From long experience and ample client CEO and Board input, the typical state of a management team looks less like a team and more like a group of functional experts who occasionally gather to talk uncomfortably (and shallowly) about the hard issues confronting their organization. The behaviors and integration you might anticipate from a “team” of smart, senior people are often absent from the equation.
Many CEOs agonize over the issue of how to “gain more” from this group of senior managers, and the managers are often equally perplexed, suspecting they should be doing more of something with their functional counterparts.
Team development in any environment is challenging and requires deliberate, focused effort. While there are no silver bullets for turning groups of senior managers into a productive or high-performance team, a bit of expectation adjustment and some focused actions can help you and the group move in the right direction.
6 Ideas to Strengthen Team Development at the Senior Management Level:
1. Don’t expect team performance to be on display at the operations review. The most common forum for senior managers to gather is in the operational review. In reality, this is the one environment where teamwork and collaboration approach irrelevant. Budgets, forecasts and scorecard results dominate the dialog, and they should. However, a good operations review will uncover issues that merit more detailed group scrutiny. Capture those items under the label of “Team Topics” and pursue them in the forum(s) described below.
2. Adjust your expectations for the senior management team’s role in key decisions. Bob Frisch in his excellent book, “Who’s in the Room-How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them,” helps us understand the realities of senior level decision making, and in Bob’s ample experience, it happens between the CEO and a fluid “kitchen cabinet” of advisors, and not via a group of functional managers who suddenly check their hats at the door and agree to operate for the greater good. Use the team as an input source and adjust your expectations to reflect the reality that senior management teams are better used implementing decisions than making them.
3. Create the forums and format to harness the talents and knowledge of your senior managers. Leave the operating topics for the operations review and create a series of narrowly focused sessions around important topics such as the external world (e.g. How are market forces impacting us and how should we respond?), strategy (generating ideas on how we can create value, better serve customers and beat competitors) and talent (Who are the high potentials? How are we managing succession?) Identify follow-on homework and group-work to further the discussion and help move topics from ideas to actions. Ensure accountability on homework activities from session to session.
4. Use frequency to reinforce working together-meet just often enough to make the teamwork in #3 real. While most groups are good about connecting on a periodic basis to review operating activities and metrics, many struggle to carve out the time for the discussions suggested in #3. The lack of regular contact outside the world of functional operating activities is a problem and fights team creation. If you’re not spending at least half a day every six weeks and a full day or two every quarter on the big issues in front of you, it’s time to build a calendar and put some rigor and regularity into the schedule with your senior managers.
5. Don’t expect retreats and non-work related activities to substitute for the “butts in seat” focused time required for team development. You might have a fun experience paddling a canoe with one of your counterparts, but I’ve yet to find any connection between this extra-curricular work and the improvement of team dynamics.
6. Remember and build towards Hackman’s 5 conditions for effective teams. The recently late J. Richard Hackman devoted a career to studying teams and his five conditions for high performance are minimum table stakes for team development. They are: clear and compelling purpose; clear team membership; expert coaching, enabling structures and a supportive organization. In almost every case of the frustrated CEO or perplexed management team member, one or more of those conditions are absent.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
If you’re the CEO, it’s up to you to create the conditions for team development with your senior managers. Use the ideas above as thought-prompters and starting points. If you’re one of the senior managers seeking to support the CEO and cultivate more meaningful work with your peers, offer some ideas to the group. You might just find a grateful CEO and a group of peers hungry to do more for the firm.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.