How Small-Company CEOs Can Build Management Teams that Work

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementOne of the worst uses of the term, “team,” is in relationship to the group of executives who report to the CEO. For many of the firms I work with ($20 million to $200 million in annual revenues), there’s little beyond the “report to” issue that binds these groups together as a team. This is often frustrating to CEOs who expect more from their highest paid lieutenants.

Countless hours and dollars are spent at offsite retreats and with expensive consultants and industrial psychologists exploring interesting dimensions of individual and group dynamics, often with no sustaining and positive “teaming” effects once the group returns to their day jobs.

What’s a CEO to do?

The answer for many is to simplify this situation by resetting expectations for teaming and laser focusing on the few issues that demand close coordination across this group of experienced and highly compensated individuals. While resetting expectations may sound like capitulation, it’s more of a case of choosing what not to do and focusing energies on the few combined activities that will move the performance meters in the right direction.

Resetting Expectations—Letting Go of Visions of Camelot

For many CEOs, there’s an idealized state of existence where the senior managers without prompting function as a single entity solving problems and making decisions and spreading confidence and good cheer across the firm. In this vision, the managers trust and even like each other and importantly, they protect each other. It’s a nice vision. Nice, but impractical.

In reality, senior managers are often at cross-purposes with each other over budgetary issues and the battle for resources for their teams. By nature of their functions, their time horizons are different. Poorly designed compensation systems fail to motivate integration and coordination, and key performance indicators reflect functional variables that are irrelevant beyond the specific department—interesting and perhaps important, but not meaningful to the group.

And the unspoken reality is that some senior managers view a seat at the table as a license to hunt for more power—whether it’s via an elevated title or favored status when it comes to gaining access to the CEO’s ear. The senior management environment is a ripe breeding ground for competition for individuals used to competing and succeeding in games of power and resources.

While many of the above variables are capable of being tuned and tweaked, a faster path to meaningful collaboration is to focus on the core issues that must bind this group in attitude and performance: direction, coordination and values. While I absolutely advocate creating meaningful, integrated measures, goals and compensation schemes, and eradicating destructive power-grabs, those should emerge from a focus on the issues.

Where Teamwork Matters at the Top:

1. Direction.The senior managers must coalesce around the next steps for the firm. Easy words, but a difficult objective to achieve in reality (and the subject of a dedicated forthcoming post).

Helping Teams and Individuals Find DirectionWhether it’s diversifying and strengthening offerings or making moves to extend within a current segment/customer group or, expanding to cover new segments, a unified front from this group is essential. In teams where this unified view and messaging is missing, the broader organization picks up on the dissonance and morale and execution suffer.

CEOs must facilitate the hard dialog about direction and bring the debates to a close with a clear, unassailable conclusion. Once direction is set, the team is accountable to owning this direction choice together—from messaging to execution, learning and adaptation. This doesn’t preclude amending or shifting in the future, but there’s a point in time when the debates stop, a choice is made and the needed senior manager collaboration begins.

2. Coordination around Strategy Execution. Management groups are capable of developing as teams around the critical and challenging work of bringing directional decisions to life. These are effectively programs or projects with a tremendous number of inter-dependencies between functions. From co-sponsoring cross-functional initiatives or key project pieces to defining meaningful measures that gauge organizational progress on strategies, teamwork at the top is critical. In my experience, the clear and galvanizing purpose of strategy implementation and the transparency required for gauging progress are critical variables for promoting senior manager teamwork.

3. Values. For high performing organizations, the values that define expected and accepted behaviors are visible and very much alive, and their reinforcement starts and stops with senior management behaviors. People mimic powerful leaders, and they are super-sensitive to behaviors that are dissonant from what’s been described as appropriate or ideal. There can be no exceptions at the senior manager level to living and supporting the values of the firm and the behaviors needed to ensure clarity of purpose, rules of engagement and collaboration and accountability for outcomes.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In three decades of attending, being a part of or facilitating senior management teams and meetings, I have no qualms suggesting that most of these groups sub-optimize. I’ve observed or have been a part of a couple of groups for points in time that looked and felt like real teams in all respects, but those are the exceptions. CEOs have a tough job deriving value beyond functional leadership from their senior managers, and instead of expecting them to spontaneously emerge as a great team, they are better served focusing on driving teamwork in the limited but important areas of direction, strategy execution and values reinforcement. Get these three right and the opportunity for the group to emerge as a real team improves considerably.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.



17 Ways Your Strategy Process Will Fail

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.

Strategy processes mostly disappoint. That’s too bad, because there are few activities more essential to an organization’s success and security than getting strategy right.

