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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