challenge we have seen and continue to see is the inability of leadership teams to engage in productive dialogue. As an example, last summer we began to work with the leadership team of a trade association and the lack of productive dialogue was palpable. The CEO was serving as a referee and managing conflict among his VPs individually and behind closed doors; staff were visibly uncomfortable talking to colleagues in other departments without sanction from their VPs; and leadership team meetings lacked substance and were often cancelled.
Fostering an environment where productive dialogue can thrive is challenging and requires hard work and commitment on the part of each leadership team member. Below are a few steps that will get the work started:
- Start by taking some time to help the team get to know each other at a deeper level. We regularly use Patrick Lencioni’s Personal Histories Exercise, which asks team members to describe struggles they faced earlier on in life.[iv] This never fails to provide teams with interesting insights into why colleagues might behave as they do. After the exercise we often hear comments such as ‘wow that explains a lot’ or ‘now I understand why he approaches decisions like that.’
- Next, invest time to help team members become aware of how they are ‘showing up’ to each other. We use psychometric instruments such as MBTI, DISC, or SDI to enable individuals to step back and reflect on what they value most and how this influences how they behave. We use these instruments as non-threatening discussion starters where teammates are asked to provide feedback to each other – ‘I appreciate that you are a results oriented person but sometimes I feel like you steamroll your ideas.’
- Perhaps most importantly, use the dialogue from steps one and two to help team members make behavioral commitments that will strengthen the effectiveness of the leadership team at the current point in the team’s journey. Team members should make commitments based on the input from their teammates and proactively ask for feedback when they struggle to live up to their commitments.
- Finally, team members must promise to ask for and provide feedback. As Tasha Eurich suggests in her book Insight, giving and receiving feedback is not easy – “In a misguided attempt to cling to the comfortable mental image we have of ourselves, it’s tempting to react by getting angry and defensive or trying to run away (either literally or by not listening, shrugging it off, pretending it never happened.”[v] However, without feedback there can be no improvement so we encourage teams to use the newfound insights they discover from steps one and two above and take the leap. We have witnessed the power of feedback transform individuals and teams – recently one senior executive client commented ‘I’ve been doing these things for over 15 years and no one ever told me how damaging they were.’
Reinforce Accountability. The business dictionary defines accountability as “the obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and disclose the results in a transparent manner.” Inherent in this definition are three levels of accountability – power, individual and team accountability. We believe that all three are important in building a great leadership team and a recent HBR article supports our assertion. The article breaks down team performance as follows – in the weakest teams, there is no accountability; in mediocre teams, bosses are the source of accountability; and in high performance teams, peers manage the vast majority of performance problems with one another.
For many leadership teams this last level of accountability where peers hold each other accountable presents a significant challenge. In his bestselling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni had the following to say about accountability – “Once we achieve clarity and buy-in, it is then that we have to hold each other accountable for what we sign up to do, for high standards and behavior. And as simple as that sounds, most executives hate to do it, especially when it comes to a peer’s behavior.”
Not surprisingly, there is a strong relationship among the three tips we are presenting in this blog. Specifically, leadership teams require a purpose to be accountable to and the skill of engaging in productive dialogue (including giving and receiving feedback) is instrumental to a team’s ability to hold each other accountable. The following are a few steps for helping leadership teams move from poor or mediocre accountability to an environment where a healthy balance exists between individual, power and peer accountability:
- To start, the formal leader needs to clarify and reinforce the importance of the three levels of accountability. Most importantly, the leader must model the behaviors she expects for the team. This includes receiving feedback well and providing timely, direct and respectful feedback. She also needs to clarify that the leader’s role does not exist to settle problems or constantly monitor the team; rather it is focused on creating an environment where peers address concerns immediately, directly and respectfully with each other.
- Next, the leadership team needs to focus on its unique purpose and gain agreement on specific individual and collective accountabilities for decisions and actions required to achieve the purpose. Most importantly, the leadership team needs to take action and demonstrate its ability to effectively perform and adjust course as required.
- Periodically the leadership team should to step back and reflect on progress from two perspectives – what results is the team achieving and how is the team achieving the results. In our experience, reflecting on tangible business issues is the most effective mechanism for addressing a leadership team’s ability to engage in productive dialogue and hold each other accountable directly and respectfully.
Truly great leadership teams are resilient and have the capacity to reenergize and get back in sync after inevitable periods of dysfunction. Team members of great leadership teams recognize that they serve as stewards of their organizations supporting a unique enterprise-wide purpose. Great leadership teams also do the hard work necessary to engage in productive dialogue and hold each other to high performance and behavior.