In the most recent post in this series, I emphasized the importance of carefully cultivating senior management team chemistry …particularly when it comes to neutralizing the impact of toxic participants. However, even with the positive situation of a ph-neutral group of senior leaders (including the CEO) at the management team roundtable, there’s still no guarantee of high performance.
It’s just not that simple.
As we shift away from the issue of toxicity (a deal-killer for team performance) and move towards cultivating high performance at the senior management group level, the ideas of team cohesion and team attraction come into play.
The Research View on the Ideas of Senior Team Cohesion and Attraction:
In my own (non-exhaustive) review of the somewhat limited research on the topic of top management team performance and cohesion, researchers serve up guidance that is difficult to describe, more difficult to measure and even more challenging to connect in a causal way to firm performance. Nonetheless, the few studies that tackle this topic suggest a positive correlation (but not causation) between senior management team cohesion and a firm’s performance.
Before tackling the practical implications of cultivating cohesion and attraction, let’s look at some of the terms (drawn from the study, Top Management Team Attraction as a Strategic Asset).
The classic definition of cohesion (Fetzinger) describes it as the “resultant of all forces acting on members to remain in the group. These forces include a range of factors such as member attraction, shared goals, network benefits and social identification”
The dimension of team member attraction references “the degree to which top management team members desire to identify with and be accepted members of the team.” And perhaps, the most telling statement on this dimension of cohesion reads, “top team member attraction is a socially complex phenomenon reflecting the unique personalities of team members.”
Like team cohesion, attraction is squishy and not easily manipulated, fostered or replicated in practice. However, the idea of attraction and the broader category of cohesion do provide us with some clues to work with in our pursuit of the high performance management team.
At Least 5 Ideas to Promote Team Cohesion and Attraction:
There’s some well-worn but worthwhile advice in the sources on team development that many of us read and talk about. Lencioni is perhaps the most practical with his 5 Dysfunctions, however, we need to flip those around and turn them into 5 high performance functions.
There’s ample research on team development (teams in general, project teams specifically), and in aggregate, the material offers content to build a framework for team success, but little in the way of practical, actionable ideas for strengthening senior management team performance. There are test instruments to help us assess team dynamics and no shortage of options to climb with, hike with or catch our colleagues in trust-falls. Nonetheless, for the typical team and CEO wondering where to go next, guidance is in short supply.
I’m a fan of starting simple with well-intended actions versus over-baking the complexity of this already complex issue. Here’s one reminder and a few thoughts for you to try on for size. Use them in great senior team health!
1. You Must Create the Fundamental Condition—A Neutral Team PH
This theme of my prior post in this series bears repeating. Nothing (good) happens on a team when a member is not trusted over questions of character, values or ethics. Just don’t confuse passion and commitment to debate vociferously with toxicity. This isn’t a “why can’t we all agree” issue, it’s a fundamental concern over the integrity of a team member. If the other team members don’t trust someone, cohesion won’t occur and attraction is diminished.
2. The Purpose Must Be Big and Personal! Note: Growth is Not Big and Personal.
Every college student learns in the first course on management that one of the core conditions for positive team performance is a clear and compelling purpose. And for much of their subsequent professional careers, they find themselves attached to teams where the purpose is neither clear nor compelling. That’s on us as managers.
At the top of organizations, senior managers have their own vacuum-of-purpose problem. As individuals, they have functional purpose and accountability, but at the roundtable of peers plus the CEO, they tend to act more like megaphones for their various areas instead of team members united around a common set of galvanizing goals.
I love Guy Kawasaki’s short clip from Stanford, entitled, Make Meaning. Kawasaki suggests (and I agree) that the pursuit of making money isn’t enough…and yet most top management groups focus on the chase for growth. Instead, he suggests three key focal points to make meaning…increase the quality of life of some audience, right a wrong in the world or prevent the end of something good. While Kawasaki is referencing the “make meaning” theme in the context of entrepreneurs, the theme holds in the senior management environment. Without a meaning or purpose beyond the numbers, cohesion won’t develop and attraction will be transactional.
This idea of making meaning begs bringing mission to life and focusing a vision around something bigger than today and galvanizing for not only the senior managers but for all employees. One of the drivers for senior leadership teams must be helping to ensure that employees feel that same sense of being part of something bigger than themselves or their functions. Building team cohesion starts with re-examining and clarifying the meaning for everyone and for the firm.
3. Change the Meeting Environment: Try Living Together for a Few Days!
The typical company or hotel conference room is an energy sink. There’s nothing stimulating about sitting in the same room with the same furniture and the same artwork meeting after meeting. The table is a barrier that we sit behind…and we’ve all long been conditioned to act and function with reserve in this setting. Instead, find an environment where the table doesn’t separate people and there’s freedom to move and engage comfortably and loudly for extended periods.
One senior management team I know moves its meetings a few times per year to a couple of luxury homes at a mountain resort 70 miles from headquarters. While this might shout boondoggle, it’s far from it. The rental cost off-season or during the week is less than the typical hotel room per person. The team divides into two homes (everyone has their own room) and each house takes turns preparing meals in an ad hoc competition around one of the great human bonding experiences…eating together for a few days. And yes, the house that cooks the meal also handles the cleaning!
The big common rooms of the homes are ideal meeting places that promote movement and engagement, and the dirty little secret of these settings is that living with co-workers for a few days promotes relationship development and a lot of long hours of business talk that would never take place in the death march meeting inside a conference room.
4. Divvy Up Work Assignments in Pairs…and Not By Functions.
The work of the senior management team should not be functional in nature. This team owns ensuring that the fundamentals for broad success are in place…a clear sense of organizational purpose; the right talent in the right seats; broad involvement and engagement in strategy and assuring the strategy execution systems are in place. If you have functional assignments for one or more of your executives, take this off-line from the senior management team environment.
Use the senior team meeting setting to identify the big topics that will enable the organization to better execute on strategy and work towards vision, and then assign the individuals best suited for the initiative to work together. While you will sometimes end up with counter-intuitive teaming arrangements…imagine, sales and engineering or marketing and IT working together, the approach supports both relationship development and creativity in pursuit of the tasks. A great deal of subsequent good can emerge from a relationship built on having tackled and succeeded with a tough topic that helped the organization move forward.
5. Victories and Defeats are Equally Valuable…Don’t Squander Them
Good senior management teams celebrate victories…with employees and as a group. Great senior leadership teams link arms around defeats and do the work necessary to come away stronger and smarter. The CEO who smiles when life is good and the tide is rising and then flails and rails when something goes wrong is a CEO who won’t create a high performance team. Same goes for the team members when one of the group comes up short. As long as there is no attempt at obfuscation or deflection, the point of the team is to be stronger than any one individual. Great teams pull together to make each other better. The “better” comes from hard times and failures, not the easy victories. Recognize that the next “Oh sh!t” situation is the next opportunity to improve team cohesion.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
I respect the notion that this big topic of promoting high performance with senior management teams is not adequately addressed in a single post or even a series of these posts. It’s a journey here just like it’s a journey in your organization. At the end of the day, we’re trying to foster an environment where smart, successful subject matter experts learn (or remember) how to work in a team setting. The answers are both simple and complex. The only failure here is for you to not try. I believe to my core that a high performance top management team is a strategic asset not easily replicated by competitors. Sounds like a source of competitive advantage to me!
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