In Part 1 of this new weekly series on Creating the High Performance Senior Management Team, I identified a number of key areas where management teams often fail and fail.
Here in Part 2, I tackle two critical challenges that CEOs and senior managers must overcome on the road to high performance, and I offer 5 ideas for jump-starting team development.
While it’s reasonable to think that a group of intelligent, accomplished professionals…all peers, with deep individual expertise in their functional areas might be the stuff of a management dream team, reality suggests that we shouldn’t count on it.
Most often, the benefits that should accrue from an effective team: collaboration, enhanced creativity, constructive debate, effective decision-making, seamless coordination, effective risk identification and mitigation and execution around a well-defined problem or set of problems, are missing in action when it comes to the senior managers in a firm.
Certainly, there may be collegial and even timely and effective operational dialog, that’s often about as far as it goes. The tough topics of strategy (what to do and what not to do), execution (how to best go about it) and talent (who to develop and how) go missing. When faced with the high-altitude and rarefied air topic of strategy, group cohesion is nowhere to be found.
Two Big Challenges on the Road to Senior Management Team High Performance:
-Challenge #1: moving beyond the myth that team members can or should “leave their functional hats at the door.”
While many a CEO has implored or commanded team members to do just that in the hope that the right type of group dynamics and behaviors will emerge, you might as well ask people to pop open their skulls, remove their brains and personalities and leave them in a bin by the door to be reacquired later. We all rely on our prior experience as our key frame of reference and, after years of working and learning and succeeding, this prior experience is a core part of the value each individual brings to the group.
The challenge and the real opportunity isn’t to change the individuals, but to breathe life into the group’s reason for being. Instead of asking the team members to sublimate their own identities in favor of the group, the CEO and participating executives are better served by striving to cultivate a clear group identity that leverages those individual experiences and skills.
Let everyone keep their hats on, please, and shift your focus to Challenge #2.
-Challenge #2: Creating clarity around the purpose of the senior management team.
It’s common for CEOs and senior managers to suffer from the malady of expecting too much out of this group as a team. While it may seem counter-intuitive to reduce the scope of responsibilities of the group of people who are typically at the top of the compensation food chain, clear focus and accountability are required to improve “team” performance at this level.
In Bob Frisch’s excellent book on this topic, Who’s in the Room? How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them, he offers a cogent solution to this dilemma. Frisch suggests there are three unique conversations this group functioning as a team is uniquely qualified to conduct, and the expectation for their teamwork should be focused squarely on these three items:
1. Developing a shared view of where the organization needs to go and why.
2. Managing a prioritized set of strategic initiatives designed to get there.
3. Managing dependencies within and among initiatives to ensure their success.
Frisch offers that many management teams perceive they are dealing with these issues, but in most cases, they are engaged with each other not on the core issues of strategy and execution and talent, but rather they constantly drift to the safety of operational issues. These are comfortable to talk about in the precious moments when they are together as a group.
So, what’s a CEO and team to do?
5 Ideas to Begin Building Senior Management Team Performance:
1. Identify, discuss, debate and strive for a common understanding around Bob’s three tasks (or my version: strategy, execution and talent). Challenge each other to define what these issues mean for the organization and very importantly, what they mean for the group and their work activities, together. In my experience, it’s almost always best to use an outside facilitator to ensure that the issues inherent in the 3 core tasks are turned over, turned inside out and fully digested. (The outside facilitator can and should cry foul when the group drifts or stops short of completing the tasks. He/she can also make certain the dead rat in the room is tossed in the middle of the table for everyone to process on and deal with.)
2. Design the team. Answer the following: Who’s on? What should the group look like as a performing unit? How will the group monitor and evaluate progress and performance? What are the standards of performance and participation that are acceptable? What supporting mechanisms are necessary for team success? What’s the role of the leader (typically CEO) as it relates to the core priorities and activities? How will decisions be made? How will the group members take the issues back to their respective teams and then ensure coordination across groups? How will group members hold each other accountable? (Again, an outside facilitator experienced in herding executive teams is an important success factor in this situation.)
3. Create time. It’s essential for senior management groups to carve out regular team time dedicated solely to those limited few priorities. Simply allocating time for big picture thinking and dialog at the annual and mid-year off-sites is missing the point. You cannot promote high performance at the senior level unless the group is working together regularly. In my experience, most senior management teams are “too busy” to make the time to focus on what should be their top priorities. Don’t fall victim to this trap.
4. Ensure separation of church and state. Keep operational issues out of Big Picture time. It’s tempting, it’s convenient and it’s wrong. Build a protocol and routine that accommodates the need to deal with operational issues and focus team time on team priorities. This point is violated regularly, and it’s always a mistake.
5. Keep the work moving beyond the executive meeting. The senior management meetings are the beginning not the end of the work that the executives need to be doing together. The CEO must ensure that discussions on the core priorities keep flowing after the retreat and well ahead of the next session. It’s a process, not an event.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Building high performance at the executive group level starts with clarifying the reason for being of this team (beyond functional leadership) and then designing the performance characteristics and protocols necessary for the team to succeed. This takes focus, deliberate effort, vigilance and stick-to-itiveness on the part of all team members and particularly on the part of the CEO.
Next up in the series: the sticky topic of team make-up and chemistry.
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An ideal book for anyone starting our in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.