The Sticky Topics of Senior Management Team Chemistry & Performance

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThis series at Management Excellence is intended to prompt ideas and promote healthy discussion around the big topic of strengthening the development and performance of senior management teams.

The use of the word “team” to reference the collection of a firm’s senior leaders is generous at best and fallacious in many cases. Senior managers don’t necessarily gel as a team and perhaps a more accurate description of them in the context of a group might be that they are a collection of intelligent, successful functional leaders who occasionally come together and tolerate each other for a few hours of collegial discussion.

While my view may sound slightly or very cynical, I’m comfortable that it is closer to reality than the view that these groups naturally function as effective teams. Sad, but true for a variety of reasons, and this lack of cohesion and lack of commitment to working and functioning as a team leaves performance and potential on the table and CEOs everywhere wondering what to do to get more from the people they depend upon to run their businesses.

The list of reasons for the failure of most senior leadership groups to gel as a high performance team is long and many sounding and acting a great deal like Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I focused on a variety of these failure to gel causes, with emphasis on the critical lack of meeting the fundamental conditions of a team and a related lack of identity and purpose as a group.

There’s a certain not surprising reality that collections of highly successful, intelligent individuals who have long careers as functional leaders and experts won’t easily or immediately walk in a room and let down their guards and trust their peers or CEO enough to perform as a team. The operative words here are “easily” or “immediately.”

It’s difficult, but doable to help these groups develop as teams. However, it takes hard, deliberate work on the part of the CEO and it requires an eyes-wide-open view to a variety of issues, including the important and somewhat squishy topic of the chemistry between the team members.

The chemistry of any group of individuals is a compound comprised of a number of ingredients. From my frequently referenced compelling purpose to the ever-present issue of trust to different personality types and working/communicating/decision styles to the biases of each individual’s values and experiences, the senior group chemistry is less a recipe than a bubbling cauldron of issues and differences. The differences between team members make it challenging to align yet those differences are ultimately strengths that can make the group more effective as a team. At least two key areas that critically impact team chemistry, include team membership and the presence of toxicity.

Who’s On the Team?

Too often, CEOs err on the side of broadening inclusion in an attempt to stimulate performance at the senior leadership level, while ignoring the real team-forming issues of purpose, shared accountability and a limited agenda of actions (direction, strategy and strategy execution coordination). The broader inclusion seems like a good tool to develop new leaders and to stimulate communication and working activities, however, it masks the reality that the team does not have a clear reason for being. Instead of a team emerging, a bigger committee emerges with all of the attendant complexities of larger and unwieldy groups.

One approach is to consider the opposite of expansion and shrink the team to the core people accountable for strategy definition and execution coordination. Another is to split senior leaders into two different groups…an executive committee armed with a crystal clear charter with visible accountability for a limited set of issues around guiding and governing and a senior leadership group responsible for managing and monitoring and ensuring the operating cadence and daily health of the organization. This latter group also requires a crystal clear charter and a visible list of items they are accountable for delivering.

And Then There’s Toxicity:

We all know toxicity when we see it in action. From blatant political plays (turf protection, bigger budgets without purpose, deflecting responsibility) to the more subtle passive-aggressive behavior that has some individuals nodding their head in agreement in a group setting and ignoring or even countermanding the “agreed upon” direction in private, the presence of toxicity is a serious problem for the CEO and senior management group. And 100% of the time, the presence of toxicity indicates that the CEO has dropped the ball on a critical issue around team development and coaching that only they can own in the senior leadership setting. It’s up to the CEO to neutralize or extract the toxicity.

5 Ideas to Help Get the Toxicity Out and Performance Up:

1. Clarifying what it means to be a member of the team helps underscore expectations for performance and accountability as individuals and as a group.  Membership on the senior management team is an earned privilege not an inalienable right of someone with a title. Make the criteria clear and spell out the expectations for shared and individual  responsibilities.

2. Narrowing the agenda will focus energy and increase accountability. The lack of clear and compelling purpose for senior leaders as a team is a huge detractor to performance and an invitation to all forms of aberrant behaviors. The best senior leadership teams operate with a laser focus on setting direction, identifying core strategies and coordinating strategy execution. Beware of going much further than those key issues at this level.

