The term “team” is often used to describe just about any group within organizations: sales teams, ops teams, even entire companies get referred to as teams. Similarly, many companies declare that they value teamwork. Some even have it in their core values. In my experience, few companies understand what teams and teamwork require to be successful; even more rare is to have a successful team leading the company.
What Really Makes a “Team” a Team?
Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith define a team as, “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” 1 Using this lens we can quickly see that many organizational “work groups” are not teams. What distinguishes a team is that, in addition to individual contributions of its members, the team’s output includes the collective work product of collaboration. It’s the difference between eight individual rowers doing their own thing as they try to move their boat, as opposed to the eight rowers leveraging their unique strengths and skills in full alignment…full synchronicity as they glide forward.
We can get a better picture of a true team by looking at the key parts of the definition.
Consider the meaning of a “small group of people”. The most effective teams are not larger than 8-10 people and are often smaller. In true teams, size is determined by the optimal number of people required to achieve the goal and maintain the true collaboration of shared accountability. Much like the span of managerial control, once the group gets to be more than 8-10 people it becomes difficult to have the level of communications and collaboration to have a real teamwork.
Second, a team requires “complementary skills”. It seems obvious to say that teams need the skills required to achieve their goal; however, often groups are formed based on the position and title of their prospective members. This approach can leave the team without the range of critical competencies needed to achieve their purpose. Beyond critical skills, successful teams also need diversity of opinions, knowledge, and work styles to complement each other and strengthen the team by creating synergy among team members.
Third, the forming of the team involves common purpose, performance goals, and approach. In a team, the purpose or goal must be clear, and the team members must be committed to the common goal over their individual goals. This is easy to understand with a specific project team where an end product or output is defined often with a due date. It can be much more difficult for teams that are more open-ended or longer-term in their focus, including leadership teams.
Finally, consider the notion of mutual accountability. By definition, a team can only fully achieve its purpose when the entire team sees itself as mutually accountable to use the collective wisdom and capability of the team. In short, they all sink or swim together. Mutual respect and accountability enables and empowers high functioning teams to achieve outcomes that are greater than the sum of their individual work.
Building a Leadership Team Framework
All teams require an intentional effort to develop teamwork. Patrick Lencioni approaches this process by describing the problems that get in the way of teamwork in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He asserts that all teams must overcome five dysfunctions to become a high functioning team including: lack of trust, fear of conflict, failure to commit, lack of accountability and inattention to results.2 Team evolution can be understood as the focused efforts to move beyond these dysfunctions. It is a continuous process of developing behaviors that build trust: encouraging constructive conflict and differing points of view; crystalizing team decisions and actions; holding team members individually and mutually accountable; and focusing on the results desired. The best team-building exercise we have found is getting teams working on real problems in real time.
Unique Challenges of Leadership Teams
While these team dysfunctions can be harmful to any team, they are especially harmful at the top of the company. Leadership teams have both important obligations and challenges as they strive to become high functioning.
The first thing that is different about a top leadership team is that clarity of purpose can be more difficult to define. It is very straightforward for a project team to align around a common goal such as a developing a product with a defined objective and timeframe. However, a senior leadership team’s purpose is the ongoing and sustaining performance of the organization. It manages outcomes across multiple dimensions and often without clear endpoints. To do this effectively, leadership teams must be obsessed with clarity: clarity about the reason the organization exists, clarity about the team’s operating strategy, and clarity about near-term goals and metrics.
Experience also reveals that leadership teams need help translating longer-range purpose, vision and strategy into well-defined and time-limited outcomes. We use 90-day strategic priorities to clarify short-term team commitments that advance the strategy toward achieving a clearly articulated vision for the organization. Much as an agile project team has a well-defined time-specific output and then ‘sprints’ to achieve the milestone in the time allowed, leadership teams can do the same by translating purpose, vision and strategy into 90-day deliverables on the road to the longer-term goal.
