(This article written jointly with my colleague, Meriel Swain, executive coach)
As the Captain of your ship, you know that your senior crew need to work well together to be sure of getting to your target destination. Through both difficult seas or calm seas, if your crew aren’t pulling together, looking out for one another, or responding to challenges as one, then you won’t reach your destination – on time or at all.
Few teams function as well as they could. But the stakes get higher, of course, with senior leadership teams: dysfunctional ones can slow down, derail or even bring down a whole organisation. The danger signs are all too obvious: individuals not speaking to each other, off-the-cuff jibes or insults, lack of agreement on crucial decisions, weak co-ordination of cross-functional projects, a tense atmosphere amongst the rest of the staff ….. and so on.
A key issue, of course, is that senior teams are commonly made up of a mix of strong, confident personalities. Many executives have probably tried one or two ‘personality profiling’ tools in their career and know that they are a Myers Briggs ‘ENTJ’ or a Belbin ‘resource investigator’ or other such category description! These profiles are certainly useful for helping team members to understand each other better but too often little action is taken in response. Also, of course, for identifying ways to boost a team’s effectiveness, a wider set of issues needs to be considered beyond just team members’ personalities.
A simple approach that we use as consultants/facilitators centres not on looking at profiles but encouraging team members to open-up and talk freely about overall team issues, firstly in a 1:1 confidential discussion and then in a group workshop that we facilitate. The aim, crucially, is that team members are helped to self-reflect, surface their feelings, raise questions of each other, and build up trust and willingness to resolve team issues together as a group. The team itself can normally readily recognise and propose what needs to be done to boost team effectiveness: there typically just needs to be a gentle dose of skilled, external coaching support!
So, what are some of the main causes of a poorly-working senior team? Here’s a brief list of some of the main types of issue we often come across:
-The role, focus or powers of the team are not clear or fully understood. Many senior teams, for example, don’t keep enough of a focus on strategic or cross-functional topics and get bogged down on issues that should be delegated elsewhere.
-The team is too small or too large or doesn’t have the right individuals on it in terms of a balance of skills, experience, ways of thinking or personalities.
-There is a basic lack of clarity or agreement in the team about the organisation’s strategic direction. This could concern the company’s purpose, vision, values, future goals, specific strategies, or order of strategic priorities, for example.
-Responsibilities between team members have not been effectively organised or aligned.
-Not enough attention has been paid to defining and agreeing particular values, standards and behaviours (‘norms’) and practices for the team to follow.
-The ‘dynamics’ i.e. relationships between team members are poor. This is a common problem and includes such issues as how individuals feel towards each other and how they interact together e.g: respect, trust, confidence, openness, willingness to disagree.
-The team does not have the right support or back-up to do its job e.g: poor quality performance reports, poorly prepared business cases received for new proposals, lack of adequate specialist or advisory support, or poor action follow-up of the team’s decisions.
-The team does not have an effective leader – for instance, he/she is poor at inspiring, showing empathy, or acting as a role model.
-The team does not focus its time on the right issues or work efficiently when it meets.
-The system of incentives used for team members is not effectively aligned to encourage a team focus or reward collective performance.
-Team members don’t spend enough time reviewing/reflecting how well they’re working together and discussing ways of how they can improve.
Such a list can be seen like a ‘menu’ of issues to think about when considering how well a team is working. The two most basic elements for a strong team are having the right people in the right roles and ensuring there is a strong and clear purpose and set of goals to work to. Many CEOs see to this ‘structuring’ part of their job quite well but then focus the rest of their time managing operational issues and carrying out external duties like meeting clients. However, they neglect at their peril the crucial ‘soft‘ issues also involved in team leadership: in particular, establishing strong ‘norms’ for team members to follow, building trust and harmony between team members, and supporting/coaching individual team members.
Trust and openness in a team are particularly vital to boosting senior-level relationships. Without it you have protectionism and lip service. All the personality/behavioural profiles in the world won’t, in themselves, lead to this trust and openness.