3. Strengthening accountability for outcomes takes away the opportunity for the political animals or passive-aggressive types to hide in plain sight. Too often senior management gatherings are debating societies where issues are talked about but accountable actions nowhere to be found. There must be accountability for forward progress on the key issues from meeting to meeting. A simple follow-up list indicating the issue, ownership and timing can work wonders here.

4. Shared activities strengthen relationships and further reduce the opportunity for destructive behaviors. The meeting is simply a prelude to the value creating work of solving, fixing or innovating that must take place between meetings. Find natural groupings of senior leaders to attack key issues together and make their work visible.

5. Exorcising toxic or unproductive team members allows the healthy team to flourish. Again, membership is an earned privilege and not a right. When the CEO upholds this principle and removes unproductive or destructive participants, she is reinforcing the spirit of accountability so critical to team performance. In every instance where I’ve observed toxic member(s) being booted off the island, team dynamics and performance improved almost immediately. Everyone knows the toxicity is there, but only the CEO can excise it.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Humans are challenging creatures and those who have climbed high in their professions are particularly resistant to being herded, even if the one doing the herding is the CEO. When it comes to promoting performance of senior professionals in a team setting, there’s no substitute for a crystal clear charter with a laser focus on the right issues. Beyond the clear reason for being and clear identification of tasks, it’s all about getting the right people in the seats and the wrong people out of the room and maybe out of the business. The laser focus on a limited set of tasks and clear, shared accountability for the right outcomes go a long way towards promoting good team chemistry and supporting the emergence of high performance.

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Art of Managing—Moving Beyond A Failure to Execute

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Ram Charan writing in his article, Conquering a Culture of Indecision (found in the HBR 10 Must Reads on Making Smart Decisions collection), offers, The single greatest cause of corporate under-performance is the failure to execute.”

While there’s a Thanks, Captain Obvious, feeling inherent in Charan’s statement, it’s his explanation that should give most corporate managers a cause to pause and even squirm just a bit.

I paraphrase: Such failures (to execute) usually result from misfires in personal interactions…and it’s these poor personal interactions that perpetuate a culture of indecisiveness.

Charan goes on in this very useful article to focus on the issue of building a culture to promote the right type of honest, robust dialog that leads to decisions.

There’s little doubt in my mind that decisions are the fuel that creates locomotive power in organizations and that high quality dialog leads to better decision-processes. The absence of timely and unified decisions on direction and priorities, not only sustains the status quo, it creates a corporate trap where people act like their feet are encased in cement blocks. Movement slows and when it occurs, it’s disjointed and short-lived.

The lack of healthy dialog manifests itself in a variety of symptoms in an organization, however, there are three key contributors to a failure to execute that jump out at me over and over again in my travels:

1. A wholesale failure of senior leadership…from providing clarity on direction and strategy to actively working on building and reinforcing an environment that promotes accountability for execution, learning and continuous improvement.

2. The absence of an empowered and unified middle-layer of management. While senior leadership is again at fault here, the layer of mangers in the middle controls the work that gets done in a firm and often has more power than it understands or uses in pursuit of execution.

3. The lack of creative or productive tension or dissatisfaction on the part of the entire workforce that good isn’t good enough, AND the belief that they are charged with the task of doing something about it.

While it’s easy and appropriate to indict senior management for all three of these contributors to poor performance, the issues tend to be more sins of omission than commission.

Most senior leaders care about their firms, their teams and their results and spend their time working hard in the business. And most middle managers work extraordinarily hard to keep things moving, often while coping with being under-staffed and operating in a state of uncertainty over the bigger picture of the firm and its strategies.

Resolving the failure to execute problem is much more like a long-term fitness program than a quick weight-loss diet. It involves changing the thinking about what’s most important for organizational health and success and doing the hard work of developing new habits that support continuous improvement.

It’s the hardest work senior leaders and managers will ever do.