The second unique feature of a leadership team is that they may not have the complementary skills needed to be a team. Often the CEO has “all my direct reports” as the top leadership team. If the senior team is selected on the basis of formal position rather than on the basis of the skills needed for the top team to achieve its goals, then some skills may be lacking on the team. CEOs who build true teams strive to balance the skills needed in the top team, so the members of the top team lead the functions of their organization and have the diversity of perspectives and competencies to achieve the collective outcomes of the organization. In some cases, this means that the top team may not simply reflect all the CEO’s direct reports, but will include individuals with the right complementary skills to be the top leadership team.
Third, teamwork (as its name suggests) takes work, more aptly– it takes time. High-performing teams at the top need a framework that defines the frequency and time for their meetings. To build trust and alignment, the team must commit the time to really understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Paraphrasing Peter Drucker, by understanding each other well, they can align the team’s strengths in such a manner that the weaknesses do not matter. To build clarity and cohesiveness around the top team’s purpose, strategies and actions, the team needs to be in deep dialog with each other. And, to create real accountability mechanisms, the team needs to have a solid cadence and frequency of review.3
Frequently, executives in mid-market companies are so hands-on that they avoid committing the time to a meeting rhythm that will allow them to operate as a real team. We recommend a meeting rhythm that includes a daily huddle (15 min stand-up meeting), a 90-minute weekly meeting, a 3-4 hour monthly strategic meeting, a quarterly full day and an annual two-day planning meeting. This is less than 10% of an executive’s time and creates a sustainable cadence to highly effective teams. This is committed time for the team to work both in and on the business. If the leaders are not doing this, then who else is leading the company?
A leadership team’s fundamental role is to lead and leverage the work of everyone else in the organization. If it is aligned on how to lead the organization—then the team can shape the norms of the culture by their example. If they do not reflect common leadership behaviors, the divergent styles can confuse the culture and decrease its performance. In addition, the senior leadership team is like an amplifier or megaphone of all communications. If they all have common messages and expectations, the leadership communicates in a harmonious manner. However, if they differ on the key messages, they create static and friction in the organization.
Culture and performance standards start at the top. If the CEO’s and the senior leadership team’s styles are not cohesive, the communication of norms, behaviors and performance expectations become unclear and the alignment of the entire organization suffers. Top performing leadership teams learn to balance their individual styles and leadership approaches while clarifying their shared values and behaviors. Unlike project teams, leadership teams are seen by the entire organization in a different light. The organization gives their actions and communication higher importance in terms of the organization’s culture and work environment. To have an intentional culture and work environment, leadership teams must understand the amplification effect of their behaviors, agree on what are to be common norms and behaviors for the entire organization, and then set the example consistently.
Finally, a senior leadership team must overcome the paradox of efficiency vs. effectiveness. Work groups and individual action are almost by definition more efficient. When decisions are made by one or even two people, things move at a faster pace. Sometimes this is approach is appropriate or even required. Teamwork takes time and balance—slowing down in order to speed up. Executives that have risen to the top of most organizations understand the importance of individual accountability and the speed of individual decision-making. Often it is this very understanding and willingness to take action that has gotten the executive to the role of leading other senior executives. However, to have the greatest leverage on the actions and behaviors of the entire organization, senior leaders need to act together and drive the individual and collective work product. To do this, senior leadership teams need to come together as a cohesive, aligned team and then act in concert to align the organization. This shift from individual to collective work product can be daunting and time consuming, but it is the ultimate test of a senior leadership group being a team vs. a work group.
Given the stakes of running an organization, there really is no other single factor that is a greater determinant of the organization’s performance than the behaviors and alignment of the senior leadership team. Well-aligned teams at the top equate to high-performance organizations. When top leaders are not aligned and cohesive, there is sub-optimal performance. Where are you in your team’s journey? What can you do today to make your team function better? A leadership team coach can help you get there.
Meet Our Team Of Experts
- Harvard Business Review; The Disciplines of Teams; Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team; Patrick Lencioni
- Peter Drucker, quoted by David Cooperrider in, The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change
Partner and Advisor
Ben Anderson-Ray is a partner with Trinitas Advisors, an executive coaching firm that helps business leaders build the leadership alignment they need to win more, grow faster and succeed longer. Ben can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.