I’ve spent a good portion of my working life participating in or working with senior management teams. The experiences range from fascinating and exhilarating to the stuff of waking nightmares.

Some senior management teams have it all going on. They tackle the tough topics, debate options constructively, celebrate wins, agonize together over misfires and then find a way forward.

For other groups, well, the environment ranges from unhealthy to extremely toxic.

While there may be a variety of x-factors that contribute to the most successful teams (observation isn’t causation), how they communicate and ultimately collaborate is at least part of the equation for success.

Communication and Collaboration Habits (and Outcomes) of Successful Management Teams

Trust is Taken Seriously

Having been on one of those toxic teams (it was a stage), I recall listening to the board chair lecture us on the absence of trust between members and how it was impeding our ability to conduct challenging conversations. He was right. There were toxic players in the environment and every discussion felt like a chess match where moves were anticipated, feints were practiced, and it was always assumed the other one might be coming for you.

In more positive settings, the CEO made it a condition of membership that we would grow to trust each other or we wouldn’t be there. While it’s hard to command trust, these CEOs did an admirable job of exhibiting the right behaviors including not hesitating to move the toxic types off the team. As trust took root, communication quality improved and frankly the experience became a lot more enjoyable for all parties.

Tough Topics Are Never Posed as Indictments

If I had a dollar for every senior management meeting where the sales executive threw a punch at either marketing or quality, I would be a few hundred dollars richer. The same goes for marketing’s assertion that sales is off-message or not following up on leads. And then development jumps in with complaints about product management and unrealistic requirements and so on ad-nauseam.

And while there may be elements of truth or clues to a problem in the laments of the different functional executives, instead of throwing a punch, they learn to frame issues carefully as challenges to be navigated together.

Sales executive: Our incoming leads are down 10% over the past two quarters. We’re working with our marketing counterparts to identify additional promotional opportunities and fine-tune the marketing and sales messaging.

Marketing executive: The sales team needs leads from our team to grow the pipeline. They’ve compensated for the shortfall by increased prospecting. We’re working together to add-in some new programs that can move the needle in the right direction.

Yes, I’ve had that discussion. Note the emphasis on collaboration versus indictment!

Communication Flows Flatten and Move Horizontally

Even in our era of flatter, agile organizations, a substantial volume of communication takes place vertically within a function or silo. Where I’ve observed or participated in high performing senior management teams, the emphasis shifts to getting people working together across functions, without constant up-line checking and permission seeking. This improved communication happens because top managers model the behaviors themselves, and they encourage or push their team members into working together.

While this might sound cynical, hard-won experience suggests that toxic top managers strive to resist this horizontal boundary spanning out of fear of being taken advantage of in some way. There’s some human political nature inherent in this paranoid approach, so again, it comes back to the issue of trust. Do the top managers trust each other enough to allow warts, hiccups, and opportunities for improvement to become visible?

Groups are Supported to Solve Problems in the Phantom Zone

There’s a phantom zone that exists between functional silos where people know problems exist, but no one really understands who’s responsible for fixing them.

One of the byproducts of effective senior management team communication is their encouragement and support for their groups coming together to solve these vexing and often costly problems.

Many of these issues include critical process-flows and other areas where there are inefficiencies that ultimately cost money, reduce quality and create rework. The executives working as sponsors encourage and support cross-group initiatives that take-on and fix these previously ignored issues making heroes out of the problem-solvers in the process.

Friendships Break Out

I love this last point. In those environments where people took the time to work on trusting and communicate authentically with each other, more than a few career-long relationships emerged. I’m honored to have a few of those friendships that have lasted long beyond our work together ended.

Friendship in any workplace setting is frosting on the cake and not necessarily a goal but a pleasant outcome of quality communication.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The issues of power and politics loom large at the senior level. High-performing senior management teams build success on a foundation of mutual trust and a commitment to engaging with each other transparently and authentically. And while they’re chasing success together, they occasionally find something more important: friendship.

Art's Signature