7 New Habits to Help You Move Beyond a Failure to Execute:

1. Start and sustain a company-wide dialog over direction. Everyone who walks through the door in the morning must know where the firm is headed and why. The lack of context for direction and specifically for how team and functional priorities connect to corporate priorities is a guarantee of poor execution. Fixing this starts with the right, regular conversations.

2. Work hard to link functional and individual goals to the corporate goals. While this sounds like some advice from our friend, Captain Obvious, it’s more the norm that I find firms where corporate goals are vague and there’s little cohesion between individual and functional goals and corporate direction. The failure to align here guarantees failure.

3. Move faster and smarter. Redefine the operating cadence to reinforce communication on performance and to encourage learning and improvement. Consider applying Agile approaches to your operations meetings, where reinforcement and focus on priorities occurs constantly and the emphasis is on identifying and solving problems. Frequency, speed and focused built upon a foundation of accountability…priceless. End the debating society culture that pervades most operating meetings and focus on talking about what it takes for the firm to win…one decision at a time.

4. If you are the CEO, rethink your role. Seriously. If you signed on for the job…all of this is on you. You control the corporate agenda, you are a major contributor to forming and framing the working environment and you own bringing clarity and direction to confusion. If you’re not the CEO help him/her succeed with these important tasks.

5. Give the customer a chair in every meeting. Literally. A nameplate at the table, a stuffed animal or a cardboard cutout…I don’t care how you remind yourself that the customer is present, just do it. If the focus is on new markets and future strategies, these new…even blank-faced customers must be present as a reminder that no strategy works and no execution plan is worthwhile unless it aims to do something for someone who can pay you for it.

6. Invigorate mid-level management. Help them recognize their critical role in execution success and ensure that senior leaders, give them support to improve instead of giving them hell when things don’t go right. If this layer of talent is weak, top-grade the talent to build strong management here. These are your future senior leaders.

7. Get the whole company involved in the wins and the lessons learned. Build the excitement and creative tension to improve by celebrating and sharing the small and big victories. The workforce at large has to buy into the idea that execution and continuous improvement are their responsibility. Management must bring this to life by ensuring that the heroic efforts, great victories and even challenging lessons are made visible as part of the daily culture of the firm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are no silver bullets or simple solutions for business execution challenges. It’s a journey that starts with senior leadership and all of management focusing on what counts…giving clarity to direction and goals and working non-stop to support the people working hard every day who help you move closer to your goals. It’s good, old-fashioned, grind-it-out hard work. But once it starts to take root in your culture, the habits of winning take over and the work doesn’t seem so hard. Just exhilarating.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Leadership Caffeine—In Challenging Times, Keep Fear and Failure Outside Looking In

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

Every organization and every team runs into challenging spots. Life and business don’t always work as planned. “Man plans and God laughs,” as my former CEO would recite.

It’s the rough patches that teach you and require you to cultivate your leadership character, and part of this is keeping fear at bay and the specter of failure out of mind and out of the vocabulary of your team.

Every manager and senior leader looks like a genius when the tide is rising and business is good. All too often however, the rising tide masks the real issues of performance and the gaps in strategy and execution that become painfully visible as the rising tide slows and begins to recede.

The tendency at the initial sign of challenge….a missed quarter or two, or a blown forecast, losing ground to a competitor is to flail. While we don’t set out to flail, a series of knee jerk reactions around cutting costs and killing programs or adopting a series of “short-term” fixes, shout FLAIL to everyone around us.

Once the flailing starts, fear and failure sensing a weakness in the defenses, begin to insert and assert themselves in the minds of your team members. Needless to say, nothing good happens when a team or organization suddenly falls victim to fear.

Deming’s point #8 paraphrased: managers must strike fear out of the organization.

6 Ideas to Keep Fear and Failure On the Outside Looking In:

1. Be open and transparent with your team about the challenges. Nothing invites fear and failure to the party like keeping bad news from people. Everyone knows when things aren’t going right, but what they don’t know is whether it’s bad or really bad.

2. Invite your team to be part of the solution. More than a few leaders have fallen victim to the “I am in charge, I have to come up with the solution” trap. Effective leaders understand the power of harnessing the team’s collective gray matter around key problems.