If you aren’t familiar with these profiles, the most commonly used ones include:
–Belbin: Focuses on defining a range of particular ‘roles’ that people can adopt in a team e.g: plants, shapers, completer-finishers. Originally introduced in the early 1980s. –Myers-Briggs: An in-depth personality profile which focuses on how we perceive the world and respond to it. Done properly it involves a questionnaire and interpretive interview, although more recently an online version has been introduced. –DISC: This looks at individual behaviour traits in terms of four categories – Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness – and also team dynamics. The latest version of the model is one of the new kids on the block. –NBI Brain Profile: Also known as Whole Brain Thinking. Gives a profile of how we and others think, and can be used in a variety of scenarios to improve relationships.
Such profiles themselves are not the problem. It is rather that very often the findings are noted with interest – even fascination sometimes – by individual team members but then too often no changes are actually implemented at the team level and the questionnaires simply gather dust on a shelf! In our experience, behavioural profiles are rarely embraced as a way of judging the optimum mix of roles and personalities required to make the team effective and then actually going on to apply that assessment in terms of assembling or adjusting the overall team to match.
And there’s another hidden consequence of these profiles: they can sometimes constrain an individual’s thinking and performance. They pigeon-hole. An individual may believe that being a Belbin ‘resource investigator’ is all they are capable of. Or they may believe they can only ever be a ‘Left Brain’. And, worse than that, these profiles can become part of a person’s identity such that it constrains them from trying different ways of working: “I’ll be no good at that because I’m a completer-finisher …..”
And none of that helps build trust. What’s needed, instead, is a pragmatic approach that involves 1:1 face-to-face discussion and then coming together of the whole team to jointly discuss issues. Trust is created by team members when they know and are true to themselves, their actions match their words, they are sincere about their reactions, they are open to feedback, and they accept their colleagues as (valued) individuals.
Our approach aims to develop this trust. Some might say we’ve gone back to basics. Rather than eliciting information about team members through the use of profiling, we meet each team member individually, on their territory, for a confidential 1:1 discussion. We build rapport and develop a dialogue. We create trust. We establish what’s important to them, how they work, what they find challenging, what they think of their colleagues, what they’d like to say to their colleagues but don’t feel able to, what their understanding of the common purpose is.
And we obtain their permission to share this information at a follow-up workshop for the whole team, with the intention of creating openness, honesty, dialogue and trust within the team. In this group workshop, the aim is to establish a fresh, reinvigorated sense of shared purpose and unity for the whole team. It can often work well to do this as part of a wider strategic away-day or business planning/problem-solving programme – where the team needs to engage and discuss things together and agree a way forward. The facilitator will be able to apply a careful range of tools and collaborative techniques to support the process. Tools like De Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ – which you may know – to help ensure all the issues are put on the table early on: getting all the barnacles off the boat first will reduce resistance, create speed and make the ship easier to steer!
The most successful team-building events that we’ve participated in have been ones where trust is created in the room and barriers come down. Protectionist behaviour is replaced by supportive behaviour. This creates a platform where the most common team-working issues highlighted above can be discussed openly, and then a shared vision can be agreed and embedded. The environment is one where individuals let go of their own agenda because they understand that their success comes from the whole rather than the individual. This leads to more effective performance and greater success.
To return finally to our maritime metaphor – when the wind changes direction and the ship has to respond carefully, having a crew that hoists the main sail together is likely to determine whether you harness the wind and speed ahead, or capsize!
If you are interested in strengthening trust and enhancing performance in your senior team, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us for a complimentary ‘discovery session’ and we’ll talk to you about how the power of 1:1 and group facilitation could make a powerful contribution to putting some fresh wind into your organisation’s sails!
Written by Mike Owen, CEO at Owen Morris Partnership, together with Meriel Swain, executive coach at Sweet Success Coaching (tel: 01386 701691).
Contact for Owen Morris Partnership:
Tel: 01886 881092 Email Mike at: email@example.com