Six Roadblocks for Top-Level Teams — And How to Get Around Them

The September issue of the Center for Creative Leadership’s Leading Effectively newsletter offers this article on why it’s so difficult to build a senior level (CEO and direct reports) leadership team.

CCL’s Doug Riddle reveals six inherent roadblocks to successful top-level teams:

1. The spotlight is bright. Everyone in the organization scrutinizes the team members’ every move. So does the competition and investors. This does not encourage an environment of reflection or open disclosure.

2. Power dynamics are ever present. Every decision made is influenced by desired organizational outcomes but also by how they affect the future plans of each of the members. Contributing to the complexity is the fact that the CEO is both the leader of the team and the head of the organization.

3. Competition for the top spot is a reality. Tension exists between the cooperation needed to work as an enterprise team and the implicit competition of people who are crowded around the door to the CEO’s position.

4. Superstar syndrome dominates. The individuals on a senior leadership team are typically stars in their own fields. They typically have an excess of overconfidence about their abilities – along with poorly managed anxiety about how to deal with each other and the challenges they face as a team.

5. Leaders hold their cards close. Common to most teams is the difficulty of establishing a climate that encourages transparency with each other in a way that enables joint work. As a result of the four roadblocks mentioned above, the pressure to avoid addressing team challenges and personal roles is particularly significant in senior leadership teams.

6. Managing conflicting roles adds strain. Perhaps the biggest roadblock for effective senior leadership teams is the conflict inherent in playing multiple roles. For example, each head of a function is expected to maximize the effectiveness of that function. At the same time, the enterprise strategy requires that resources be allocated (money, time, attention, promotion, etc.) in a way that maximizes the benefit to the organization as a whole. To be a good enterprise player requires some functions to experience restriction for a time for the benefit of the whole organization.

He then offers the following conclusion and solution:

As a result of these major roadblocks, more and more senior leadership teams are seeking the support of experienced team coaches to improve their effectiveness, notes Riddle, who manages CCL’s coaching practices.
“Coaching individuals can be valuable,” he says, “but by working with the entire team, we can help a group move toward becoming a real team by bringing the hidden dynamics out so they can be managed. Good team coaching also helps the group take charge of their key team functions: setting direction, creating alignment throughout the organization and building the commitment of everyone needed to accomplish organizational objectives.”

Dan’s commentary:

I get the value of team development, and using an external coach, I really do. I’ve done it with my own team, and I’ve done it as an internal consultant with leadership teams. Quite frankly, I’ve had mixed results. I’ve found that if a team already consists of high performers, team development can only enhance the team’s collective performance. But if the team is dysfunctional (and many are) – then a teambuilding experience conducted by an external coach can be excruciating painful, and often even make the situation worse. (And please, it’s never effective to try to use team development to address individual performance problems!)

So back to senior teams. It’s been my experience that the barriers listed are real, and all too common. However, I’ve never seen a successful example of these barriers overcome by using an external coach and team development process. Maybe I’ve just never experienced the benefits of a really good one. What tend to happen is that senior team members play along to appease the CEO (they’re smart, they know how blow smoke with the best of them), but there’s usually no real change. And it often takes years of wasted time and money for the CEO to catch on.

So – what else can a senior leader, CEO, or savvy HR partner do do address team issues with a senior team?

With apologies to my executive coaching colleagues, here’s a few ideas for leaders:

1. Start by being a role model, well before you’re promoted into the position. Extolling the virtues of teamwork won’t work if you left a trail of bodies on your way to the top.

2. Set clear expectations for teamwork, and consequences for a lack of. Don’t wait for it to become a problem. Be aware of the barriers, and set realistic expectations, but don’t use them as excuses.

3. Then, follow-up. Reward team behavior and punish the lack of. Public coronations (promotions) and hangings (demotions or dismissals) can be a powerful way to establish organizational culture and norms.

It sends an even more powerful message when an top performing executive is fired that’s running a successful function, but can’t get along with their peers.

Too simplistic? (I often can be) Harsh? I’d love to hear your thoughts.