The output of too many strategy processes ends up as simply the corporate messaging of a firm’s senior managers, with little impact on operations, investments or structure. And sadly, the reasons that strategy efforts fail to deliver value are easy to observe and relatively speaking, fairly easy to avoid with good leadership and effective managerial discipline.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on some common reasons strategy programs break bad. In part 2, we’ll explore the important, “What to do about it” ideas.

At Least 17 Ways Your Strategy Process Will Fail:

1-No shared view of what strategy really is. Few executives (few people) immediately agree on a common definition of strategy. To some, strategy is a refined version of the operating plan. To others, it’s a moonshot. And for still others, it’s the creation of something that never existed. Most processes fail from the word “strategy” simply because there’s no agreement on what the heck it is and what it is supposed to look like.

2-Confusion over who owns strategy. Is it marketing? Is it the CEO? Is it the executive team? No one knows and everyone ends up waiting and pointing.

3-Everyone is at cross-purposes over the vocabulary and key concepts. Much like the many meanings people ascribe to the term “strategy,” the other terms confuse and confound as well. The concepts of mission, vision, value proposition, competitive advantage and the many other terms that swirl around the discipline of strategy mean different things to different people.

4. Management teams fail to function like teams. Most management teams resemble this remark. They’re groups filled with smart people…functional experts with little context for why they need to operate as a team. In fact, most don’t. The work of strategy is a team sport.

5-Strategy is treated like an event, not a continuous process. Too many firms relegate the critical dialog about future directions and opportunities to one or two offsite events every year. It’s a constant dialog, not a one or two-shot activity.

6-Power, politics and the status quo all get in the way. Most executives and senior managers intuitively know that a new strategy begets change…and change threatens structure and resources. There’s a natural gravitational pull of the status quo to preserve power and control over budgets and resources that precludes open, objective consideration of new paths.

7-Expecting template tools to spit out remarkable solutions. There are all manner of methodologies and processes and templates and frameworks, each professing to offer the path to enlightenment. They’re tools…not magic answer generating machines and they often need to be adapted and mixed and matched. Consultants and facilitators  exacerbate this situation by drawing upon the template style they know and not picking and choosing or creating the right tools for the unique situation.

8-Trying to play a long-game on strategic planning in a world that requires sprints, learning and adaptation.

9-Looking to strategy to generate the budget. It’s dangerous to blend the two activities and too many teams fall into this trap.

10-Creeping incrementalism. The work of strategy becomes a simple extension of the current operating plan. Anything outside the status quo is rejected.

11-Maddening myopia. The input and views on the broader world are limited to what the team can see from their conference room window.

12-No one’s involved. The work is held hostage by a few “enlightened” souls.

13-Everyone’s involved. Everyone has an opinion but no one knows how to parse the opinions. The team appears to have no boundaries. It’s everywhere and every one and nowhere and no one all at the same time.

14-The Cowardly Lion rules the day. There’s a courage deficit that reduces well-developed and new ideas to under-funded sidebar initiatives that are often slowly starved to keep supporting the bloated list of initiatives vying for resources with the current state business.

15-Confusing past success and good luck with strategy. The mistaken belief that good results thus far mean we must have a strategy that works often results in a stubborn denial of the need to change in spite of ample evidence to the contrary.

16-A failure to launch. Often, good ideas fall by the wayside due to poor or non-existent execution programs. It’s just assumed that the new strategy work will be adopted in the daily routines of people across functions.

17-Ocean boiling and process fatigue. When the process reads like a late career Michener novel that focuses on Colorado but starts at the formation of the earth and proceeds very, very slowly from there, people give up. (OK, I loved Michener, but his later works required ample patience.) These processes easily become all-consuming and the business of running the business becomes secondary.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While the work of assessing opportunities, choosing directions and choosing what not to do is rarely ever easy, too many firms and management teams are shooting themselves in both feet with the above mistakes. The challenge is how to avoid these traps and pitfalls and find a way forward into the murky fog of the future and to come out of the process with something worth doing. I’ll turn this discussion positive in my next post on the topic.


Leadership Caffeine™ Are You Making Time for the Big Topics?

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

When it comes to the forward-looking issues around talent, team and strategy development, the uncomfortable answer to the question in the post headline for just about all of us (myself included) is, “Not enough.”

From CEOs to front-line supervisors, there’s a gravitational pull to the daily urgent and urgent-unimportant that keeps us from the meaty and meaningful work of leading and planning.

Ask someone to shadow you for a day and then report on what they saw, and I suspect their description will focus on you flitting from one issue and brief encounter and meeting to another.

While there’s no doubt that the best leaders teach on-the-fly as they engage with team members, there are components of the role that require concentration and deeper thinking and dialog than the daily transactions. Coaching, feedback and professional development are the items most frequently sacrificed on the altar of time-pressures and they’re typically reserved for the annual performance evaluation…a poor substitute for regular, quality discussions. Taking time to work on strategy is also compartmentalized to a limited number of discussions, typically around the horrid annual offsite that tends to serve as the time for strategy.

