Like any team unit, the success of a senior leadership team is critical to the overall success of the organization. By senior leadership team, I am referring here to either the top leaders in your business function, or even the C-suite of business owners reporting to the CEO. In high level leadership roles, we often focus on finding the right leader for the job, but because of the high-level skills required we often feel as if we can’t give due process to considering the strategy and cohesiveness of the total leadership team. While it is important for teams to function seamlessly at every level of the organization, it is mission-critical for the senior leadership team to work synergistically because they have direct impact over most, if not all, of the business.
You already know the signs of a dysfunctional senior leadership team. You might see:
- Polite meetings, but lack of support for each other behind closed doors
- Team meetings without enough trust for radical candor and disagreement
- Business functions that trip over each other or unknowingly undo each other’s work
- Unclear organizational strategy across business units
- Senior leaders that have no understanding of talent pools outside their own business function
Can the senior leadership team function without productive group dynamics? Of course. Executive teams have functioned poorly and gotten things done for decades. But consider what is possible if the team dynamics of the most critical leaders in your organization were optimized. Last time I checked, you didn’t have “surviving” as a goal but were striving more for the excellence or best in class category. So why are you accepting a less-than-effective team dynamic?
This is essential because it dictates how whole organizational functions work together, can make or break the success of a big company strategy, or might mean the difference between profit and loss. These stakes are large enough that we can’t afford not to make certain that key leadership teams function beautifully together.
What Gets in the Way
What gets in the way of having a synergistic team dynamic amongst your most senior leaders? As an experienced HR leader and an advisor on team culture, here are the most common pitfalls that I have observed. I find they boil down to two categories: fear and misunderstanding.
Plain and simple, I believe that most dysfunction in senior level leadership comes from fear. This shows up in many different ways, but the basis is a fear of losing something we currently have. Leaders, especially during times of disruption or change, may feel the need to defend their “real estate,” or the parts of the business for which their teams are responsible.
When leaders feel that their business function is at risk for shrinking, losing funding, or losing influence, it can incite a defense mechanism. This is a normal human response, but unchecked it can be a killer to the trust and synergy of an executive team. I even see this defense of responsibility when there is insufficient diversity on a team – if there is only one woman, one person of color, or an outlier of any kind rather than equal representation, it can lead to people feeling responsible to defend their turf to not lose any ground.
Another pitfall I’ve observed is when leaders are concerned with rank or experience over what they can learn from others. Leaders who have strong self-awareness and awareness of others often show a humble nature in always being able to learn from others. If a senior leader places more value on rank and experience, they turn off the flow of learning from others, which hinders the collective value and cohesiveness of a senior leadership team. Again, this is born out of a mentality of lack and fear to lose something, versus seeing the opportunity to gain additional knowledge.
The other category that trips up leadership teams is misunderstanding. Frequently, I see a lack of understanding of each other’s goals and leadership styles. Teams that thoroughly understand how each other tick as humans will more frequently assume positive intent, give benefit of the doubt to each other, and in general be much more productive because they don’t have to stop every time they trip over each other. Another common misunderstanding is a lack of self-awareness. Leaders who don’t fully understand how they themselves show up to the rest of the leadership team may have no idea how their own thoughts, feelings or actions are hindering the group dynamic.
Finally, some leaders misunderstand the value of having a cohesive unit. While divide and conquer might feel good and lead to ownership and accountability (key word, “might”), it often also causes duplicate work between work units rather than synergy. If the full executive team is in lock step to row in the same direction, the boat is going to get to the destination in a faster, more direct path. To be clear, what I am not suggesting is groupthink or a senior leadership team that simply agrees to move forward. I expect that the atmosphere of trust, understanding and synergy also means that the group can have healthy discussion, disagreement, and radical candor that ultimately lead to a group agreement as to how to proceed with unity.
Solutions to Consider
When we break it down, it is easy to see how two seemingly simple pitfalls can pervasively render senior leadership teams ineffective. Because you recognize the stakes are high at the top levels of the organization and you aren’t in the business of putting your stamp of approval on mediocrity, here are a few ways you can begin working towards a more synergistic, cohesive, and effective leadership team.
Organize team coaching for development: Work with a leadership coach in a group environment to help guide the team on how to build trust, share information with each other, handle conflict, and work together on strategy. If you haven’t done this yourself already, you likely don’t know where to start which means it is the perfect time to bring in professional support.
Sponsor an assessment, backed with sharing and understanding: Sponsor an assessment that gives individual leaders insight on themselves, how to work with others, and the group dynamics (DISC is very effective to do all of these simultaneously). Spend time afterward to discuss as a group so everyone can understand how they show up to the team, how to work with each other, and how the team functions as a whole. Revisit the insights with the team quarterly.
Set a group alliance: Take time to design an agreement that the group makes on how to work together. Everyone gives input, and everyone commits. The group may discuss some variation of the following questions:
1) What atmosphere do we want to co-create for our leadership team?
2) What would help you thrive?
3) How do we want to be together when things get challenging?
4) What personal commitment will you make to the group dynamic?
Deliberately practice radical candor and conflict management: This may be best facilitated by a leadership coach. Deliberate practice would mean setting aside dedicated time to do exercises as a group practicing feedback to each other, disagreeing productively, and managing conflict. Using Level 3 listening is a must as part of this effort.
Get coffee one-on-one with each other: Misunderstanding is nearly eliminated when we take the time to understand how each other tick. Spend one-on-one time with the other members of your team, and your understanding of their priorities and behavior on a group level will be much clearer. Nothing a $2.00 cup of coffee can’t begin to solve.
Sounds simple, but if it were easy we would have all done it already. Think of the incremental improvement in the effectiveness of our leadership teams we could realize by taking just a few steps towards stronger team dynamics amongst our most critical and senior leaders. I argue that we cannot afford not to.
About the author:
Katie Rasoul is the Chief Awesome Officer for Team Awesome, a leadership coaching and culture consulting firm. Find out more by visiting www.teamawesomecoaching.com or join the Team Awesome Community for awesomeness coming straight to your inbox. Follow Team Awesome on Facebook and Twitter.