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.

I’m convinced one of the key limiting factors of management team effectiveness is the discomfort these high-powered functional experts have in talking with each other.

While there are few quiet senior management team meetings, the words exchanged tend to be more about functional updates and carefully worded ideas or collegial debate over direction or investments than they are about the real issues confronting the firm.

Some suggest the CEO remind these individuals to leave their functional hats at the door, but this seemingly sound guidance is simply impossible. It’s the functional expertise and perspective that forms and frames senior managers and there’s no leaving the well-patterned thinking and experience anywhere. It’s foolish advice as well. The wisdom gained by experience is why you hired these people in the first place. Better to harness it than banish it from the scene.

Another reality of the communication dynamic between groups of senior managers is an exercise in political sensitivity. There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t step over an invisible but very real line in challenging other senior managers, lest you embarrass someone in front of the CEO and/or invite an angry response and eventual reprisal.

Instead of tackling the tough issues, topics are politely floated with carefully selected words intended to soften the risk of a perceived slight, and less than complete answers serve as periods that punctuate the end-points of the topic.

The real challenge for CEOs and senior managers is to transcend the forces that keep these groups from talking openly and comfortably with each other about the tough issues or decisions standing in the way of progress. Depending upon the state of the management team, one or more of the following ideas might help take the dialog to a new level of effectiveness.

5 Blocking and Tackling Ideas for Helping the Senior Management Team Find Its Voice:

1. Bring in outside help. Most CEOs aren’t able to overcome the issues that impede senior management team communication effectiveness, try as they might…either by moral suasion or sheer force of personality. I’ve sat on both sides of this table…as the coach/facilitator and as one of the challenged senior executives, and in environments where the right help and coaching is present for the team, discussions flourish and real progress is built one topic at a time. A good facilitator will cut through double-speak, call out people who aren’t participating and cry foul when the topic steers off course. A small investment for a priceless return.

2. Create Nominal Group Opportunities. This under-utilized technique for eliciting ideas is no more complicated than framing up a single, focused question or approach and allowing senior executives to contribute in writing, anonymously. Yes, I know that sounds weak…senior executives forced to share ideas cloaked behind the veil of anonymity, however, the technique depersonalizes the discussion and allows people to focus on the issues…safely away from the real-time filters that suppress face to face communication. While there’s always some guessing on who submitted what ideas or critiques, the depersonalization of the input changes the communication dynamic for the better. The focus stays more on the issues and ideas and is less about perceived agendas. Appoint someone to organize and share the feedback and key points.

3. Keep it visible, but use a written discussion board format. I never cease to be amazed at how well my MBA students open up and share in discussion board forums and I’ve observed the same with management teams. This technique offers an opportunity for individuals to review and share ideas on their own time and at their own pace. Instead of fleeting words in a meeting, the opinions of others are captured and visible to read and reflect upon, while forming their own thoughts. The results are often rich, thoughtful perspectives that compare/contrast and build upon the opinions of others. One bonus…the perspectives are archived for easy reference or reminder.

4. Ensure that discussions have a way to turn into action. Again, odd sounding, but these talented professionals who often manage big budgets and big teams aren’t accustomed to taking on work as part of a team. That’s a muscle that for many at the senior level has long atrophied. Use project management techniques and a project approach for executive team assignments. Always appoint a sponsor…create a charter and write a good quality scope document that frames the expected outcomes/time-frames for the work. As needed, add in a professional project manager to guide the execs and politely but firmly hold them accountable to progress.

5. Write the rules. Most senior management teams don’t take the time to ensure clear, written rules for their discussions. Try establishing clear standards and values for communication, including: one topic at a time; everyone participates; divergent opinions are welcomed; there’s a time for assessing risks and identifying problems with ideas…and there’s a time for building solutions…don’t mix those time-frames. This is work that good project managers and team builders do in their sleep…but most CEOs aren’t wired to focus on the hard work of building team dynamics and team communication standards.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s nothing easy about building high performance teams, particularly when the group at hand is comprised of senior executives. The real value that accrues from these groups of high powered people working together comes from their ability to have the right conversations and move from issue to action quickly and effectively. While the topics of these groups…direction, strategy and investment are big and lofty and ambiguous, the use of one or more of the above ideas can help neutralize the political dynamics and help the group develop a more effective and open communication style and cadence.

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