In most of our days, there’s little time for us to think deeply about our work, our people or our business, and there’s little time for us to engage with individuals or teams in meaningful dialog about performance, growth and direction. And while we all get a strong vote in how we spend our time, there’s an almost addiction like quality to the pursuit of our more transactional activities.

A few years ago, I was engaged to coach a senior sales executive. His CEO was concerned about the lack of forward-planning for team, talent and strategy, and he asked me to shadow him for a few days.

After observing the sales executive in action, I asked him when he found time to focus on strategy and talent development for his team. His thoughtful and honest answer was, “I don’t. I enjoy the thrill of the daily hunt for business.”

I appreciated his honesty however, with that type of focus, it was clear he was the wrong person to be in a senior sales executive role. His priorities better fit the regional sales leader. We moved him to a role where he excelled in guiding the hunt for a smaller group and replaced him with someone focused on developing talent and refining and driving strategy execution at an organizational level.

My biggest gripe on the short-term preoccupation is reserved for the CEOs who are supposed to but mostly fail to model the right leadership behaviors as part of building their firm’s culture and future. We’re prone to mimicking the behaviors of those with power and influence and if the top boss doesn’t place a premium on either the developmental or forward looking strategy issues, than neither will her direct reports. It cascades downhill.

It’s Time to Make a Change:

Whether the deficit in your quality time with team members around development or planning is one of omission or commission, you can make changes in your approach and activities and move towards a better balance for everyone involved. Here are 4 ideas to support your effort to regain the high ground on the critical leadership and planning issues.

4 Ideas to Help You Increase Your Time Focused on the Big Topics of Developing Talent and Strategy:

1. Build the Time In to Your Calendar. While this is a bit of the “Captain Obvious,” it amazes me how few people actually block time in their calendars to allow for development and strategy work. The worst offenders are those who allow their calendars to be managed by others…either directly or indirectly through the endless scheduling of status meetings. Time is YOUR most valuable asset…act like you own your own schedule and set your priorities.

2. Measure Your Time Investment in Development and Planning Discussions. We all know that what gets measured gets done. One senior team established a time-target for development and strategy work and we’re evaluated on their performance versus the time targets. While there was no effective way to measure the quality of the time invested, the genuine accountability to report back on time and activities kept the issues front and center. To an executive, they did the same for their direct reports. It cascades downhill.

3. Let Your Team Members Own the Developmental Discussions. While slightly in contrast with my plea in #1 above to take control of your time, I observed a senior manager who shifted the accountability for regular scheduling of development discussions to her direct reports. In this case, it worked brilliantly. The direct reports developed a heightened sense of their own need to do the heavy lifting for their own professional development and would schedule time with the senior manager that turned out to be more mentoring than performance feedback. In this case, it worked.

4. Introduce “Future View” Discussions into Your Regular Meeting Routine. One CEO economized on his operations meeting agenda and added a “Future View” discussion to each monthly session. Participants were required to report back at the monthly session on issues, trends or ideas stimulated by customer input or observation or study of the broader bigger business landscape and market forces. She required every participant to come armed with one observation and to address it in the form of three questions:

  1. How might this issue/observation change everything for us, our industry and customers?
  2. Specifically, what does it mean for us?
  3. What if anything should we do about it.

The rich discussions blossomed into a separate quarterly strategy review where the firm’s strategy was vetted against the key trends and observations. They broke the back of talking about external factors once per year by introducing a simple, but not simplistic technique.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

It takes effort to move beyond the issues immediately in front of us and focus on important, albeit more abstract topics like talent development and strategy. The mistake too many of us make is never pulling ourselves away from the urgent. The daily work is never done. However, the time invested in helping people grow and challenging and checking your assumptions about the external world is the time investment that pays real dividends for your efforts. Manufacture the time to talk about the big issues. You’ll be glad you did.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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.


Leadership Caffeine—Becoming Agile and Adaptable is THE Leadership Issue

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

What if everything that used to work for your business no longer did?

The business challenge of this era for long established firms is much about escaping the powerful pull of the past. Approaches that worked so well for so long are rendered impotent by shifting technologies, new forms of competition armed with different business models and disruptive offerings, and by customers whose needs are changing as they struggle with the same macro challenges you are.

Historically, we built our organizations for efficiency and our leadership and management approaches reflected this purpose. We built tall organizations with distinct silos surrounded by moats and supported by the defenses of the silo executive. While the vestiges of those castles and moats still survive in many organizations, they (and their senior leaders) are increasingly out of place…out of context with the realities of the day. They are organizational and leadership anachronisms.