3. Resist the urge to substitute a well-developed long-term strategy with temporary, short-term compromises. It takes leadership courage to stay the course in the face of short-term headaches…this courage is something that is all too lacking in many organizations.

4. Do recheck the core assumptions around your strategy. While I don’t want you to sacrifice the long-term for short-term, I don’t want you to blindly grasp to something that isn’t as well baked as you might have thought. It’s a good time to review your strategic thinking and then to assess whether the execution approach is serving you well.

5. Redouble your efforts to celebrate victories…even the small ones. Success begets success, and it does nothing but help when you single out the successes during a challenging period.

6. Don’t stop the talent machine. Keep supporting the development and growth of your team members and don’t stop working to get the right people on the bus and those who don’t fit, off the bus. No timeouts on talent allowed!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Your greatest successes will come from navigating challenging situations. It’s the hard times that require you to operate at your professional best and it’s during these times when you learn what it means to truly lead. Although it might seem odd to suggest it, enjoy the challenges, as you will not pass this way again and you will not find a better teacher.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Art of Managing—Don’t Set Artificial Limits on Employee Involvement

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

A firm’s senior leaders and managers are supposed to feel the weight of responsibility for the health of their organization. It comes with the job. However, no one suggested they bear the weight of the worries or the burden of finding the solutions in silence and without ample support from the broader employee population.

Too often, groups of well-intended senior leaders and managers spend the lion’s share of their collective energy in discussion, debating and frankly, worrying over issues of direction and performance without drawing upon the considerable gray matter found somewhere outside the conference room doors.

Of course, failing to involve the employees in the business of your business is the mistake that keeps on giving…just in the wrong way. Instead of feeling involved and (here comes that pop management word) “engaged,” individuals are effectively placed on the outside looking in at the corporate walls and wondering what’s going on in there.

In my experience, people do their best work when they have context for “why it matters” and ample input into suggesting and implementing improvements. The “closed door” approach of self-proclaimed “open door” managers is a formula for failure. 

Sins of Omission or Commission? And Don’t Forget to Ask:

Oddly, when questioning a firm’s senior managers about my observation of the citadel like approach to working on a business, I frequently walk away concluding that involvement limitations are more sins of omission than commission. (Although, there are exceptions!)

In some instances, there’s a deep regard for how hard the employee base is working in the business and a hesitancy to ask for more. That’s noble, but short-sighted.

In other instances, I’ve found senior managers who are almost embarrassed to be asking for help on topics that they perceive are core to their jobs. Sounds like hubris getting in the way of common sense.

And for a few senior managers, my highly clinical observation is that it never occurred to them to involve more people to work on the business. Cue Homer Simpson and a loud, “Duh.”

If you are interested in increasing the flow of ideas, improving overall performance and having your employees treat their jobs like they are part owners of your business, it’s critical to get them involved in helping you work on the business. However, getting started can be awkward. Here are some ideas to help you pry open the citadel doors and let in some fresh air and fresh ideas.

6 Ideas to Jump-Start Improved Employee Involvement:

1. Share the targets and the results. The once per year vague recap, usually couched in percentages, doesn’t cut it. Share key revenue, profitability and efficiency targets AND results and explain what they mean to the firm’s situation. Get creative with this. I’ll still never forget the Town Hall Meeting where the CFO played guitar and sang the results. By the way, this is really working when the employees are active in setting the targets and pushing themselves harder to meet the targets than you ever would have.

2. Teach your employees about your business. Take a lesson from Jack Stack in The Great Game of Business. Don’t assume that employees understand terms like EBIT or the various financial metrics you use to report performance. Take the time to teach them what these numbers mean and importantly, how their work impacts the numbers.

3. Share (and ask about) market and competitor dynamics. While it might be tempting to roll out your strategy plan as a first step in getting employees more deeply involved in your business, a better place to start is to help everyone understand more about the markets that you are competing in and moving towards. Use tools like Porter’s Forces or a simple P.E.S.T.E.L. (political, economic, social, technology, environmental, legal) framework to get everyone on the same page. Do this iteratively by sharing the high level view and ask for input at the departmental or team level and roll it back up and make it the company’s view of the external environment.

