Why is it difficult for senior executives to form teams?

Most people believe teams outperform individuals. However, this is not always the case, and certainly not when it comes to top teams.

I have met many CEOs who have told me about their frustration trying to get their top executives to act as a team.  They talk about silo thinking and lack of the four C’s; cooperation, collaboration, communication and compromise.  Listening to their stories, I understand why they want teamwork, but I am always struck by their misunderstanding of teams.  The fact that how they work together depends on the structure and purpose of their meetings and the choices they make implementing a work-group process or a team process.  I think the four C’s might make life more enjoyable, but I am not convinced that these behaviours alone can improve the performance of a team.

 

Solving your dilemma

 

Watch a few meetings, and note two things; the purpose, and the way members are asked to participate.  After a short period of observation you will notice a number of similarities. Notably, most executive meetings tend to fall into a one of a number of categories; readouts, where members give each other information; governance, where members discuss specific propriety issues; policy, where members decide on principle actions to be adopted by their organisation; and strategy reviews, which examine planned versus actual.  The nature of these meeting and how they are structured makes teamwork unnecessary to achieve the outputs required, therefore trying to force the participants of these meetings to be more of a team is counterproductive. 

These types of meeting are designed to use a Working-Group, not a TEAM.   They require a strong, focused leader to manage the agenda and work through each topic.  Individuals are accountable for their piece of the work, whether that’s a report, a policy update, or information regarding strategic decisions.  The group’s purpose is the same as the broader organisational mission and individuals produce separate work products that add value to the agenda.  These meetings need to run efficiently, and the measures of effectiveness indirectly influence others (such as the financial budgets, headcount, benefit schemes etc.).  Inside these kinds of meeting senior leaders use the 4Ds, they discuss, debate, decide, & delegate.

This working-group was defined in ’93 by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith in the HBR article The Discipline of Teams.  A Working-Group is highly effective and appropriate for senior executive meetings.  Time is at a premium; everyone is a competent professional in charge of their piece of the pie, and required results are well understood.

 

Is it ever appropriate for senior executives to act as a team?

 

The answer is yes when the propose requires teamwork; this is when it is important for CEO’s and other senior leaders to be precise about their definition of a team and what they are trying to solve.   I always remind CEO’s that a team is only required when there is no obvious solution to a problem and no single person can solve it.

Let’s define a team.

A team is a small number of people with complementary skills and knowledge who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and an approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

The discipline required for effectively forming and operating as a team is very different to that needed to run a work-group.

Each element needs to be in place.

Small means between 2 and 7.

Complementary skills is a diversity of skills such as creative, process, people, task, financial acumen, visioning, sales and production.   A diverse and complementary skill-set aims to ensure that the team can see the problem from many perspectives, all with equal merit, and can find a solution that is a product of the team’s thinking, not one dominant player.

Being committed to a common purpose encompasses two elements, commitment to stay with the team and work through issues, and common purpose means a shared goal or objective.

Performance goals are agreed amongst the members and measure outputs as well as the quality of the team’s interactions.

Lastly, an approach for which they hold themselves accountable means that the team agree on the way they will work as a team.  This is a mixture of values, rules of engagement and the problem-solving models they plan to utilise.

Successful teams spend time considering how they work together and make adjustments to improve performance.  They review how each person is contributing; asking each other for suggestions to improve; talking openly about feelings and performance without blame, and they understand that are subjugated by their purpose, not my organisational hierarchy.     Each member knows that they win only when the team wins.

Where to begin?

Once everyone understands the definition of a team, the CEO, or Executive taking the lead, lays out the problem to be solved.

The next step is critical.  Who is needed to solve this problem?  Forming a team that can be successful, requires members with complementary skills and the capability to make decisions.

Once the problem has been defined, and the team has been selected, they will need a process for working together. Team meetings are very different from work-groups.  Firstly, the leadership is shared amongst the members.  Secondly the meetings are messy, the agenda is open; teams value conflict, and are comfortable letting topics lie unresolved over multiple sessions.  Not every meeting ends in resolution, and it may be necessary to start over several times to find the most valuable solution.

Once the team is formed allow them to progress without interference, offer coaching and mentoring but not drive the solution.  The solution must belong to the team so that ownership and accountability remain shared within the team.   While oversight is always important,  trust is more important; teams need to know that they are trusted to find the answers this is the only way to build the capability of teams.

Think before you choose

 

Many meetings are designed to use a workgroup because of the structure used the outputs required.  Choosing to work in this fashion is a perfectly acceptable approach to executive leadership.  Individual leader structures are fast and efficient and work well when one person really does understand what is needed.

The most important consideration is the time/value equation. Establishing a top team requires time to build high performance, so it’s always worth asking if the rewards merit the investment.  The next consideration is whether your top team is aware of the diversity of the members and is willing to value the mix of complementary skills and knowledge. Organisational status, as in job titles, are not part of team working. Next, consider if the mix is fit for purpose, i.e. can this group of individuals  deliver the goal?

Lastly, consider the long-term benefits.  Building the leadership bench strength in your organisation requires opportunity.  In teams, the leadership role shifts among the members giving opportunities for less experienced executives build up their knowledge of what works and what doesn’t when enabling a team to achieve its goals.  The collateral benefit is that executives who learn to use teams in this way are more likely to cascade the practice inside

their part of the of the organisation, thereby building the overall leadership capacity of the organisation.   They will also learn how to make the crucial choice between workgroups and teams and deploy the right organisational structure appropriately.

 

Where do executive teams find opportunities for teamwork?

Complex issues where the answer is not an extension of, business as usual, is a great place to mine for opportunities.  These include business turn-a-rounds, vision building, new business model creation, value proposition design, new product strategies, integrating acquisitions, market disruption, and innovation projects.

These types of challenges have common characteristics:

  • The solution is not obvious, and obvious solutions will not deliver the paradigm shift required.
  • The solution requires a complementary skills-set
  • There is an urgent need to find a solution
  • There is a clear advantage for using a team over a workgroup
  • The rewards are worth the risk of investing time and energy

The answer to why is it difficult for senior executives to form teams comes down to the choices they make about what model fits the purpose of their meetings.

There is no doubt that teams need time together, they need to work on real issues and learn how to be a successful team by following the deceptively simple rules of the discipline of teams.

A workgroup is fit for purpose.   A team acts differently from a workgroup, and that is good when that is the most appropriate choice.   Remember, the events in life and business will continue to challenge all of us, the response we chose creates the outcome we experience.

 

We are the masters of our destiny