Adaptability is key, yet many leaders struggle to understand what to do to create it. Their words say “speed and agility,” but their measurements and compensation systems scream “efficiency.

When cheerleading and half-baked attempts at styles that feel agile and adaptable fail, the poor outcomes are rationalized as reasons to revert to the old and “normal.” New investments in new markets that are held accountable to the same measures as the core business fail, because you cannot measure and manage new start-ups the same way as long established businesses in old markets. People and groups that operate with a well-baked set of logic about the business are leveraged to build a new set of logic. Failure is predictable. It is self-fulfilling.

Success in building the adaptable organization (e.g. McChrystal’s Team of Teams) is the obligation, responsibility and requirement of leadership. It’s not 50% a leadership challenge or 80% a leadership challenge. It’s THE leadership challenge. Yet too many in leadership sit in wide-eyed wonder as the world changes and their business decays, decrying the failure of the team to adapt. They fiddle while their businesses burn.

Success with this difficult dilemma requires senior leaders to re-think their points-of-view on everything, with emphasis on the role of the leader, the development of true teams and their viewpoint on navigating uncertainty and risk.

The nature of leadership hasn’t fundamentally changed, but the focus has and must. Today’s leader is demanding…of his/her team and of himself/herself, yet the focus is on forming and framing the environment for success. This leader exists to bring the team to life…and to allow team members to become their best…as individuals and as a group. This leader serves…more than commands.

Instead of efficiency, adaptability is the focal point. Learning to leverage new technologies…the weapons of business is essential. Enabling groups to sense and respond…to learn and refine…to experiment, fail and then succeed is the work of the leader. It’s about adaptability.

Risk and uncertainty are now invited to the party. Instead of resolving to the status quo in the face of uncertainty, there’s a need to run at the unknown and figure it out as you learn. Risk isn’t something to be avoided at all costs…it’s on your team and part of learning.

Teams offer remarkable potential, yet we all know that mostly, they fail in our organizations, not because the concept is flawed, but because we are flawed in our structure, support and leadership of these teams. Moving beyond the lipservice most leaders give about teams to enabling true team development is essential.

Once again, Walt Kelly was right. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While we are bombarded with facts about the obvious…that things are different today in our world, we’re stubborn in our willingness to let go of dated thinking and obsolete approaches to leading and managing. It’s time for all of us to re-think how to reapply the tools of management and leadership to a world that isn’t going to revert to what used to work. Let’s get on with it leaders!

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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—Hug a Project Manager

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!

My wife informed me that June 4 was officially, “Hug Your Cat Day.” (Who decides this?) While dog lovers everywhere were likely nauseous over this seeming waste of energy, it was a nice sentiment, albeit, one wasted on a creature that would clearly let you know if and when he/she required you to extend a hug. When it was darned well ready of course.

Perhaps a better use of this date and gesture might be to encourage those of us in our jobs and firms dependent upon big things getting done to seek out and either genuinely or metaphorically hug a project manager.

One of the core takeaways my MBA students express after investing 10 weeks immersed in the art and science of this discipline is new found appreciation for the role project managers play in our organizations. Few come into the course understanding the importance of the role; the complexity of the people and process challenges and the nature of the leadership and execution challenges faced by these individuals.

They leave understanding that innovation occurs in the form of projects…as does strategy execution, new product development…new infrastructure implementation…and the reality that almost everything we depend upon to do our jobs originated in the form of one or more projects. They develop an appreciation for the tools of project management…not as magical answers to our problems…but literally as tools to help us get work done.

They also leave the course understanding that project managers are the consummate integrator leaders…working across boundaries, often with little authority but much of the accountability. It’s a role that is perpetually on the hot seat…often with little support.

Firms that get project management use it as a tool to pursue competitive advantage…to spearhead innovation efforts they can commercialize and to ensure they are able to deploy the latest and best technologies to serve their customers and optimize their efficiencies.

In my travels across firms large and small, it’s common for me to encounter situations where the role is poorly defined…the practices loose with little leveraging of the tools and methodologies available to support project success.

And all too often, I find over-worked, under-compensated and under-developed but well-intended people fighting an uphill battle for resources while navigating too many initiatives. Sponsorship and career or skills development are often absent. This is wrong. A great project manager is a difference maker and project competency is critical to organizational success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

So instead of waiting for your cat to decide it needs a hug, find a way to support your project manager. Work on serving as a better team member. If you’re an executive, figure out what it means to be a sponsor for projects and invest your energy in getting it right. If you’re a manager or someone responsible for project managers, ensure that you are investing in and supporting the development of these critical resources. If you’re firm is operating in an ad hoc mode on initiatives, you are leaving money on the table. Fix this.

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.