4. Give your customers a voice. One of the most “engaging” activities you can do is ask for input from all customer-facing groups on what’s really happening in their businesses and with your offerings. Better yet, after asking your employees, bring some customers into the process (interviews, company visits, advisory boards). Ensure that everyone from the front door to the factory floor has access to the customer insights.

5. Begin involving the employee base in strategy. The above items…sharing targets and results, assessing the external environment and cultivating a fresh view from the perspective of the customer are fairly straightforward. Getting a broader employee base involved in strategy is a journey not an event. Explain the present view and then ask for questions and begin to solicit ideas. Involve all of your managers in understanding the firm’s strategy in detail and then work with them to define a mechanism for teaching and challenging assumptions, asking questions and suggesting ideas. I don’t mean to simplify this step…it’s challenging and requires on-going, deliberate work in creating and executing strategy. As needed, ask for outside help to build the right processes and programs to make this meaningful and actionable.

6. Leverage the collateral ideas. Often times, one of the benefits of driving a process with the actions above is a flood of new ideas…many operational and efficiency oriented. Ensure that people and teams have a means for implementing the ideas and then measuring and reporting on their impact over time.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This isn’t a program of the month, it’s a deliberate and on-going process to gain ideas and input, and importantly to capture more of the creativity, energy and overall gray matter of a team that in the right circumstances, wants to give more. But remember, if you fail to sustain or to leverage the good input you’ll simply exacerbate the problem you set out to solve.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Just One Thing—The Impact of a Simple Gesture

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around topics relevant to our success and professional growth. Use them in good health and great performance!

I fly almost weekly, and for the most part, the experience is sterile, mildly uncomfortable and less than memorable. I typically occupy one of the seats in an exit row, and like everyone else in steerage, I buy my meal if I’m hungry, and I keep my nose in my reading and my ears plugged with music. Conversations, if any, are typically left to those traveling with family or friends.

My airline of necessity, United, does a good job of getting me from point to point mostly on-time. One flight blends into another with no distinguishing characteristics. The attendants are efficient, if not a bit harried, and I have nothing but words of appreciation for the professionals who pilot these flying buses with skill in all manner of conditions. Nonetheless, if given an alternative that offered a better experience with equal convenience, I suspect I would not care about the logo on the tail of the plane.

During my Friday afternoon return home flight last week, I engaged in the usual process of squeezing into a seat trying to make myself small because the person next to me wasn’t, and generally tuning out the experience in the hope that it would soon end. A simple announcement altered the experience.

In mid-flight, the attendant shared with the passengers that the gentleman in seat 20C was on his retirement flight, returning from headquarters to his home in Chicago. This was his final business flight after several decades of traveling with the airline.

Hearty applause followed the announcement and suddenly the flight changed. People emerged from their self-imposed digital cocoons and started conversing. The passengers in the vicinity of the retiree asked questions and offered their congratulations and more than a few of us shared our own flying and career experiences with our previously unknown seatmates.

As people deplaned, there were more congratulations and best wishes and encouragement for lowering his golf score, and then like always, everyone faded into the terminal in pursuit of connections, baggage or transportation. Nonetheless, the experience was different. It had been altered by that simple gesture.

The simple act of singling someone out and highlighting a milestone humanized the entire experience. It didn’t take much time…30 seconds or so for the announcement, and it didn’t cost the airline any money. All it took was an alert attendant who engaged with his customers and learned how important this single flight was to one person.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s a lesson in this situation for any airline or business striving to differentiate in a world where almost everything seems to be some flavor of vanilla. The best marketing always has been and always will be relating to people as individuals and creating a warm, memorable experience.

There’s a lesson here for leaders as well. Imagine if you tried this today in your workplace with your own team members. People do their best work when they perceive they are being treated as individuals who matter. The cost is zero. The time investment is nominal. All you have to do is pay attention and then offer a small gesture. The payoff is priceless.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.